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John Tomlinson

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Learning and Development Consultant

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Six steps to successful training role plays


It's not often that people turn up to training courses eager to crack on with role playing.

I don't think I've ever had a delegate arrive buzzing with enthusiasm fueled by the anticipation of a decent bit of role play.

More often they express their reluctance and terror about the very idea.

Yet, despite this widespread fear and revulsion, it's often the bit of the course that gets the best feedback at the end of the day.

So how can we make sure the role play works as well as it can, without scaring the crap out of everybody?

training role plays


Six Steps to Successful Role Plays

This was the topic of discussion when I interviewed Larry Reynolds (of 21st Century Leader) for the Trainer Tools podcast.

Click here for a link to the podcast to hear the full interview.

Step 1: use real case studies

This step is about not using pre-prepared examples generated by a well-meaning facilitator, examples that reflect the facilitator's own priorities and experience, but asking the people on the course to develop their own examples based on their own learning needs.

At this stage it's not about role playing, it's about developing some real-life case studies.

This usually means people working in groups of three and writing up the bones of their scenario on a flipchart. This might be a factual example from one of the members of the group, or something made up, or something that's a combination of the scenarios of two or three members of the group.

Step 2: choose a scenario to role play

Ask each group to briefly explain their scenario, noting who is doing the talking, how confident they seem, how willing they might be to role play.

You make it clear that we will be looking at each scenario, but some we'll look at in more depth, then pick the scenario that has the most general applicability for the whole course, and one that has the most confident and vocal people.

You now introduce the idea of role play, so you then ask them if they'd be willing to turn their scenario into a role play, under two conditions:

  • They get to choose which part to play
  • They get lots of help and support from the others on the course

Any other parts in the scenario should be covered by the others in the same team ideally, or, if they're not up for it (although this never happens), any other volunteers from the other groups.

Step 3: set it up properly

Now you've got the scenario and the volunteers, you have to set it up properly.

First explain that it's not real, it's only a role play, but the learning is real - and consequently if they need to invent any facts and figures to keep it flowing, just go for it. It's the process not the content that's important.

The next (and most important) thing is to explain the PAUSE button!

This means that anyone within the role play, anyone watching, and the facilitator can, at any time, press PAUSE.

This is hugely powerful and takes a lot of pressure off the performance - more in the next step.

Third, ensure those watching the role play are clear on their role. They have to be ready to provide feedback at the end, something positive but also something the role players could have done even better.

Lastly, feed in the first line to help them get going - the first step is always the hardest and if you can get it moving, the momentum gathers and it flows more easily.

Step 4: know when to use pause!

This is really about having the intuition to know when and how to use the PAUSE button.

Pressing PAUSE can be particularly useful if someone is stuck for something to say, or if it's going off in the wrong direction. As a facilitator you can press PAUSE and ask the rest of the group for ideas as to how to proceed.

I think it's often useful to press PAUSE fairly quickly to break the ice to show that it's OK to use it, and , if necessary, to boost the confidence of anyone who might be a bit nervous and struggling with early nerves and self-consciousness.

Step 5: know when to finish

As a general rule it's better to keep it shorter rather than longer.

It's not essential for every scenario to fully play itself out. It can be stopped once the main chunks of learning have been established.

As with the previous point, this is a judgement call.

Step 6: manage the debrief

The most important part of the whole process is the debrief.

Ideally you want the observers to give quality feedback to the role-players, covering all the main learning points and including both positive and developmental points, but more often than not, this won't happen.

Start with the observers anyway, ask them to each give one piece of positive reinforcing feedback, then one piece of developmental feedback. This gives you time as a facilitator to think through anything you may need to add in.

You can then give your feedback, and lastly give the role-players time to reflect and comment.

Two last points ...

Ensure all learning is related back to any relevant models or theories from the course, or any particular approach from the organisation (for example, organisation competences).

Do something with the other scenarios. So far we've generated three or four case studies, and only role played one of them.

This may mean you run a second (or third even) role play, or it could mean running a plenary or group discussions, or some other form of activity ... whatever makes most sense given the content of the case study and the energy and dynamics of the day. The main point is that each scenario must be addressed somehow.

... and that's it!

Six steps to making sure role playing on your training course are really successful.

Click here for a link to the podcast to hear the full interview.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks Bryan, that’s some

    Thanks Bryan, that's some really useful additions.

    In the podcast version of this, we go into a lot more detail and discuss some of the points you make – for example, these six steps apply mainly to the "performance role play" where the rest of the group are watching (rather than going off and doing role plays as smaller groups).

  2. Tips on running role plays

    Thanks for the blog. I agree with all your points. I always emphasis the PAUSE bit (I call it 'rewind' in that I explain that they if they go down the wrong road when doing the role play they can always rewind back – the important thing is the learning that is generated).

    I also ensure a number of other aspects:

    1. Role play in small groups with trainer(s) walking around giving the detailed expert view

    2. Give the Observers structured tools to help capture feedback points for the review. An example of this is at our web site: Observers concentrate on capturing behaviours (what the role players said or did)

    4. Observers start feedback by asking role players how they think it went?/ what went well? / what would they do differently?

    5. Observers always start their feedback with the positives

    Best wishes



Author Profile Picture
John Tomlinson

Learning and Development Consultant

Read more from John Tomlinson

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