Role Play – why do delegates fear it so much?

We used to love role playing!untitled

Delegates universally enter the training room in fear and apprehension that at some point in the day they’ll be forced into a dreaded role play. It’s usually one of the first questions they ask about the day, and can then spend the entire time worrying about the few minutes they’ll be “put on the spot” and be laughed at by their colleagues. Undoubtedly this can then affect their learning and absorption of information because all they do is fret about it.

Yet we used to love role playing. Who hasn’t spent time as a child being a doctor, fireman, Bob the Builder, listened to the dog’s heartbeat with a toy stethoscope as a vet, or changed the toy doll as a mummy or daddy?

We used our imaginations, had conversations in our head (or even out loud) and recreated real life scenarios where we acted out our response, oblivious to who was watching or listening.

So why do we hate it as adults?

Basically we shy away from situations that we fear will make us look stupid/inadequate/awkward, especially in front of our professional colleagues. Unless you are a born actor, we can spend more time worrying about what other people think of us than concentrating on the reason for the role play.

What’s the point then, if so many fear it? How can it be effective?

Jacob Morena, Viennese Psychologist, stated that “people gain more from acting out their problems than talking about them”.

It is true that there are huge positive benefits to not only taking part, but watching how others handle situations and as such, role playing is a cracking learning tool in the training room….BUT it needs to be used correctly to avoid causing more harm than good.

Having a structure is critical – it’s not about the “drama”, but sets a scene that provides the opportunity to re-enforce the right behaviours for dealing with situations and allowing feedback that benefits the learning for individuals and groups as a whole.

What is unhelpful are the “spontaneous” role-plays. We’ve probably all been in a situation where the facilitator has said “can I have a volunteer” and launches into a scenario with no preparation, causing anxiety from the unfortunate who has been landed with the role, and amusement/relief from those who haven’t been picked on! This is no way to learn effectively.

Script Analysis

For those who feel that role playing is an anathema and a block in the training room, another option is script analysis. This is where an interaction is written down – say between a manager and an underperforming member of staff – and the group reads through the responses. After each section, the group of learners evaluates the response given and then suggests alternatives that might be better or equally effective.

It has the benefit of structure, discussing how you may react to a situation or scenario and has reflective thinking time for offering alternatives.

This does need to be well prepared by your training provider, but removes the stigma of “acting” from the group which can be beneficial if there are real concerns about how the delegates will react to the pressure of role play.

Top tips for preparing and undertaking role plays

  1. It is important for the delegates to have the tools to know how they should behave before they are launched into a role play situation. Essentially don’t put them into a difficult situation without first having given them the opportunity to understand what they need to do, and how to react to a scenario. If they are left floundering, trying to find an answer under pressure, they’ll give up and fear both the real life situation when it arises and feel a failure for the rest of the day.
  2. Use professionals! Great corporate actors are skilled in their craft. They flex and adapt the situations; they don’t over-dramatise, as colleagues can sometimes do; they understand the outcome is to provide support and practical guidance for the delegates on future behaviours and are an aid to the learning, not an impedement.
  3. Planning….don’t wing it! Real life scenarios take time to plan and execute accurately and by just making up a situation and making it as hard as possible for the learners isn’t productive or helpful. Your training provider should work with you closely on the types of situations faced by your staff so they can accurately portray this in the role play scenario.
  4. Time out – allowing time out to be called when a delegate is feeling under pressure and flustered is essential. The whole point of doing role play in a safe space is that it isn’t real life! You have the opportunity to stop, reflect, gather thoughts and start again. I know from experience how critical this can be when training to be a bereavement counsellor. No one is expecting you to be perfect first time….that’s the reason for having the role play in the first place!
  5. Learning by watching is especially helpful for interpersonal skills development and many will say that they learn more by seeing what someone else does. A delegate who has had the training and tools to know how to respond, will value the opportunity to practise their reactions and responses, being confident in their approach.

Will you ever get a delegate in a training room that says “yay, role play, great I can’t wait”….maybe not. Managing expectations and fears around those expectations will help and form part of the preparatory precourse work.

We can say that without doubt, whilst many may not claim to enjoy the experience at the time, they all categorically rate role play as one of the most effective and informative elements to a training session and how it has benefitted them in preparing for those real life scenarios. Done well, with planning, structure and ensuring everyone is supportive of one another, it is such a strong element to any training environment.


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