Role Playing

Preparing for Difficult Conversations and Situations

Act out possible scenarios.

© iStockphoto/jgroup

Think back to the last time you prepared for an important meeting.

Perhaps you needed to convince a prospective client to do business with your organization. Or maybe you had to present to executive board members, and you knew that they would be peppering you with questions about your proposal.

Whatever the situation, chances are that you were nervous about the meeting; and practicing in front of a mirror may not have helped you overcome your anxiety, especially with respect to answering difficult questions.

This is where role-playing can be useful. In this article, we'll look at what role-play is, and we'll see how you and your team can use this technique to prepare for a variety of challenging and difficult situations.

Uses and Benefits

Role-playing takes place between two or more people, who act out roles to explore a particular scenario.

It's most useful to help you or your team prepare for unfamiliar or difficult situations. For example, you can use it to practice sales meetings, interviews, presentations  , or emotionally difficult conversations, such as when you're resolving conflict  .

By acting scenarios like these out, you can explore how other people are likely to respond to different approaches; and you can get a feel for approaches that are likely to work, and for those that might be counter-productive. You can also get a sense of what other people are likely to be thinking and feeling in the situation.

Also, by preparing for a situation using role-play, you build up experience and self-confidence with handling the situation in real life, and you can develop quick and instinctively correct reactions to situations. This means that you'll react effectively as situations evolve, rather than making mistakes or becoming overwhelmed by events.

You can also use role-play to spark brainstorming sessions, to improve communication between team members, and to see problems or situations from different perspectives.

How to Use Role Playing

It is easy to set up and run a role-playing session. It will help to follow the five steps below.

Step 1: Identify the Situation

To start the process, gather people together, introduce the problem, and encourage an open discussion to uncover all of the relevant issues. This will help people to start thinking about the problem before the role-play begins.

If you're in a group and people are unfamiliar with each other, consider doing some icebreaker   exercises beforehand.

Step 2: Add Details

Next, set up a role-playing scenario in enough detail for it to feel "real." Make sure that everyone is clear about the problem that you're trying to work through, and that they know what you want to achieve by the end of the session.

Step 3: Assign Roles

Once you've set the scene, identify the various fictional characters involved in the scenario. Some of these may be people who have to deal with the situation when it actually happens (for example, salespeople). Others will represent people who are supportive or hostile, depending on the scenario (for example, an angry client).

Once you've identified these roles, allocate them to the people involved in your role-play exercise; they should use their imagination to put themselves inside the minds of the people that they're representing. This involves trying to understand their perspectives, goals, motivations, and feelings when they enter the situation. (You may find the Perceptual Positions   technique useful here.)

Step 4: Act Out the Scenario

Each person can then assume their role, and act out the situation, trying different approaches where necessary.

It can be useful if the scenarios build up in intensity. For instance, if the aim of your role-play is to practice a sales meeting, the person playing the role of the potential client could start as an ideal client, and, through a series of scenarios, could become increasingly hostile and difficult. You could then test and practice different approaches for handling situations, so that you can give participants experience in handling them.

Step 5: Discuss What You Have Learned

When you finish the role-play, discuss what you've learned, so that you or the people involved can learn from the experience.

For example, if you're using role-play as part of a training exercise, you could lead a discussion on the scenarios you have explored, and ask for written summaries of observations and conclusions from everyone who was involved.

Further Tips

Some people feel threatened or nervous when asked to role-play, because it involves acting. This can make them feel silly, or that they've been put on the spot.

To make role-playing less threatening, start with a demonstration. Hand two "actors" a prepared script, give them a few minutes to prepare, and have them act out the role-play in front of the rest of the group. This approach is more likely to succeed if you choose two outgoing people, or if you're one of the actors in the demonstration.

Another technique for helping people feel more comfortable is to allow them to coach you during the demonstration. For instance, if you're playing the role of a customer service representative who's dealing with an angry customer, people could suggest what you should do to make things right.

Role-Play Example

In an effort to improve customer support, John, Customer Service Manager for Mythco Technologies, sets up a team role-playing session. Acting as the leader/trainer, John brings together a group of software developers and customer support representatives.

He divides the 12 people into two role-playing groups: Group A represents the customer support representatives; Group B represents the customer.

John tells Group A that the customer in this situation is one of Mythco's longest-standing customers. This customer accounts for nearly 15 percent of the company's overall annual revenue. In short, the company cannot afford to lose her business!

John tells Group B that the customer has recently received a software product that did not live up to expectations. While the customer has a long-standing relationship with Mythco, this time she's growing weary because Mythco has previously sold her faulty software on two separate occasions. Clearly, her relationship with Mythco is in jeopardy.

John now allows the groups to brainstorm for a few minutes.

Next – with this particular approach to role-play – each group sends forth an "actor" to take part in the role-play. The actor receives support and coaching from members of the team throughout the role-playing process. Each team is able to take time-outs and regroup quickly as needed.

John runs through the scenario several times, starting with the "customer" behaving gently and ending with the customer behaving aggressively. Each time, a best solution is found. Of course, John can always ask for additional role-playing and suggestions if he feels that the process needs to continue, or that the team has yet to uncover the very best solutions.

Once it's clear that they cannot identify any more solutions, John brings the two groups together and discusses the session. During this, they discuss the strategies and the solutions that the actors implemented, and how they could apply them to a real-life situation.

John also asks each team to write a short summary of what they learned from the role-playing exercise. He then combines the summaries and provides a copy of everything learned to all participants.

Key Points

Role-playing happens when two or more people act out roles in a particular scenario. It's most useful for helping you prepare for unfamiliar or difficult situations.

You can also use it to spark brainstorming sessions, improve communication between team members, and see problems or situations from different perspectives.

To role-play:

  1. Identify the situation.
  2. Add details.
  3. Assign roles.
  4. Act out the scenario.
  5. Discuss what you have learned.

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Comments (2)
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi All

    We’ve given this popular article a review. The updated tool is now at http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/RolePlaying.php

    You can discuss the article by replying to this post!

    Thanks

    James
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all

    This article is a great introduction to role playing. Role-play is something that I have often used during training as it is an extremely powerful tool to help with 'cementing' new techniques. Sometimes I encountered resistance (because people have a fear of making a fool of themselves in front of other people), but I taught them that we can rather make a mistake during role-play, everybody gets to learn from it and we walk out of the training room poised and polished - rathen than practising on clients, making a mistake and losing them forever. That usually did the trick and role-playing was from then on viewed as a 'friend'.

    Kind regards
    Yolandé

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