Taming role-plays

Role plays can be effective teaching tools, only when you can tame their unpredicability somewhat.

The role play that never was!

It happened during a Negotiation Skills workshop I was conducting 10 years ago. Two participants were supposed to role-play negotiators, representing two different business firms. Their instructions were: Get the best deal for your organisation, and take your own sweet time, no hurry!

One could hear the chairs creaking and throats being cleared, as the audience settled comfortably for what could be a longish demonstration of probing, give-and-take, requests for price revisions et al. That role play lasted all of 30 seconds! One negotiator had quickly capitulated and given away whatever the other wanted. This performance caused much laughter in the classroom, but nobody learnt anything from it. It was a waste of time.

It didn’t have to be this way. As I later learnt, there are some golden rules to ensure that role plays deliver value. Here are 3 role plays I was witness to, and the evergreen rules they illustrate.

The negotiation over watermelons

You may recall this oft quoted negotiation scenario. A scientist wants a rare variety of watermelons because the melon seeds have a chemical of commercial importance. Unknown to him, another scientist wants the melons because melon rinds are a source of anti-oxidants. Both come across a stash of the rare melons and argue over who should get it, each attempting to get as much as he can. They discover during the conversation, that one needs the rind and the other needs the seeds. The dispute is amicably resolved.

During my B-school days, this scenario was enacted as a role play in the classroom. It demonstrated to us the concept of a win-win outcome quite clearly. But when the instructor started talking about application of the concept in real life, there was scepticism all around. Students attacked the situation depicted in role play as too simplistic. The refrain was “This does not happen in real life”.

Contrast this with another experience I had recently. I wanted to demonstrate the process and benefits of Executive Coaching. I invited participation from the audience, someone with a dilemma which needed resolution. One of them volunteered. She spoke briefly about her struggles with her teenage son. The coaching role-play began. Thirty minutes later, the dilemma stood resolved. A roomful of managers were suddenly interested in how picking up coaching as a skill could help them professionally.

In this story, the fact that a real-life issue was resolved, and that it wasn’t ‘staged’, added to the credibility of the demonstration. What is more, when role plays involve real-life scenarios, role players take the role play more seriously. Also, learners don’t need to be sceptical about whether the concept learnt can be applied to the realities of their lives and workplaces.

So, the first golden rule of role plays is: KEEP THE SITUATION REALISTIC.

When things got out of hand

This one is from my personal archive of mistakes! I had set up a role play where a manager deals with a team member who hasn’t been honouring his promises. During the role play, as the manager started investigating, the team member got increasingly shifty. He invented stories, denied having made promises and attributed some of his actions directly to instructions straight from the CEO’s office! Blindsided by the fusillade of ‘invented’ facts, the hapless ‘manager’ threw his hands up, quit the role play and accused the other role player of not playing by the rules.

What happened here was this: I had neglected to describe the roles in adequate detail. In such situations, role players feel that it is okay to improvise and fabricate. Soon it becomes a competition, where each side invents increasingly bizarre stuff to outwit the other. While this serves as a good test of innovativeness, that usually isn’t the point of the role play after all.

How must one describe the roles? One way to do it is to write a detailed ‘back-story’. It contains the recent past, habits, motivations and attitude of the character. The more this role is fleshed-out, the less a role player needs to invent. It may even have a list of prohibited actions, which keeps things from getting out of hand. A quick word with the role player to make sure she understands the role, constraints and the objective of the role play also helps.

So, our second golden rule is: DEFINE THE ROLE IN ADEQUATE DETAIL

The 20-minute consulting assignment

In the third story, I happened to be role player. We were studying ‘peer consulting’: a way of seeking our peers’ help for business challenges. Our instructor, Andreas, set up our roles… one solution-seeker and 5 consultants. He explained to us that it was a test of how succinctly questions were asked and answers were given; and even showed us a little silver bell he would ring if we got too verbose. The peer consulting process had 4 steps: Solution-seeker describes a real-life problem, consultants ask clarificatory questions, consultants discuss among themselves and finally present the solution to the seeker. All this had to be achieved in 20 minutes. I remember being very surprised when we finished the role play, with a credible solution to the seeker’s problem, in just 22 minutes. We were a tad behind schedule, but far ahead of my own expectations of how long such an exercise would take. The exercise brought home to me the power of a structured conversation.

The secret sauce here (and our third golden rule) is FOCUS. Andreas had managed to make us focus our energies on a single goal: concise articulation. Without it, the 5 ‘consultants’ could have individually chosen to focus on whatever they thought important… being thorough by collecting more data, or offering the solution-seeker more choice by finding multiple solutions or improving communication clarity by quoting several illustrative examples. If that had happened, the learning from the role play would have been diffuse and uncertain.

While real life performance is always about putting multiple abilities together, while learning, it makes sense to learn those abilities one by one. How many different things can learners focus on at once?

How do we achieve focus? We must front-load: tell everyone the objective (or skill to be practised) before the role play starts.

In conclusion

Role plays are a powerful learning tool in a training program. The unpredictability of how role players will interact is a reality. That makes role plays more interesting for the audience and also gives role players the opportunity to innovate and display different shades of techniques. But it can also hurt the learning objective, as we saw in some stories above.

The 3 rules help a facilitator manage the risk.

Realistic role play situations reduce the risk of disbelief. Detailed role descriptions & focussed learning objectives help role players enact their roles fruitfully.

Photo credit: Steven Libralon via Unsplash