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Out of Character? Maybe Not

There are times when a moment in a play or movie leaps out as if it was written just for you.  At a recent production of Anna Deavere Smith’s one-person show “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education,” which recently ended its run at New York’s Second Stage, I had such a moment. In the show, Deavere Smith portrays a range of real persons, from victims of police brutality to politicians, parents, and educators, as she explores the lives of students and adults caught in destructive cycles of conflict.  The character Deavere was inhabiting at that moment, a high school administrator in a “tough” school, described how she advised teachers to  handle student behavior.  “I tell them,” she said, “to be ready,” because the students “are going to push you out of your character.”

Exactly, I thought.  That’s what parties in a conflict often do to each other, and it’s something mediators need to watch for, both in clients and in ourselves.  Whether mediating, facilitating, negotiating, or just encountering others in our daily lives, we sometimes find ourselves being pushed out of our character.  It may be the client who returns to square one over and over again, just when we think we’ve made a breakthrough, or the one who crosses the line with abusive or derogatory language. It may even be the significant other who seems to know just how to hit us in our most vulnerable places. All those other metaphors for the phenomenon —  “getting on my last nerve,”  “pushing my buttons,” “driving me around the bend” — don’t capture the specificity of what we feel when someone transforms us in an instant from Bruce Banner to The Hulk.

The results of being pushed out of our character are numerous, and mostly bad.  We harm the relationship we were building, embarrass ourselves before any observers, provoke an equally negative reaction from the other person, and undoubtedly drive ourselves farther from whatever we hoped to achieve.    The outcome may be a wrecked mediation, or a more permanent wound in one of our core relationships.

Is there a saving grace in any of this?  Perhaps, if such an event allows us to see more deeply into our own character.  Have we really been pushed out of our character, or  have we been pushed into a part of ourselves, a place, a shadow, we were hardly aware of, though in rare moments we might have seen it out of the corner of our mind’s eye?  A paradox I once read declared, “In an argument, only the loser wins, for only the loser learns something new.”  Similarly, the person pushed “out of character” learns something about themselves that someone who stays in character doesn’t.

Shakespeare wrote frequently about this issue.  Many of his tragic figures are pushed out of their character: Macbeth by the urging of Lady Macbeth, Othello by the lies of Iago, Lear by the honesty of Cordelia.  But of these, only Lear turns the experience, though too late, into self-recognition, both when he realizes about the poor in his kingdom “I have ta’en too little care of this,” or when he says to Cordelia, “When thou dost ask me blessing I’ll beg of thee forgiveness.”  Othello still thinks of himself as “one who loved not wisely but too well,” despite clear evidence to the contrary.  Macbeth blames the world: “Life’s but  a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing,” he says, not realizing that he is the idiot, and the tale is not true of all lives, but certainly of his.

There’s a common reminder in our work, “Know your triggers.”  Good advice, but not particularly deep.   If we come to realize that certain things are likely to annoy, upset, or drive us wild, we can build skills to discipline ourselves so we stay, or at least appear to stay, within our characters. We may use breathing, counting, taking a break, “going to balcony,” or many other tried and true devices. Then, like a football player diving on his own fumble, or an actor sliding over a blown line, we can avoid disaster and move forward. But only when we ask what our reactions suggest about our character, will we do the kind of deep work that enhances our core selves, and not merely our mediative repertoire.


Richard Barbieri

Dr. Richard Barbieri is a board member of the Association for Conflict Resolution and Managing Editor of the journal ACResolution.  He is past president of the New England Association for Conflict Resolution and the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program. MORE >

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