Role playing in training: the how and why of getting it right

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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Paul Golden talks with some leading trainers and explores how they successfully use role playing in their training interventions.

You can only truly understand another person by walking in their shoes. But if the shoe doesn’t fit, role play offers a chance to gain a better appreciation of others – and how you appear to them.

Role play forms a part of everyone’s life from early childhood. When we pretended to be someone else in the playground, our friends had to consider how they were going to behave towards us. As we progress through life the ‘what if’ scenario becomes even more important. We are not be able to control the outcome of every major event. However, we can run through them in our minds. This gives us the chance to imagine what we will say and the reaction it will generate. By doing so, we hope to influence the outcome in our favour. For example, meeting with your boss to discuss a pay rise, you will rehearse what to say. You’ll probably also imagine how you might respond to particular questions or comments.

Why role play?

In training scenarios, the principle applied is: I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand. Role play make sense of theory. It gathers together concepts into a practical experience. However, if used badly in a training environment, the role play tool can be ineffective and sometimes even damaging.

“One of the main complicating factors surrounding role play is the attitude or emotional state of the people taking part,” says Edward Harbour and Jill Connick of AIM Associates (Drama). “Quite frankly, many people are nervous – even terrified – at the prospect of participating in a role play; not surprising when you hear about some people’s unfortunate role play experiences.”

Actors vs staff members

The first element of any successful role play is the person modelling the role play. Some companies use their own staff. However, it is generally preferable to use someone from outside the organisation. Many of these role players are professional actors. They can assume a variety of characters.

“Professional actors create an emotional state on demand, once or twenty times on the day, just as if we were filming,” explains John Lucey of The Training Consultancy. “Business actors also understand a client brief and give trainees valuable objective feedback, for example if they felt the trainee made them feel valued during the scene or offered them a sense of worth as a customer.”

It is also important that the role player does not go overboard, according to Joe MacAree of Pearn Kandola. “They must be able to understand and play the role from a business perspective. If they overplay their part, it can damage the process. They also need to be well briefed about the character they are expected to play and the kind of people they will meet.”

The importance of briefing

The next step is to ensure the participants are comfortable with the process and the objectives. Clear thinking and preparation result in clear outcomes.

For example, are you assessing skills or are you developing them? If you are assessing people, they need to know the competency level expected of them. The brief also needs measurable outcomes. In addition, they need to trust that the role play will have the same level of challenge for them and their peers. So the advice is, don’t put people through an assessment role play until you know they have reached a certain standard.

When to schedule role play

In skills development programmes, trainers and facilitators often schedule a role play exercise at the end of a course. This is to gather in the learning and assess how well the participants have understood the training.

However, Harbour and Connick warn that leaving it until the end can cause “the dreaded role play” to loom large in people’s. This distracts learners throughout the course. Instead, they recommend introducing people to the role play experience gently by holding mini-role plays throughout the training. This serves a double purpose. It demystifies the experience so that people become more comfortable with the idea of “performing” in public. It also shows that roleplaying is a very good tool for rehearsing life, which is its main function.

Learning in modules

A further benefit of using actors is that they understand how to acquire learning in modules. Actors don’t rehearse a play end to end. They break it down into scenes and rehearse until they really feel confident with each scene. You can apply this principle while learning any complex new skill.

If you don’t have time to get all the participants doing the whole thing properly, in depth, with plenty of rehearsal and revisiting, just do a part of it. The briefs for all sides of the role play should be unambiguous and totally in line with the objectives.

If you are assessing skills in a certain situation then the brief must reflect this. If you are assessing or developing behaviour, keep technicalities out of the brief. Briefs should contain enough information for both parties to engage in a believable and relevant conversation, which should be in line with the objectives. Provide only as much detail as is necessary. Too little and there won’t be enough to sustain a conversation; too much and people will be swamped with information.

Role play as rehearsal

“We tell participants that the role players are professional actors and that they can get feedback from the role players and from each other if appropriate,” explains MacAree. “We tell them this is the best environment to make mistakes and assure them that they will not be exposed and that we are not assuming that one style fits all situations.”

In developmental role play, you can give people the option to press the pause button if they are getting into difficulty. Although building up a flow in a role play has advantages, it is not a scene from a TV programme. Instead, it is a rehearsal tool and in rehearsals, people stop and start. No-one should be expected to give a performance. Emphasising this will dissipate some of their fears and concern.

Performance anxiety

Many people have mixed previous experiences of role play, says John Lucey. “They believe in the methodology, but break out in a cold sweat if they feel they have to ‘perform’ in front of their peers. One of the big breakthroughs in our work is ‘forum theatre’, which allows trainees to observe scripted workplace scenarios and interact and direct professional actors during the workshop. We do not ask them to role play so they feel empowered from the beginning of the day.”

Harbour and Connick describe observers as being hugely beneficial to the participants’ learning. “How often in life do we get the opportunity to gain from such focused attention? We not only have our own response to the role play; we can also benefit from our fellow role players’ observations, the tutors’ point of view and the feedback from the observers.”


The language of feedback is also very important. Role play feedback should describe specific things that the observer saw and heard.These should be relevant to the exercise and to the person(s) doing the role playing. Role play feedback should not contain subjective judgements or comments based on personal knowledge or assumptions.

“The major benefit of role play is that it makes the process feel very real,” says MacAree. “It gives people a chance to suggest ways of developing style and shows them what it is like to be on the receiving side of their own behaviour, helping employers address sensitive issues such as bullish behaviour.”

Role play can also make a positive contribution towards increasing diversity awareness. “It is helpful to give people a scenario that challenges stereotypes and gives them a feeling for what it is like to come from a different background,” he adds.

Anne Sexton

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