“Teach Me Your Name”

In a few different workshop settings over the past few weeks, I’ve had the chance to take part in variations of the same activity. Whether in a group or in a partnership, each person has the chance to “teach me your name.” This starts off as a simple exercise in sharing your full name and correct pronunciation, pronouns etc., but then evolves into something more. The person whose turn it is shares as much as they are able (or as much as they are comfortable) about the history and meaning of each component of their name – what that name means, why that name was given or chosen, family or cultural history that goes along with that name, and more.

As someone with a name that is normalized in Western culture (I have, purely by chance, met a handful of other Ian Jacksons over the years, both in the UK and in the US), I have been amazed by some of the stories other people shared during this activity – stories of wanting family legacy to continue through a rare name; a new chosen name following significant life changes; personal names to denote meaning or to honor ancestors or influential figures; the ability to follow ancestry through the fewer than 200 people sharing the same family name; the erasure of a family name upon arrival in a new country, either by choice for assimilation, or imposed by immigration authorities as a way to conform to existing power structures…

Perhaps you have given a lot of thought to your own name over the years, and learned about the meaning and history that your name carries, but I wonder how many of us have asked members of our team, or other members of our many circles of community, to “teach me your name.” As noted by author and consultant Huda Essa in her TED Talk “Your Name is the Key!”, names have more history – and perhaps more power – than most of us relate to on any given day. Respecting and honoring others’ names by pronouncing their names, and perhaps learning the stories behind their names, can build understanding and lay foundations for deeper relationships.

How might you use this activity to be helpful for you and your team this week?

This Week’s Tips:

  1. Reflect on your own name – its meaning and history. This may be something you know deeply and have for years; if so, revisit it to confirm your knowledge or find out new information by speaking to family members (and/or looking at family history, if you have any), and doing research online or in print.
  2. Consider running the “Teach Me Your Name” activity in your team… It can be helpful to give people a heads-up if you run this in a team meeting, but the most important thing is to make it a safe space for people to share what they want to share and not have to share anything they don’t want to. It’s best to allocate five minutes per person, so plan accordingly – you may find it necessary to break into smaller 3 or 4-person groups if time is short. Take some time afterwards to debrief and see how everyone’s experience was.
  3. …Or asynchronously on your team’s chosen communication channel. If you’re not able to run this activity in a team meeting, you can still set it up on Slack (or your equivalent platform). This can take pressure off, and allow people to answer in their own time and at the level they’re comfortable. Note, though, that the level of intimacy is lower here, and there might be concerns about writing anything too personal that might be copied and pasted elsewhere. You know your team’s level of safety, so use your personal judgement about the appropriate venue for this.

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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