Recently, I had some exciting conversations with people who are trying to create more valuable role plays within their organizations.  Talking with them reminded me of this article I wrote for the ASTD magazine Training Today a few years back.  It’s a compilation of many things Dan and I have learned over our years of creating interactive learning, adapted for trainers who don’t have professional actors to work with, as we do.  I’m reposting the article with permission.


You know that role plays are a wonderful tool for turning theory into practice.  They can answer that crucial question, “How does this apply to me?”  By giving learners a chance to try out new behaviors in a controlled setting, they can jump-start the application of new learning back on the job.  They get people out of their chairs and into action.

So why do so many learners hate role plays?  You’ve seen it happen:  participants groan when a role play is announced.  You can’t get a volunteer, so you have to force someone to come up.  The role players are too easy on each other, or they give up too soon – or they just undermine the whole exercise with joking or hostility.  What’s going on here?

It’s simple:  they’re afraid they’re going to make fools of themselves.  As a trainer, you know that most people get anxious when they have to get up in front of a group.  They’re afraid they’ll be judged.  When that group consists of their peers and co-workers, it feels even riskier.  And when they’re not sure what they’re supposed to be doing, that anxiety goes sky-high.

You can reduce the risk of role plays.  You can’t take away people’s performance anxiety, but you can minimize it through the way you design, set up, and facilitate role plays.  You can create an atmosphere of humor and experimentation, and you can ensure success for all participants – no matter what mistakes they make.

Here are 11 ways to make role plays work for you.  We’ve divided these tips into the three phases of creating a role play:  Design (how you structure the exercise), Instructions (how you explain the exercise to participants), and Facilitation (how you work with the role players as the exercise is taking place).


  1. Be specific.  Most role plays fail because they’re too general, and people don’t know what to do.  Choose the circumstances of the role play carefully.  Fill in lots of detail.  For example, if it’s a customer-service training, don’t just ask someone to play a complaining customer.  Tell the role-players exactly what the issue is:  “You’re a credit-card customer who asked last month to have an erroneous charge removed from her bill.  You just got the new bill, and the charge is still there.” And to the person playing the customer service rep:  “Two people are out sick, and you’re covering for them, even though you should have gone to lunch a half-hour ago.  The last person you talked to hung up on you.”  This level of detail helps role players believe in the action.  They’re less likely to be distracted by their own nerves or by others’ reactions.
  2. Make the role play situation important to the characters.  The stakes should be high.  (For example, a valuable employee is ready to quit because his manager never recognizes his achievements.  The manager already has been warned by her boss about too much turnover in her department.)  When the outcome is important to the characters, the exercise has more energy and interest for the role players and for those watching.
  3. Target the learning points.  Make sure the situation you choose will make the role players deal with the behavior you want to teach.  Because new learning feels uncomfortable, most role players will try to avoid acting it out.  Close the escape hatches by picking a situation that must be solved by putting the learning points into practice.
  4. Focus on a small, important piece of behavior.  Don’t try to do too much in a single role play.  If you’re training people in a process, work it section by section (for example, in sales training, focus on establishing rapport, then on asking probing questions, etc. – perhaps with different participants playing the salesman in each section).
  5. Don’t be afraid of “negative models.”  You can inject a lot of humor – and learning – into a workshop by asking people to “do everything wrong.”  For example, in the customer service situation, ask the person playing the rep to come up with three bad ways to handle the complaining customer (such as sounding bored, using sarcasm, and shouting at her), and then let the participants discuss why those approaches didn’t work – the consequences of not using the new learning.  You can generate a lot of energy with this exercise, and the humor helps break the ice for further role playing.


  1. Take role players off the hook.  Tell them, “You’re not you in this role play, you’re somebody else just like you.”  Refer to the character by another name, not the role player’s name.  Creating distance between the character and the self means participants don’t have to own any errors they make – they’re not really “their” mistakes.  Sometimes it helps to set role plays at a fictional company similar to the real one.
  2. Strive for a better – not a perfect – interaction.  Let participants know that you’ll applaud any success, even a small one.
  3. Bring a sense of fun to the exercise.  Keep it light.  People learn better through humor, liveliness and enjoyment.
  4. Share the risk.  Let role players work in teams, sharing solutions and coaching each other.  Have the team come up to the front, so the person who is actually doing the role play can turn to his team for advice.  Have team members replace each other in the role play, as in tag-team wrestling, so no one has to do the entire exercise by himself.


  1. Applaud.  Praise and validate the role players’ work.  Thank them for their contribution.  Point out where they used the learning points and how it led to a successful outcome.  Applaud them for taking the risk of role playing.
  2.  When “failures” happen, focus on the process rather than the person.  When role players don’t follow the learning points, say (for example), “Well, that certainly put him in his place.  What might be some of the drawbacks to handling it that way?”  Discuss the behaviors.  Have the role players try the same situation again, with suggestions from other participants.  Thank the role players for providing good material for discussion.  After all, the whole group will learn from things that don’t work out, as well as from those that do.

Role plays can be a great teaching tool, with your help.  You can design, introduce and facilitate them so learners

  • know what they’re supposed to be doing
  • aren’t afraid of being judged
  • feel free to experiment and have fun.

With less anxiety and more targeted learning, who knows?  Maybe role plays will become your company’s favorite learning technique.

Excellent article on stage fright and what you can do about it.  The author, Mikael Cho, talks about how adrenaline and the fight-or-flight syndrome get in the way when we’re getting ready for a presentation (or even a difficult conversation).


I teach a class on adrenaline flooding, using material from Conflict Unraveled (I’m a certified instructor).

Along with Cho’s suggestion of slow breathing, I’d recommend adding some strong large-muscle movement to help disperse adrenaline.  Climb a few flights of stairs, for example, or lean against a wall and use your legs to push forcefully against it.

And don’t forget the best way to put yourself at ease:  practice!  As Cho says,

We’ve all heard the saying, “practice makes perfect.” The main benefit of practice is to increase your familiarity of a given task. As this familiarity increases, feelings of anxiety decrease, and have less of a negative impact on performance. In other words, the more comfortable you are with your presentation, the anxiety you feel about speaking in public.

I’d add:  when actors rehearse, they use the time to explore the possibilities of a scene, not to repeat it mindlessly.  So even in practice, keep coming to the task as if for the first time.  Discover unexpected meanings and new ways of expressing your ideas.  Then you’ll be ready for surprises when it’s time to do it for real.

And breathe!

Photo by Stephen Danelian

The cellist Yo-Yo Ma, quoted in Imagine by Jonah Lehrer:

When people ask me how they should approach performance, I always tell them that the professional musician should aspire to the state of the beginner….To become a professional, you need to go through years of training.  You get criticized by all your teachers, and you worry about all the critics.  You are constantly being judged.  But if you get onstage and all you think about is what the critics are going to say, if all you are doing is worrying, then you will play terribly.  You will be tight and it will be a bad concert.

Instead, one needs to constantly remind oneself to play with the abandon of the child who is just learning the cello.   Because why is that kid playing?  He is playing for pleasure.  He is playing because making this sound, expressing this melody, makes him happy. 

That is still the only good reason to play.

Find the idea, by Khalid Albai, via Flickr Creative Commons

Had a chance last week to practice with the idea I mentioned in my last post that during creative work, the feeling of frustration signals the brain to try a different approach.  Since that hit-the-wall feeling is my least favorite part of creating something new, I was interested in what would happen if I interpreted it as a helpful phase, rather than as a torment or as a sign of my particular inadequacy.

Well, I spent several 13-hour days last week working on a new, exciting project for one of our clients.  Lots of design and writing; lots of puzzlement and fog before it comes clear.  But this time, when the frustration hit,  I thought, “Good! This means that my brain is about to throw the problem over to the right hemisphere for a different kind of problem-solving.”

And it actually worked that way!  I stayed quiet for a bit, and then I could feel a different way of thinking start up.  The room looked brighter; I began to get a sense of how we could work out different elements of the design.  Pretty soon the flow of ideas was back.  I could see a clearer path ahead.

This pattern happened a number of times during those long days.  And it was nothing new — I’ve noticed the on-again, off-again rhythm of problem-solving for many years.

But what was different — and tremendously valuable — was the sense that my frustration was an inevitable, even welcome part of the process.  So instead of becoming angry with the impasse, or fearful, or self-doubting, I waited it out.  It didn’t take long, as it happened.  And in the meantime, I wasn’t wasting all that energy on being frustrated about being frustrated.

I chose the illustration for this post because it shows the idea as the central point of a labyrinth.  I’ve loved labyrinths for many years, because despite complicated meanderings, each is actually a single path to its center.  Getting there is inevitable, no matter how hopeless it may seem on the way.

It reminds me that our minds are made for creativity, if we follow the path that’s already there.


photo: D Sharon Pruitt

I’ve been doing a lot of physical therapy lately for a wonky shoulder, and much of my workout takes place in a pool.  As I was splashing around the other day, I got to thinking about what makes water exercise so very effective.  I realized that its two big properties also apply to the practice we design.

1.  Support

Water’s the original anti-gravity chamber.  According to aquatic therapist Carolyn Collman,

the buoyancy of the water naturally offsets gravity. In waist-deep water you are about 50% of your body weight, at chest-depth you’re 35%. In deep water you’re weightless and you can literally “off-load” your entire musculo-skeletal system by wearing a flotation belt or using a noodle. Buoyancy also increases range of motion of joints and muscles, further facilitating movement. 

In our form of practice, the Interactors provide the support, just like water.  We give you a realistic situation to handle, but we’re carrying a lot of the weight, in these ways:

  • It’s not real.  No matter what the outcome, you won’t have to deal with the weight of the consequences.  If you botch that uncomfortable situation, so what?  You won’t have to face that person tomorrow.  You’re free to learn from the experience.
  • We give you feedback you won’t get in real life.  After you practice, the Interactors can talk to you about how your actions affected them.  For example, “When you stayed silent at that point, I felt that you were really willing to hear me out.  That gave me more confidence in you.”
  • We’re really good at it.  We’re not talking about an awkward role play with your co-worker, just going through the motions.  We put in a lot of research, design and rehearsal to make sure you’ll relate to the situations you’ll be dealing with.  So you can focus on practicing your own skills, not on how stupid you feel pretending that you’re an angry customer.

Which leads me to the second property of water:

2. Resistance

From WebMD:

[Water’s] natural viscosity, or thickness, challenges your body with a constant state of resistance….wet workouts are as good or better than dry ones in terms of fat and calorie burning, cardiovascular efficiency, and endurance.

In our practice, Interactors provide plenty of resistance.  They don’t roll over and play dead.  As you practice with them, they’ll sometimes reveal hidden information you hadn’t reckoned with.  They’ll try to divert the conversation.  They’ll disagree.  They’ll be tough to win over.  Just like real life.

Interactors bring feelings into the mix, just like the people you deal with every day. They give your emotional intelligence a workout. They also respond to what you do. Push them, they’ll push back. Understand their motivations, and they might buy in. And they give you the invaluable chance to try something until you get it right.

Well, I’ve got to get down to the pool now.  If you’d like to know what Workplace Interactors practice looks like, you can see us in action on our website or on YouTube.

More provocative stuff from Dan Goleman:

Computer-aided instruction, a current vogue in training, has limits when it comes to offering practice for emotional competence. …computer-aided techniques are generally better suited for training in technical skills than for developing personal and interpersonal capabilities.

“People say you can sit at your computer, assess yourself, and find out how to develop a competency,” observes Richard Boyatzis, of Case Western Reserve University.  “But you can’t do this without relationships — you can’t learn this in isolation.”

Social networking has helped learners stay in relationship with each other, sometimes even in real time.  And the technology of online interaction is improving constantly.

But for me, there are two issues with interpersonal practice:

1)  Are you practicing in the mode that you’ll be working in?

2)  Is there room for the spontaneous and unexpected?

By mode, I mean that if you’re managing people via phone (for example), you should be practicing your phone communication skills, You’ve only got your voice to work with, so you’ll need practice in the subtleties of listening, imparting information, getting and giving feedback, and so on.  You’ve got similar restrictions with email, teleconferencing, Skype, etc.

Same for in-person relationships.  If you’re in the same room with people every day, practicing virtually won’t give you the skills you need.  We pick up all sorts of cues in the face-to-face encounter that aren’t present when technology is between us.

To my second point:  online learning tends to be standardized, which makes sense, because we need numbers of people to have a similar experience with the material.  But human encounters are anything but standardized.  People are constantly surprising; conversations we expected to be calm can escalate, and meetings we think we’re prepared for often veer onto a different path.

For practice, it’s much easier for live people to simulate these unexpected interpersonal twists.  (Our Interactors are brilliant at it.)  Even computer games have a limited number of possible responses, while the real human factor is infinite.  So I argue that practice with real human beings, whether in person, over the phone, or even in teleconferencing, adds a level of realism that can’t be reached in any other way.

Learners deserve to try out new skills in a situation that recreates the complexity that they’ll be dealing with back on the job.  Nothing can replace practicing with real live people.

Revisiting Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence is always worthwhile.  Today I noticed this, from Working with Emotional Intelligence:

“Training programs that offer people a chance to practice the desired competence through well-focused simulations, games, role-playing and other such methods can offer a strong beginning for practice….The overall recommendation…is that they be carefully planned, focus on specific competencies that are clearly described to participants, and end with a debriefing of the experience.”

Our sentiments exactly — and more important, our practice.

Here’s a couple of things we’ve learned from our years of designing practice experiences:

Target the learning points.  The design of the practice situation should require learners to try out the behavior you want to teach. Because new learning feels uncomfortable, most participants will want to repeat their usual patterns.  Close the escape hatches by creating a situation that can only be solved by putting the learning points into practice.

Focus on a small, important piece of behavior.  Don’t try to do too much in a single practice session.  If you’re training people in a process, work it section by section (for example, in sales training, focus on establishing rapport, then on asking probing questions, etc.) Give feedback or coaching after each part, with an option to try it again.

More lessons learned in future posts…

Photo lens vector by  License: Creative Commons

From the current Discover magazine (not yet online) on why teaching by lecture doesn’t work:

“The latest cognitive science research on effective learning…points to more interactive approaches that include immediately and repeatedly putting new information to use.”

The author, David Freedman, quotes Carl Wieman, Nobel Prize-winning associate director of the Office of Science and Technology at the White House:  “They say [the lecture] is the way it’s always been done, and it was good enough for them, so it’s good enough for their students.”

Freeman goes on:

Were this attitude to hold in medicine, we would still be bloodletting; in physics,we would be trying to reach the moon with very large rubber bands, and in economics we would still be suffering major worldwide financial crashes.  (Well, physics and medicine are advancing, anyway.)

Why do some of us still think that being talked at (even online) constitutes knowledge transfer?  We wouldn’t let people work with dangerous equipment without practicing first.  Why do we assume that learners can simply hear about how to handle a difficult conversation and then be able to do it weeks later while under stress?

All true learning needs a component that goes beyond the theoretical:  some form of practice. When it comes to new knowledge, it really is “use it or lose it.”

In nearly fourteen years of inventing practice for workplace learning, we’ve always said that practice changes behavior.  If you’ve had a chance to try out a new and challenging approach to a workplace situation, you’re more likely to remember it when you really need it on the job.  And remembering is the first step to doing.

But lately we’ve been realizing that practice also changes attitudes.  And that may be the most important element in creating real, long-lasting improvement.

Say there’s a situation that you feel you have difficulty dealing with — for example, having to deliver bad news to your team, your employee, or your boss.  Getting good advice on how to handle it can be valuable information, but often you think, “Oh, I couldn’t do that.” (Perhaps if you thought you could, you would have done it already!)

Getting a chance to try out the new approach in a low-risk environment lets you see how really feels for you.  And that can be surprising.

We hear people say things like, “Oh, that wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be.”  Or as unpleasant.  Or as strange.

When you practice a new behavior, the experience can change your attitude.  Instead of thinking “That’s not me,” you may find yourself thinking, “Of course I can do that.”  And so a new solution jumps out of theory and into your life.