The Power of Role Play Play in Creative Training
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Role play is a powerful, fun and effective tool for training, testing ideas and preparing people for unpredictable situations. It is a tool I use to great effect in many of my workshops as it completely involves participants and requires that all of them test what they learn as they learn.
I first learned how to use role play when training to be a teacher of English as a foreign language, nearly 30 years ago. In language learning, it is a great tool because it gives students a chance to practice the target language in unpredictable situations; making it much more like real life than book based exercises. When I started doing creativity training and experimental training at the Imagination Club about a decade ago, I found that role play is a great tool for almost any kind of workshop.
What Is Role Play?
Role play is a form of play in which you define a situation and then two or more people act out roles within the situation. It is rather like improvisational theatre with untrained actors. Crucially, role play is a form of story creation and as such requires two things to be an effective training tool. Firstly, there needs to be a goal. For example, if you want to use role play to practice negotiation skills, the goal might be to close the sale of a complex deal. Secondly, there needs to be some kind of conflict that makes it difficult for both sides to achieve the goal. In this example, the conflict might be that the client's budget is lower than the lowest price that the vendor is willing to accept. As a result, there is no easy solution and the role play will require creative thinking on both sides.
Inexperienced facilitators often put people into role plays with no real goals or conflicts, perhaps telling people to "go, role-play a typical negotiation with your partner." I trust it is obvious why such unstructured role plays are uninspiring and of little real value.
When Is Role Play Useful?
Role play is useful in training, preparation for unpredictable situations and testing ideas. Let us take a quick look at each of these.
Training is the most obvious use of role play. Any business role that involves interacting with colleagues, customers or stake holders can be better learned if role play is a part of the training. It is one thing to lecture a team on how to negotiate the closing of a sale. It is quite another to get them to practice it in improvised situations that reflect the challenges they are likely to face.
A useful trick is to get people to do a role play before the lecture and another after the lecture. In the first role play, they are likely to make mistakes and grasp the importance of learning. Moreover, having first made those mistakes participants will better understand and remember what the learn. A role play at the end allows them to test their newly learned skills.
Preparation for unpredictable situations
Much of training focuses on predictable situations, such as selling, communication, managing people, customer service and so on. These are fairly predictable situations, usually. However, business is a part of life and life is occasionally unpredictable. Particular creative skills are needed to deal with unexpected situations. Armed robbery, irate customers, colleagues having breakdowns, demands for bribes, accidents and being asked to do unethical things are but a few of the unpredictable situations people may find themselves in. Role playing some of these scenarios helps the team stay creative and teaches them to think on their feet.
Taking the situation further and creating slightly (or completely absurd scenarios) such as a zombie apocalypse or being abducted by aliens is a fun but useful way to teach people to cope with the unexpected. While abduction by aliens is unlikely, it is unpredictable and what you learn in such a role play will be useful if you find yourself caught in unexpected and difficult situations.
Role plays can be a great way of testing ideas. I have seen ideas, that initially seemed brilliant, fail in role plays. Usually, this does not mean the idea is no good. Rather, it means the idea needs to be tweaked to work better in real life. Role plays are obviously most useful for testing ideas involving interactions between people, but they can also be used to test product and concept ideas. For example, if your team has come up with a product idea that incorporates significant change, run role plays in which sales people try to sell the product to conservatively minded customers who balk at change. Discoveries made during these role plays could identify ways to modify the product to make it more appealing − if this is something you are willing to do − and will certainly educate that marketing people of the challenges they will face in bringing the new product to market.
You can take role play one step further into the abstract by creating role plays in which one or more people play inanimate objects. For example, you could get a team to role-play a process through mime and dance inspired movement. This is great fun, but should only be led by an experienced facilitator. It is not easy relaxing and motivating people to the level where they are willing to be a part of a process.
Putting a group of people in a room, pairing them off and expecting them to role play is a sure path to confusion, dissatisfaction and no useful results. For role plays to be effective, you need to do a little preparation.
Firstly, you need a plan. What do you wish to accomplish with your role play? How can you incorporate that into a role play? What will be the goals of the role plays? What will be the conflict? How will you communicate the conflict? How will you collate results? How will you facilitate each of the steps below? Indeed, let's look at those steps.
A role play requires that participants play. They need to step out of their professional shoes, relax and be willing to play with work colleagues. This is easier in role play than in other forms of business play, because people play the role of others and that makes it easier. Nevertheless, the facilitator needs quickly to relax people enough that they are willing to role play. Getting people to laugh is ideal. So, start with warm up exercises that are likely to achieve laughter. Demonstrating your own willingness, as the facilitator, to relax and be silly also helps. If you facilitate a session that involves any kind of play while wearing a stiff suit and refusing to play yourself, you will find it hard to get your participants to play.
Discuss the theme of the role play. If it is part of training, then review the key points of the training. Talk about the roles that will be played. If the training involves customer interaction, talk about customers. Share stories about difficult customers and difficult situations. Talk also about ideal customers. This conversation gets participants thinking about the theme of the role play and feeds their imaginations with information they can use in the role play. Back when I used role play in English teaching, it was important to review relevant vocabulary that students might need in their role plays. You may also need to review relevant terminology. All of this prepares the participants.
There are three ways to structure role plays among groups
- Divide the group into pairs (or however many people are necessary for
the role play) and have them all act out the role play simultaneously among
themselves. The facilitator can walk among the groups to ensure the role
plays are running as they should and ask questions. Afterwards, groups
should be invited to share their experiences and, especially, any surprises
This structure is best if the primary purpose of the role play is to
practice a newly learned technique.
- Select two people, or invite volunteers, to act out the role play in
front of the other members of the group. Afterwards, all are invited to
share their thoughts. Often, people watching the role play will have
insights that the role players do not have. This structure is best if there
will be a number of shorter role plays for differing scenarios.
- Divide the group into two teams. Each team meets to discuss their role and any private information (see below) and decide on their strategy. Then one or more members of each team perform the role play. At any time, role players can look to their teams for advice. Afterwards, the results are discussed. This approach is particularly useful when the role play involves a complex situation.
Design the Scenario: Goal and Conflict
A role play is basically the creation of a story and so it needs a goal in order to go somewhere and a conflict to make it interesting. The goal may be shared − for example the closing of a negotiation or the accomplishment of a task − or it may not be shared; each side may have a goal that is in disagreement with the other's. In this case, the true shared goal is some kind of compromise which could involve a completely different goal than expected.
Explain the scenario that will be role played to the team. Encourage them to ask questions and if they do not, ask them questions to ensure they understand. Otherwise, they may role play the wrong scenario; I have seen this happen at the Imagination Club and it is frustrating for the facilitator and participants.
For example, two sides are role-playing a negotiation for the delivery of a service. The sellers cannot accept a price of less than €500,000. The buyers have an absolute maximum budget of €400,000. Neither side can win unless they bring something other than cash to the negotiating table. This could be as simple as reducing the level of service or it could be more complex, such as they buyer offering services to the seller in lieu of cash or devising some kind of profit sharing deal.
Information about the conflict can be communicated to everyone. But, I prefer to give each side a private story that sets the conflict. For example, I might give the sellers a card that explains that their company is suffering financial difficulties and ideally, they should sell the service for €700,000. Anything less, and the company will have to lay off staff. The minimum sales price of €500,000 is the break-even value of the services.
Meanwhile, the buyers will be told that their company is suffering financially. They have been offered a similar package of services from another company for €400,000 and so cannot go any higher. Nevertheless, they have been a client of the vendor for 10 years and want to give the vendor a chance to make the sale.
Secret information like this makes the role play more realistic. In most interactions, people are motivated by a variety of factors, some of which are not known to the other party of the interaction.
Incidentally, if the role play is structured so that two (or more) participants perform the role play in front of the group, only the participants should read their secret information. Afterwards, you can ask the group what they believed the secret information to be.
If you decide to give each side secret information, only give it to the participants after the scenario has been explained and understood. Then check to ensure each party understands its secret information.
Perform the Role Play
Only after all of the above preparation, should you have the participants perform the role play or role plays.
Once the role plays have been performed, discuss them. This is often more important than the role plays themselves as it is a time when insights are revealed and problems identified. This is where everyone learns.
Repeat if Necessary
Following the discussion, you may wish to have a follow up role play similar to the one already performed, but with enough differences to make it challenging for the participants. Repeat as necessary.
Wrap up the role plays with a final discussion of what was learned and how it will be used. Thank participants. Then contact them in a day or two and ask them if they have had any further insights since doing the role play. In real life, we often realise after the event that we should have said or done something differently. This is also true with role plays and is especially relevant if the role play was used to test products.
Not As Easy As It Looks
Role play looks easy if you are a participant or an observer. But, for role plays to really work, they need preparation and creative thinking. Designing great scenarios and conflicts is what makes a role play engrossing for the participants and successful in terms of results.
Because of the unpredictability of role playing, it is an ideal tool for training, testing ideas and preparing people for unpredictable situations in general.
Importantly, role play is also fun. Most people do not have nearly enough fun at work.