Why does everyone hate role plays?

In the past when I have heard groups express their dislike (if not complete hatred) of role plays, I have been sceptical that this opinion was in some way swayed by the bad experiences of the group in question – they had clearly in some past existence been badly bitten during or as a result of a role play exercise. However, I believe I have now heard the same opinion expressed by enough groups consistently enough for this to be regarded as a valid sample. So now it’s official – people hate role plays.

What’s particularly surprising is that (1) the population expressing the greatest dislike are themselves working in l&d and that (2) when asked how they would provide opportunities for practice, feedback provision and assessment of soft skills would typically come up with – you guessed it – role plays.

The purpose of a role play is to provide safe practice, typically of an interpersonal skill, such as interviewing or selling, in an off-job environment, almost always a classroom. By ‘safe’ we mean away from real interviewees or customers, so mistakes can be made without damaging real relationships. In practice, role plays are anything but safe, because participants are (or believe they might be) in danger of suffering the worst injury that can be inflicted on any adult, i.e. embarrassment in front of their peers.

Typically, role plays are acted out at a painfully slow pace in front of other course participants functioning as observers. For the brash and more confident amongst them, this is an opportunity to show off. For all others this constitutes a terror as great as they will experience without having to speak in public (which makes the role playing of speaking in public the most terrifying of all).

When you are determined not to make a fool of yourself, the last thing you do is experiment in a quest to learn from your mistakes; you stay strictly within the confines of your known abilities. For those who are beginners in acquiring the skill in question, even this is a problem, because they may well not yet have any abilities. If there was any doubt, the single skills practice (and there is usually only ever time for one) achieves only one thing: to confirm that this skill is harder than it looks and that you are a long way from acquiring it – you’ve moved from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. In other words, you’re much worse off than when you came into the classroom.

I believe that learners would be more positive about role plays if they were able to have lots and lots of attempts and see some real progress. Unfortunately, much of the available classroom time is taken up with abstract theory (best covered, if at all, through self-directed learning) and watching other people do their role plays. Not a good use of time.

So how else can safe practice be achieved? One answer is a computer-based simulation – not easy to accomplish for soft skills without some pretty sophisticated software and even then limited in terms of realism and in what the computer can assess. Perhaps the best answer is one-to-one coaching; you practise with the coach and then, when you’re confident enough, you practise in real-world situations with the coach watching. This is expensive as an option, but may well be worth it because (1) the practice really is safe (no peers to be seen) and (2) you can practise as often as you need to. This coaching wouldn’t have to be conducted face-to-face; it could just as easily take place online using webcams.

Here ends my rant on role plays. Am I over-stating the case? Are there are other alternatives?

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