Lose Your Fear of Role-Plays

Lose Your Fear of Role-Plays

People hate doing role-plays and I get it. I truly do. You have to get up in front of people and act and have people critique you and it’s outside of your comfort zone.

That being said, role-plays work. Let’s think about this logically. Suppose you want to learn how to play tennis. Do you buy yourself a book on tennis strategies and watch a video on backhands and forehands and then enter a tournament without stepping on a court first? If so, I’d like to play against you. For money.

But I bet you don’t do that. While you might buy a book and watch a video, I bet that mostly you go out and play and play and play. In other words, you practice a lot before you undertake something more advanced, like playing in a tournament.

Role-plays are just a form of practice. And they are really the best form of practice if you are trying to learn how to communicate differently.

Role-Plays That Work as Expected

This past month I put together and taught/facilitated a really fun (at least I thought so) retreat on communication and conflict resolution skills for a small group of people who were about to move to new positions within their organization. These new positions all involved situations where they were likely to encounter a lot of conflict. So their boss and I decided that the best way to prepare them was to help them develop some advanced communication skills, which would enable them to better handle the conflict that we knew they were going to face.

Prior to the retreat, everyone in the group sent me examples of actual situations when they had not listened as well as they would have liked, had not communicated as well as they would have liked, and had to manage situations where people were angry. I turned these examples into role-plays and used them in the training.

I’m happy to report that the participants were quite willing to do the role-plays and that we could see their skills improving over the course of the day. In addition, since they all worked within a fairly specialized industry, they were able to give one another very precise suggestions and feedback on communication styles that were specific to their organizational culture. They would not have been able to do this without doing role-plays.

Role-Plays That Don’t Work as Expected

Role plays work even when they don’t work.

Several years ago, I worked with a group of lawyers to help them communicate better with difficult clients, particularly clients that were angry with them. I began with a presentation on some communication basics, such as: the key to calming someone down is to stay calm yourself; make sure your body language is neutral; acknowledge their issue (this does not mean agreeing that they are right); and wait for them to calm down before explaining your side of the story. I then asked two participants to do a role-play in which the client yelled at the lawyer for failing to send the client a document. However, in actuality, the lawyer had sent the document and had been told by the client’s assistant that the document had arrived.

The person playing the lawyer basically did the exact opposite of what I had recommended. His body language was negative – crossed arms, crossed legs, leaning back. He didn’t acknowledge the client’s issue. (“I understand that it was key that you got that document and that not having it hurt your negotiations.”) He didn’t wait for the client to calm down. Instead he interrupted and said, “I sent it and your assistant said he got it.” Instead of calming the client down, this just infuriated him even more because now, in addition to having messed up the negotiation, his high-paid lawyer was interrupting him and being disrespectful.

Although nothing went as planned, this was a perfect role-play. The people observing saw exactly what not to do. And the person playing the lawyer got to feel what it was like to have a conversation spin out of control, without having to risk that in a real-life situation.

So try to get over your fear of role-plays. They are a great way to practice, they allow people to share ideas about what might work well for their particular organizational culture, and people usually learn from them, even when they don’t go as expected.



In addition to management consulting, conflict resolution, and executive coaching, I offer tailored programs on a variety of related topics, including how to delegate, communicate more effectively, deal with difficult people, manage conflict in the workplace, manage up, facilitate meetings, manage your career, and network.

Please let me know if there are other topics in which you are interested. If I don’t already have a program on that topic, I am happy to develop one that meets your needs.