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ATD Blog

Hate Role Play? 5 Things You Can Do About It

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

When it comes to delivering training on interpersonal communication, conflict management, or customer service, at some point it's likely you'll incorporate role play into your program to give participants a chance to practice their newly learned skills. Learning and development indicates that this is the right thing to do because research and best practices consistently support the use of role play in training, especially when it comes to so-called soft-skills development.

But when you make the announcement, "We're going to do some role play," a collective groan goes up. Why? The fact is, most people really don't like to do role play and some even hate it. If you’re struggling to incite learners to become active with role play, consider these points:

Most people hate role play because it’s not something they normally do, so they lack confidence in their acting skills. And while they believe that they’re good at playing themselves and stating their point of view, they’re convinced they’re bad at acting out a character and putting out viewpoints that are different from their own.

To a certain degree, they’re right. Unless you’re a trained professional who also has improvisational skills, acting in role-play exercises isn’t easy or natural. There’s a tendency to “drop character” quickly, to wink at your partner and whisper, “You know I’m not like this,” or to crack up at the absurdity of playing out a scenario with a colleague whom you know is not anything like the person they’re supposed to be playing.

Secondly, many people are uncomfortable with role play because it threatens their sense of self. Most of us have spent years building up and projecting a certain persona to everyone we know, which includes ourselves. We’re comfortable being one way—one distinct person all the time, so suddenly portraying someone else who says things that are diametrically different from our own statements is a daunting, even scary proposition.

So, even if training participants do agree to participate in role play, it’s likely they’ll do so half-heartedly. As a result, they don’t get the opportunity to practice their new skills in a way that truly helps cement the learning.


Here are five concrete things you can do to ensure your role play exercises are productive:

1. Change Your Terminology: Don’t call it role play; call it experiential learning. Since the word role play strikes fear and loathing in the hearts of your participants, don’t use it; use something that sounds technical and scientific instead. “Experiential learning” fits that bill.

2. Acknowledge Concerns: Let participants know that you know this process makes them uncomfortable. Acknowledge their concerns while stressing that you genuinely appreciate their willingness to help each other develop their skills.

3. Create Custom Scripts: Create scripts for the participants to use that include words and phrases that are regularly used in your organization. These are verbal handles they can hold onto while they go through the script.


4. Keep Sessions Focused and Short: Don’t try to have one role play cover all the skills they’ve just learned in your program. Instead, focus each role play on one specific skill. Keep those role plays short.

5. Pre-Cast the Session. In advance, identify those people in the program who have some role-play skills; let them know you’d like their help and if possible, have them practice using the scripts with each other before the class. Then, in the class, match them up with people who are less comfortable with the process.

While most people don’t like role play, they will engage in an experiential learning session that has a clear script, structure and is short and focused on developing one skill. And, if you acknowledge participants’ concerns and match them up with those who are more accomplished, it’s very likely your role-play . . . er, experiential learning session will go just fine.

About the Author

Gregg Ward is in on a mission to transform lives and organizations via his writing, speaking, executive coaching, consulting and interactive, experiential learning and development programs, all focused on the practice of respectful leadership. He is the author of the award-winning, best-selling business fable The Respectful Leader (Wiley, 2016) and an executive coach with the Center for Creative Leadership.

1 Comment
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I have found the same terror in people's faces when they hear "Role Play". I've replaced it with ther term "Practice" (i.e., "Now that we've learned a new skill, we'll spend a few minutes practicing it so it starts to feel comfortable. Remember that this is the safe place to practice so when it really counts, it'll be a piece of cake!"
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