Facilitating Successful Role Plays
by Kathleen Robinson
Role Plays
Interactive exercises, such as role plays, work best if you carefully structure them and prepare the group well to play their respective roles. The old adage, “Go slow to go fast” definitely applies to role plays. It is no secret in the training world that most people are reluctant to engage in role plays and often experience some degree of “performance anxiety.”

Training experts have found that careful planning of the role play exercise and well-structured debriefs will help to create a greater sense of safety in the room. An important point about role plays…the value of the exercise is directly proportional to the quality of the debriefs after the exercise. Role plays are rarely worth the effort if you don’t take the time to debrief them well.

Setting up the role play exercises

An effective approach to role play exercises is to group the participants into triads. Usually two people take designated roles (manager, employee, customer, etc.) for a structured interaction or conversation, and the other person plays the observer role in each triad. Arranging six people at a table will save time in the set up process, or allow time for people to adjust their seating for the exercise. If there are not enough participants, the trainer can play an observer role in one of the groups.

Before the role play begins, make sure everyone is clear about the role they will be playing. Give the triads time to read the scenario to make sure they understand the situation.

Suggestion: Have a minimum of two or three triads use the same case study or scenario so the entire group benefits from hearing multiple perspectives and insights regarding each situation. In a group of 18 people (6 triads), for example, everyone can use the same scenario, or you might want to use two or three scenarios to provide a broader range of situations for participant practice.

The trainer should provide clear, brief guidelines and instructions for each of the roles, including the important observer role. These instructions can be displayed on a slide, a flip chart page or handout for easy reference.

The trainer should also provide a template or process for the role play interaction—i.e., a simple model that provides a framework for practicing the desired skills or behaviors in the role play exercise.

It is sometimes helpful to participants for the trainer to demonstrate a conversation with a “volunteer” participant before the triads get to practice. Ask the group to comment on what worked well and what ideas they might have for improving the interaction.

During the role play exercise

Tell the triads how much time they have for the role play. Usually 3 – 5 minutes for the interaction is sufficient for skill building purposes.

Walk around the room to make sure that everyone is engaging appropriately in their roles. Help groups or individuals if they are confused about what to do, but do not comment during the role play.

Give the triads a one minute signal to begin wrapping up.

If there will be multiple role play interactions, keep the participants in the same triad, but ask them to play different roles. This will save some time by not having to move people around.

Role Play Debriefs

Triad Debriefs: The trainer should provide some structure for debriefs within triads. We generally recommend asking that the key players in the interaction share their experience first. What worked well for them? How was the framework helpful to them? What did they find challenging or uncomfortable? What would they like to do better or differently next time?

Then allow the observer share his/her observations regarding the specific skills, behaviors or process the role play was intended to demonstrate.

You can decide how much time participants will have and then flex your schedule to fit the needs of the group. Generally allowing approximately five minutes for table debriefs is sufficient.

Large Group Debriefs: After the triad debriefs, the trainer gives an overview of each case or scenario and invites role play participants to share their experiences and insights (key learnings) with the larger group. Provide a simple structure for the group reporting. By providing a structured report out format, you help to control the time better and make sure people are sharing relevant insights that are most useful to the group. For example: 1) What was the most important thing you learned from this exercise? 2) What was the most challenging part of the exercise for you? 3) As a result of this exercise, what is one thing you plan to differently in your real world role?

The trainer may want to chart some of the key insights shared by the participants. These participant notes will be helpful to the group in subsequent role plays. In addition, they may provide insights regarding what participants might need in future training sessions.
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