It’s often the case that when ‘role-play’ is mentioned on a training course or an assessment centre, a sickening dread pervades the atmosphere. It is difficult to convince those potential participants who have had a previous bad experience, quite how enlightening role-play can be. The trouble is, when it is poorly done, role-play can be embarrassing, risible and ineffective, and can actually damage the confidence of those taking part. Given all this it is unsurprising that role-play can get a bad press.
The good news is that role-play, done well, is among the most powerful training and assessment methods there is.
So what makes a successful role-play? We thought we’d put together a ‘role-play checklist’ or a set of rules that makes this experiential training and assessment tool the most effective it can possibly be.
Here are our 7 recommendations:
1. Use an experienced professional actor
In anticipation of the retort ‘well, you would say that wouldn’t you?’ here is why this is crucial for a successful role-play. A skilled professional actor is able to role-play realistically and without embarrassment, and is able to keep to brief. A well chosen actor is also impartial, flexible and brings with them a sense of occasion that the exercise or assessment is being taken seriously. This enables the participant to behave authentically and believe in the conversation (and the situation) to help bring their default, natural behaviours to the surface.
There may be some staff members who are able to role-play well, but one of the reasons this doesn’t work is the extra layer of artifice this adds (‘right, I know it’s a bit odd but Dan from accounts is going to role-play the customer for you…’)
2. Know your purpose clearly
Why do you want to use role-play? Is it to assess, develop, educate, stretch participants out of their comfort zone, experience a specific difficult situation etc.? It sounds obvious but having a clear – and valid – reason or reasons for introducing role-play into a course or an assessment centre is essential. It should never be just to fill a gap in an afternoon, or worse, be used as some sort of device in order to bully or humiliate. Having a clear and ethical reason for introducing role-play will help sculpt the exercises and make them fit for purpose.
3. Don’t use an over-complicated brief
There are some ‘off the shelf’ role-plays that can be bought online that are so complicated that the participant is more worried about the back story or unnecessary detail than they are about the actual role-play. Sometimes it is helpful and perhaps a requirement for the role-play to be an imaginary situation, but if so it shouldn’t be a giant leap (unless of course, this is a main purpose of the exercise). If there needs to be a considerable amount of information for the participant to take in, then at the very least give them ample time to assimilate the brief and take notes. The more they can concentrate on the conversation with the role-player in front of them, the more beneficial the exercise.
4. Allow the participant to be themselves
Role-play should be an acting exercise for the actor only, not for the participant. In most circumstances the participant should use their real name, not be given a brief which starts ‘ you are John or Jane…’. Their brief should also have no indications of personality type ‘you are a fun-loving person’ etc. or, as in point 3, a back story which also can encourage artifice ‘the person you are about to meet is a great friend of yours’ etc.
An excellent choice to create the most realistic situation is to try what we call a ‘real-play’, where actual (‘real’) situations from the workplace can be recreated, or future situations can be anticipated using our simple ‘real-play’ template.
5. Carefully consider the environment
What is the ideal environment for role-play? Will a ‘fish bowl’ type environment suit? Or is this too intimidating? How many observers need there be? With a few exceptions, it’s usually found that the more comfortable the environment the more effective the exercise.
In every case though, the environment – down to size of room, layout, number of observers – needs thought.
6. Mind your feedback
If feedback is given, it needs to be given with tact and grace. It is common for role-play to elicit unhelpful habits and thus uncover key development areas for the participants, and this is often gratefully received. However, if feedback isn’t balanced and specific then the debrief can be counter-productive and exercises can dissolve into defensiveness. It is difficult for peers to give constructive feedback sometimes, which is one of the reasons that an actor’s impartial feedback can be so valuable.
It’s helpful if it is agreed beforehand what areas that the actor will feed back on (such as body language, questioning skills or a specific behavioural model) and in what order the feedback should be collected (the participant’s self-analysis, any observer comments, and then the actor, for example).
7. It’s not about the actor
The actor should be a foil to enable the exercise to work effectively and the participant to get the best experience; it is not about the actor’s ego.
In this area of acting work the actor isn’t expecting to get the warmth of applause or to talk about how they got into the skin of the character! Our actors’ understand that during and after the exercise it is not about them or their performance, and all about the client and participants getting the most value.
The biggest compliment we receive is that observers and participants alike forget that there is an actor in the room and just treat the situation as real.
So there we are! Not an exhaustive list perhaps, but if you are considering using the power of role-play as part of your next project check against these 7 fundamentals.