Practising For Reality: Using professional corporate role players to support Learning and Development

By Rita Smyth, Founder and Creative Director, Role Players for Training

Role Play (in an Educational setting) can be described as the opportunity to practise a specific work-related situation to support and enhance a particular learning or skill.

It is an interactive exercise between a participant (or candidate) and 1 or more professional role players

Role play adds an exciting, challenging and most importantly an experiential aspect to development programmes, allowing participants to learn by experimentation, where they can ‘try out’ and be coached in new techniques or approaches in a safe, positive and constructive environment. It involves both intellectual and emotional participation from participants. It accelerates learning and raises self-awareness.

Role Play has been used as a tool in education and therapeutic settings since the late 1940s in a variety of contexts and across such disciplines as therapy, research, organisational change and education at all levels. It provides an opportunity to practise and try out new skills and techniques and to reflect on the outcomes and share insights with observers, facilitators and the role player (in and out of role).

Role Play is one of a unique group of experiential teaching techniques which help (the student) to cope with handling human situations and uncertainty’ (Van Ments, 1999)

Role Play (or simulation as it is also known) can be used in a variety of ways to support the theoretical content of development programmes or as a vital tool in assessment, recruitment or high stakes exams.

Role Players for Training work with blue chip organisations, professional firms and executive education providers – supporting Leadership and Communication programmes. We also work with occupational psychologists in the assessment or evaluation of candidates in selection/promotion or succession planning initiatives.

The scenarios are constructed around the learning outcomes of the programme and the role player has a specific background, characteristics and personality traits. Frequently these are linked to a particular psychometric tool or model.  The participant, unlike what is commonly thought, does not have to take on any ‘acting’ tasks rather plays him/herself in a given scenario, using the opportunity to work on the new learning and receive feedback from the observers and the role player/facilitator.

Scenarios can also be ‘bespoke’, where the participants get to work on specific difficult aspects of conversations/meetings that they anticipate or have experienced in the past where the outcome was less than satisfactory. This is what we call ‘real’ play.

The crucial value that the professional role player brings, apart from the ability to play the role authentically, is the ability to give honest, in the moment, non-judgemental and constructive feedback to each participant at the end of a ‘meeting’. This is based on what they observed, knowledge of the particular learning outcomes and the impact the participant had on them in that meeting.

Participants also get the chance to be observers, allowing them the opportunity to learn from watching their colleague in action and giving their own feedback on the outcomes.

Using a professional role play provider should mean the role players (sometimes called business actors) are professionally trained actors with previous real business experience. They should be confident in the corporate environment, with the particular language associated with the clients’ business and with various psychometric and feedback models used in training and development programmes. Skilled role players can also facilitate feedback in small learning groups, obviating the need for additional trainer time.

Participants can initially be very wary of being exposed through having to ‘perform’ in front of their peers or colleagues. They may have had experiences where they had to take on a role in a badly managed role play and were embarrassed or intimated by this.

These fears can be alleviated by incorporating an interactive element to the overall programme design and introducing the professional role play team early in the session, using terms such as ‘skills practice’ rather than role play and by explaining that all are working from the same script and that they (participants) will be not asked to take on a role other than themselves, allowing focus on their learning. It is interesting that following a day of working in this way participants frequently rate these practise sessions as the most valuable part of the day/course.

Examples of where this interactive, learner-centred approach is used to enhance learning and provide tangible results:

Leadership Development, Performance Management Programmes, Conflict Management, Introduction to Management skills, Sales, Influencing and Negotiation skills, competency based interviewing,  Mediation and Coaching training.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”  (Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics)