Roles Plays Are OK

Should roles plays be part of your trainer's tool kit?

Should roles plays be part of your trainer's tool kit?

Over at the HR Bartender, Sharlyn Lauby has declared role plays in the training classroom passé, declaring Nobody Likes Role Plays. I agree with her assertion the traditional format in which the trainer announces, “Now, let’s put what we just learned into practice” and calling up two training participants to the front of the room for a “performance” will elicit little beyond eye rolling, self-conscious mumbling and/or over-the-top “acting.”  However, I’m not quite yet ready to throw out role playing as a valuable learning tool.  As a learning facilitator who has led supervisory and management skills programs for twenty years, I’ve had actual success with role plays. (Shocking, but true!)  Or, rather, success using my version of role plays.  You see, I don’t use the format that Sharlyn dislikes.  I dislike it too and have subsequently morphed the role play into something more effective. So let’s examine the role play in more depth before we decide whether or not to jettison it completely. 

Is It the Right Tool?
The role play is an instructional method, and therefore a tool.  As with any tool, if it’s not used properly, it has the potential to do more harm than good.  Just because participants don’t respond well doesn’t mean the tool is faulty; perhaps it’s the way the tool is being used. Before you decide to abandon the use of the role plays, be sure that it’s being used in the way it’s designed to be used.  There are advantages and misuses of role plays; be sure that a role play clearly supports your instructional objectives.  Moreover, keep your audience in mind. It’s true that no matter how you structure a role play, some learners simply will not respond well to that learning format. For example, I find that most executives are quite resistent to role play (perhaps for the reasons listed below). Conversely, if structured properly, role plays have worked well for my front-line supervisory audiences who are accustomed to a “hands on” approach.

Why Do People Resist Roles Plays?
I believe there are two main reasons people abhor role plays: situational context and fear. Typically, the role-play scenario isn’t detailed enough for the role player to convincingly come up with a dialog that flows naturally.  The role-player often lacks the context or situational background to sound convincing while carrying on a conversation in front of a group.  Layer in any new skills she’s been asked to demonstrate (“remember to build in the 6 Key Actions to Giving Feedback”), and there’s just too much detail to remember.  Add to that the highly inhibiting fear factor of looking foolish in front of one’s peers and it’s a recipe for a stilted, ineffective demonstration.

What’s Does an Effective Role Play Look Like?
The key to creating a skill demonstration that works is to remove the barrier of situational context and minimize the fear of looking foolish. Here’s how you as the learning facilitator can do that:  

Build a role play into a case study. This has worked very well for me when conducting supervisory skills classes. Create groups of 3-5 people. Give them a case study scenario featuring a typical supervisory challenge— for example, an employee counseling situation. Ask the group to create an action plan. When debriefing with the entire group, there’s usually a point where someone chimes in with a question or challenges the suggested action plan. This is the time to do a “role play”. Here’s the key: you as the facilitator are part of the role play. Say something like, “you know, I can see you’re struggling with what to say if the employee counseling session gets tough. How about if we walk through how that conversation might go? I’ll be the supervisor.  Who wants to be the employee?” Then, you can do a casual “walk through” of the conversation. Don’t even call it a “role play”; I think that phrase automatically puts people on edge.  One of the things that people object to (as Sharlyn points out) is being “on stage” in front of the whole class.  If you suspect this is the case, then just have the conversation partner remain in his seat as you have the conversation walk-through.

Here’s another twist: If facilitating with a co-trainer, then both facilitators can participate, thereby removing the participants’ from the demonstration altogether.  Over the years, I have been very fortunate to have worked with several highly-skilled co-facilitators. Some of the most rich and memorable group discussions have occurred after the two of us have played out a tense supervisor/employee situation for the class to critique.

Of course, these suggestions require that you as the facilitator be comfortable with this type of public “acting”.  If you’re not, no worries, you can still employ a certain level of practice in the face-to-face learning environment. Here’s another idea that may work and it takes the trainer out of the role-play equation.

Tag-team role-play. As mentioned above, a major impediment to any sort of public practice is that people fear looking foolish. After all, it’s an impromptu situation—and the learner is thinking, “What if I don’t know what to say?”  To help ease this concern is a technique called the “tag team” approach.  If you decide to conduct a role-play in front of the entire group, then give the person in the “lead” role (say, the person role-playing a sales person) the chance to call “tag”. If that person gets stuck during the role play, he or she can turn to his classmates and a) call a time out to confer and get ideas, then resume the role play or b) ask another team mate step in.  The overall approach to this format sends the message: this is practice, not a performance. It assures the participants that it’s ok to get stuck and ask for help. To make it more fun, and free-wheeling, I’ll sometimes bring in an old-fashioned service bell to ring when they get stuck.

What’s the Bottom Line?
The role-play need not be passé. With a few modifications and judicious use, they remain an excellent way for classroom learners to “try on” new behaviors in a safe environment.  As an instructional designer, just be sure that you are using them in the proper way.

Photo credit: © pixhook /

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