Roles Plays Are OK

by Jennifer Miller on April 19, 2010

in Training Delivery

Should roles plays be part of your trainer's tool kit?

Should roles plays be part of your trainer's tool kit?

Over at the HR Bartender, Sharlyn Lauby has declared role plays in the training classroom passé, declaring Nobody Likes Role Plays. I agree with her assertion the traditional format in which the trainer announces, “Now, let’s put what we just learned into practice” and calling up two training participants to the front of the room for a “performance” will elicit little beyond eye rolling, self-conscious mumbling and/or over-the-top “acting.”  However, I’m not quite yet ready to throw out role playing as a valuable learning tool.  As a learning facilitator who has led supervisory and management skills programs for twenty years, I’ve had actual success with role plays. (Shocking, but true!)  Or, rather, success using my version of role plays.  You see, I don’t use the format that Sharlyn dislikes.  I dislike it too and have subsequently morphed the role play into something more effective. So let’s examine the role play in more depth before we decide whether or not to jettison it completely. 

Is It the Right Tool?
The role play is an instructional method, and therefore a tool.  As with any tool, if it’s not used properly, it has the potential to do more harm than good.  Just because participants don’t respond well doesn’t mean the tool is faulty; perhaps it’s the way the tool is being used. Before you decide to abandon the use of the role plays, be sure that it’s being used in the way it’s designed to be used.  There are advantages and misuses of role plays; be sure that a role play clearly supports your instructional objectives.  Moreover, keep your audience in mind. It’s true that no matter how you structure a role play, some learners simply will not respond well to that learning format. For example, I find that most executives are quite resistent to role play (perhaps for the reasons listed below). Conversely, if structured properly, role plays have worked well for my front-line supervisory audiences who are accustomed to a “hands on” approach.

Why Do People Resist Roles Plays?
I believe there are two main reasons people abhor role plays: situational context and fear. Typically, the role-play scenario isn’t detailed enough for the role player to convincingly come up with a dialog that flows naturally.  The role-player often lacks the context or situational background to sound convincing while carrying on a conversation in front of a group.  Layer in any new skills she’s been asked to demonstrate (“remember to build in the 6 Key Actions to Giving Feedback”), and there’s just too much detail to remember.  Add to that the highly inhibiting fear factor of looking foolish in front of one’s peers and it’s a recipe for a stilted, ineffective demonstration.

What’s Does an Effective Role Play Look Like?
The key to creating a skill demonstration that works is to remove the barrier of situational context and minimize the fear of looking foolish. Here’s how you as the learning facilitator can do that:  

Build a role play into a case study. This has worked very well for me when conducting supervisory skills classes. Create groups of 3-5 people. Give them a case study scenario featuring a typical supervisory challenge— for example, an employee counseling situation. Ask the group to create an action plan. When debriefing with the entire group, there’s usually a point where someone chimes in with a question or challenges the suggested action plan. This is the time to do a “role play”. Here’s the key: you as the facilitator are part of the role play. Say something like, “you know, I can see you’re struggling with what to say if the employee counseling session gets tough. How about if we walk through how that conversation might go? I’ll be the supervisor.  Who wants to be the employee?” Then, you can do a casual “walk through” of the conversation. Don’t even call it a “role play”; I think that phrase automatically puts people on edge.  One of the things that people object to (as Sharlyn points out) is being “on stage” in front of the whole class.  If you suspect this is the case, then just have the conversation partner remain in his seat as you have the conversation walk-through.

Here’s another twist: If facilitating with a co-trainer, then both facilitators can participate, thereby removing the participants’ from the demonstration altogether.  Over the years, I have been very fortunate to have worked with several highly-skilled co-facilitators. Some of the most rich and memorable group discussions have occurred after the two of us have played out a tense supervisor/employee situation for the class to critique.

Of course, these suggestions require that you as the facilitator be comfortable with this type of public “acting”.  If you’re not, no worries, you can still employ a certain level of practice in the face-to-face learning environment. Here’s another idea that may work and it takes the trainer out of the role-play equation.

Tag-team role-play. As mentioned above, a major impediment to any sort of public practice is that people fear looking foolish. After all, it’s an impromptu situation—and the learner is thinking, “What if I don’t know what to say?”  To help ease this concern is a technique called the “tag team” approach.  If you decide to conduct a role-play in front of the entire group, then give the person in the “lead” role (say, the person role-playing a sales person) the chance to call “tag”. If that person gets stuck during the role play, he or she can turn to his classmates and a) call a time out to confer and get ideas, then resume the role play or b) ask another team mate step in.  The overall approach to this format sends the message: this is practice, not a performance. It assures the participants that it’s ok to get stuck and ask for help. To make it more fun, and free-wheeling, I’ll sometimes bring in an old-fashioned service bell to ring when they get stuck.

What’s the Bottom Line?
The role-play need not be passé. With a few modifications and judicious use, they remain an excellent way for classroom learners to “try on” new behaviors in a safe environment.  As an instructional designer, just be sure that you are using them in the proper way.

Photo credit: © pixhook /

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelly Ketelboeter April 19, 2010 at 8:58 am

Hi Jennifer,

Great post on a hot topic among learning professionals! I am not a fan of the traditional role play method as you described. I have found it actually erodes the learning process for the participants. Often times the first question I get from participants as they enter the room is, “will there be role play today?”

I love your different approaches to the traditional role play. The training room is the place for participants to practice the skills in safe environment. I have also used a technique called the Mouth and the Brain. It’s similar to your tag team approach. Typically 4 – 6 folks are selected to play the mouth and 1 is selected to play the brain. They are given a scenario or a task to complete. The mouth tells the brain what to do and what to say. The brain can only do what the mouth instructs them to do. It takes the pressure off one person to perform and is a collaborative approach. Folks do enjoy this approach and have a lot fun with it.

Thanks for the ideas on how to enhance role play in the training room!

Sharlyn Lauby April 19, 2010 at 9:02 am

Let me take off my instructional designer hat for a minute and put on my participant hat…the reason that I don’t like role plays is because it’s not how I like to learn. For people who like that hands on stuff, it’s great. But I believe designers need to get a feel for this during an audience analysis and write programs accordingly.

Nice post with great ideas to incorporate in the future. Many thanks for the HR Bartender mention!

Jennifer April 19, 2010 at 9:19 am


Thanks for stopping by! If you find role-plays unhelpful as a learner, it’s not surprising to hear that you don’t care for role-plays as a facilitator. That’s the dilemma for we instructional designers, isn’t it? Active learners love “hands on” stuff, reflective learners hate it. I’m comfortable with publicly playing the role of “supervisor” in front of a room. I can certainly appreciate that many learning facilitators don’t relish that, so they most likely don’t design that into their classroom programs.

I find that instructional design requires trying to find the right blend for the audience– what they will find the most “learningful” and what I as a facilitator can best deliver to them.

Wally Bock April 19, 2010 at 10:15 am

Excellent post, Jennifer with the key phrase (IMHO) that role play is a tool. Here are some of the guidelines I use when considering whether to use it as a tool.

I know that I will have resistance to overcome, so my first question is: “Will the exercise help participants learn something important that it will be harder to learn in other ways?”

I work to minimize embarrassment. All my role plays are done in diads and triads, where participants in the group are actors and observers by turns.

I absolutely agree with putting the role play in the context of a case. That usually enriches the experience.

Most of my role plays are supervisors. They are about conducting supervisory conversations. I position the exercise as a way to learn to critique, not a way to learn to conduct the conversation. That ties to one of my mantras that you will get some ideas about what to do in training, but you will learn on the job from getting it right and getting it wrong. That makes critiquing and learning the two most important skills.

Jennifer April 19, 2010 at 12:30 pm

@Kelly– I really like the idea of the brain/mouth division– it helps people sort out which of their internal thoughts should make it out into the open!

@Wally– I’m a fan of dyads and triads too. Here’s one of the challenges that sometimes occurs with the more “private” form of dyads and triads: participants who aren’t as “plugged in” will spend their time chatting about what bar to attend after the training. Earlier in my training career, I fretted a great deal about this; now I let the participants know that they are responsible for their learning and therefore what happens in their small group activities is up to them. Bringing the small groups back to the larger group to debrief will help this situation, but not always.

Sharlyn Lauby April 19, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Hi Jennifer. I think we’re on the same page but just to clarify. My post didn’t reference designing the role play or facilitating it. Both of which I’m fine with – because writing a role play or facilitating a role play is completely different than participating in a role play.

My post was about participants not liking role plays. And that I agree with. Where being a training consultant comes in, is when you know people don’t like them and you write them into training anyway. It’s like ‘eat your Brussel sprouts’ – they’re good for you. Even if role plays are valuable, if participants don’t like them, will they be effective?

Jennifer April 19, 2010 at 1:09 pm


Yes, we’re on the same page– training design of the “eat your brussel sprouts” kind is simply poor design. Ignoring the needs of the learners is the surest way to a failed learning experience.

Dan McCarthy April 19, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Jennifer –
Wow, what a nice cross-blog debate – love it!
I’m right with where you and Sharlyn ended up.
1.yes, role plays can be an effective way to learn
2. As a participant, I hate them – no matter how you package ’em or what you call them. Most at my table do as well, although we try not to let the trainer know and we play along.
3. As a trainer, I’d rather not do things to people that they hate. I’d rather find another way to accomplish the same thing.
4. And I hate brussel sprouts. Or just about anything green.

Jennifer April 19, 2010 at 5:08 pm


You sure are a good sport if you hate role plays, yet “play along” so as not to rock the boat. Thanks for a great summary of our discussion so far. Some folks commented on Sharlyn’s blog and a few Twitter replies to me said that they don’t mind the “practice” aspect of role plays. Clearly, it’s a preference thing. Wondering if there’s some tie to a person’s personality?

So about those green veggies. . .

Marion Chapsal April 21, 2010 at 10:23 am


I enjoyed that post so much, and the following discussion, thank you!
Can I play with you? 🙂
You may have guessed it, I’m a big fan of role play, of incorporating every kind of PLAY possible in learning.
I am translating right now a TED Talk by Tim Brown on Creativity and Play in French.

I must say I was surprised by your title and even more by the article from The HR Bartender you mentioned.
Is it because I live in Europe?
Is it because I’m playful and have always learned best by interaction with others, by experimentation?
I couldn’t imagine a training without including one form or the other of Play, and I believe that’s how human learn the best.
When I facilitate training, I incorporate role play, as well as case studies, story sharing, case simulations, plenty of games.

Maybe the difference with the “old school” role play, is that it’s congruent with who I am, with my values and my approach.
It’s integrated and flowing in the process.
I don’t stop everything and announce, now role play time!

I agree with Wally with breaking the role play in little groups.
What works best is the group of 3 with one person observing and giving feedback, all of them taking turns.
It respects some more reserved or introverted preferences in personalities, and need for reflection and private space.

However, we must not underestimate the willingness from some participants to “participate” actively and generously share their experiences.

It’s also an excellent idea to act as two facilitators, giving the example and acting a business case in “aquarium”, like Jennifer suggested.

Role play doesn’t carry the same negative connotation obviously across the Atlantic!
Or is it that I love playing so much that I’m biased?
It’s certainly linked with the personal preferences, but I believe it’s so powerful, that with the right balance and tactful approach, everyone can benefit from it.
PS: I use to hate boiled Brussel sprouts but love them since I discovered a recipe in Tuscany last summer :al dente, grilled in olive oil, golden crusted with Parmigiano!
Thanks again, Jennifer, for this playful discussion!

Jennifer April 21, 2010 at 11:09 am


Thanks so much for stopping by! It’s great to get a European perspective on this. Do you find your partipants are more willing to engage than what has been portrayed in this thread? I hadn’t considered cultural implications. . .

Regarding the title “Role Plays are OK”– I’m thinking you are interpreting “OK” to mean just “so-so”, which is one definition. My meaning was a slightly different version of OK: “acceptable”. But, I like how it could be interepreted either way– given the spectrum of responses this blog has received.

Marion Chapsal April 21, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Wow, I’m not used to answering back so quickly and I like it, thanks!

1) About the OK : I understood that it meant acceptable, but for me Role Play evoke curiosity, eagerness to learn, ENTHUSIASM!
Much more than acceptable!

2) About the cultural differences, let’s be cautious and not fall into stereotypes. Anglo-Saxon cultures might be more open to innovative approaches than the “old Europe”. So it’s a paradox for me to hear that role play are not “trendy”.
Is it maybe because it’s been used as a tool in the training business for too long in the states,maybe excessively and people are tired of it?
Or used by some inexperienced trainers as a means to mask their incompetence?
This makes me reflect on the origins of role play…I have always thought it was an American technique, developed with the humanist and positive psychology, around Palo Alto…
In fact, it all started thanks to a pioneer, Jacob Moreno, in Europe and dates from 1921 in Vienna.
Here is what I read, in the British Journal of Psychiatry:
“Psychodrama, a method of human relations training and psychotherapy, is traced from its creation by Moreno fifty years ago to its present resurgence with the growth of ‘humanistic’ psychology. The basic techniques are described, together with Moreno’s concepts of social interaction, e.g. encounter, spontaneity, the moment, catharsis and role playing.”
Jacob Moreno, born in Romania in 1892, studied in Vienna and started by telling stories to children at the hospital…

Incredible! Role playing started with story telling, with Theater in Greece…with the origin of human language…

We may need to refresh our training design with ancient myths!
Now, story time at home, see you all later…

Abby Yanow April 24, 2010 at 7:59 am

hi Jennifer,

how fun – re. “tag-team” role play, I responded to Sharlyn a few days ago with a similar idea. People on the sidelines can also contribute ideas to the people in the role-play circle by tapping on their shoulder, and passing on their idea to the person-in-role. So the person-in-role may solicit advice, or the other people can simply offer advice. It’s a both-and 🙂

to Marion’s comments – before I discovered this blog, I mentioned cross-cultural settings in my posting to Sharlyn. I do think we need to pay attention to what works in different cultural contexts. For example, I often find (in the U.S.) that trainers ask for personal sharing, maybe in small groups, or even in a large group – and I don’t think that will work in many other cultures. In fact, I’m not sure that everyone in the U.S. is comfortable with that!

Thanks for initiating the great discussion.

Jennifer April 24, 2010 at 1:35 pm


Hi! Yes, the “role play” issue has yielded some great conversation, which what we’re all about at The People Equation. I appreciate the “both/and” positioning of your idea; that works very well in many situations. Thanks for your input and hope you’ll join us again for some great dialog about development.

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