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Personifying Emotions

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This method invites people to notice and identify their emotions around a specific topic. By having another person act out the emotion it becomes exter- nalized and knowable, creating mental space for collaboration and innovation


Participants work in pairs, acting out and mirroring specific emotions linked to a sustainability issue. The first person identifies an emotion that they are feeling and the second person acts it out. Seeing someone else perform the emotion can help externalize it. As “Emotional Agility” author David (2016) points out: “Dealing effectively with emotions is a key leadership skill. And naming our emotions — what psychologists call labeling — is an important first step in dealing with them effectively. But it’s harder than it sounds; many of us struggle to identify what exactly we are feeling, and often times the most obvious label isn’t actually the most accurate”.


  1. Ask participants to form pairs, then invite them to do the
    following (sample script):
    • Person A: Pick an emotion from the list that describes a feeling you might have about a specific topic;
    • Say the emotion out loud to Person B (I am feeling __ about ___ );
    • Person B can either make a simple gesture that represents the emotion, or can act out the emotion more dramatically;
    • Person A mirrors the gesture or the acting.
  2. Invite both people to take 30 seconds to record any thoughts
    or ideas that this process inspired;
  3. Ask them to switch roles and repeat from beginning;
  4. Invite participants to reflect together for 1 minute each (or more depending on the time).

Variation: If participants are comfortable with acting a little more “out of the box”, people can form triads, and the third person can make a sound that represents the emotion, following the same process.

Place on U
10-20 minutes
Materials Needed

A list of emotions is useful. For an example, see David (2016) in resources.

Disruptive Practices
Emotional Intelligence
Care & Empathy
Online Engagement
Surfacing Hidden Dynamics
Movement and Somatics
Tip and Experiences
  • This exercise may make people uncomfortable, so it is recommended to use it in groups where people already have a certain level of trust among themselves, or with people who are used to expressing themselves somatically;
  • If people are uncomfortable with acting out the feeling, different suggestions might be given, such as: “make a sound...”, “make a movement...”, or “make a face that describes the feeling”. You can emphasize that dramatic acting is not necessary.
Relevant References & Resources

This exercise was shared with us by Mary Ann Gallagher of ParCenTra and is informed by the work of Susan David.

Managing yourself: David & Congleton (2013). Emotional Agility (In Harvard Business Review)

Communication: David (2016). 3 Ways to Better Understand Your Emotions (In Harvard Business Review)

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