Don’t be rejected

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. You’re in a theatre space, with an audience. You’re invited to go on stage, without any preparation.

Bad enough? Well, hang on.

Going on stage with you are three other people. You’re going to play The Rejection Game. These are the rules:

  1. One of the four people on stage must be socially rejected by the other three.
  2. It mustn’t be you.
  3. Rejection means
    a) three players successfully send the other one offstage, or
    b) three players abandon the other one onstage, or
    c) one player is totally ignored, as if a ghost.

Afraid yet? I’m not surprised. It sounds brutal – it is brutal – and the most natural thing in the world is for players to feel afraid.

But feeling afraid tends to make a person close up in what I call the “bubble of poor-me”.

And when you are in the bubble, you are less likely to engage openly and confidently with others. So you are more likely to be rejected – exactly what you’re afraid of. It becomes self-fulfilling.


The Rejection Game was taught to me by Keith Johnstone. He once said that I was very good at it – just as I was going onstage. As intended, this had the effect of uniting the other three players against me from the start – but I still didn’t lose.

I’m sorry, that wasn’t very modest. But the truth is that I was OK at it, perhaps because I found the game utterly fascinating, and I went on teach it to others.

In 2015, funded by the government in Northern Ireland, I played it with a variety of community groups, youth groups, reformed paramilitaries, business networks, secondary school children and guests of Her Majesty’s prison service in Belfast.

Everywhere I went, people made the same elementary (and entirely human) mistake.

They thought that the best way to avoid being rejected was to be nasty – to scapegoat somebody else.

This was a mistake. If Siobhan said that Martin was horrible, it always backfired: it tended to make others feel sorry for Martin, and to suspect that Siobhan was a bit nasty.

Very quickly, players learned the following:

  1. Be agreeable, considerably more agreeable than normal. If you don’t know how, simply allow yourself to find other people interesting and attractive.
  2. Stay close – literally. Any player more distant than the others is in danger.
  3. Don’t give up. Never acknowledge that you are being ignored. The other players are human, and one of them will inevitably bring you back into the game with a fleeting injection of eye contact. (The audience, bloodthirsty beast that it is, will often groan when this happens.)

And that’s basically it.