The two words all participants fear … Have you ever heard a trainer say the dreaded phrase, "In a moment, we're going to do a role play …"?
For many people, those are the last words they hear, because they go into a form of shock and lose the power to communicate. Role plays can be an excellent way to practice skills or to rehearse ways of dealing with specific situations or people. However, the term "role play" strikes fear into people's hearts. They need to be handled carefully.
Here are some suggestions for making role plays less traumatic for all involved.
Tip 1. Try to avoid using the expression "role play" at all, use the term "skills practice" or something similar. That's what it is, after all.
Tip 2. Try to avoid having people play roles if you can, ie pretend to be someone else. It's more effective if people can just be themselves practicing a skill. Of course, this means that you need other people who will role play. These could be trainers or professional role players (ie players). I work with a lot of actors who do this and they are excellent, but of course they tend to ask for payment (the idea that actors just do it for the applause is apparently incorrect). The problem with the trainers doing the role play is that participants sometimes do not take it as seriously as they do with outsiders. If you can not get actors, can you ask other people in your organization to come along and take part?
Tip 3. Try to reduce the stress on people, which often comes from feeling exposed in front of a group. Let people role play (sorry, practice their skills) in pairs or groups of three with one being an observer rather than in front of everyone. Alternately, try a group activity where everyone can chip in. For example, let's say it's a customer service course. The trainer could play the customer and have the whole group representative one person. Someone could start off by speaking to the "customer" then someone else take over until everyone had a turn.
Tip 4. Make the exercise as realistic as possible. One objection to these activities is that they are not real so people do not take them seriously. Make sure the activity is based on real situations people will face. Using external people also helps, as I've stated.
Tip 5. Give very clear instructions and also give written briefs for the exercise. Make sure that any visiting role players are clear about the purpose of the exercise and what is expected of them. In particular, make sure you stress the benefits of the exercise to everyone involved so they can see exactly why you're putting them through it.
Tip 6. If some people are really hostile to the idea of a role play or extremely angry (and some people actually are) then do not force them to do it. The exercise will not be successful and any possible benefits will be outweighed by the impact on your relationship with the person involved.
Role plays can be invaluable. They can also be a dreadful torment and waste of time. How you set them up and handle them can often make the difference.