Practising for Reality - Role Players for Training

Posted in : ROI on 9 September 2016 Issues covered:

Contrary to what is widely thought, in a role play situation, employees ‘play’ themselves and are not required to ‘act’. Why is this type of learning so effective?

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 one or more role players. Role play adds an exciting, challenging and most importantly an experiential aspect to training or 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). In the area of medicine, Simulated Patients have been used in medical education as early as 1968 and a number of advantages have been identified over the use of real patients (Barrows HS).

There is evidence that participants remember the learning from one-to-one role play long after they have forgotten much of learning from more traditional methods. The well-known quote from Confucius: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand," explains the reason why role play is so effective.

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.

How it works

One-to-one role play is usually facilitated by a trainer using professional role players in small learning groups. The scenarios are constructed around the learning outcomes and the role player has a specific background, characteristics and personality. The participant, unlike what is commonly thought, does not have to take on any 'acting' tasks but rather plays him/herself in a given scenario, using the opportunity to work on the new learning and get feedback from the observers, facilitator and role player. Scenarios can also be 'bespoke', where the participants get to work on specific difficult aspects of conversations/meetings that they anticipate or have experienced where the outcome was less than satisfactory.

Learning via Forum

Also called Stop/Start Theatre, this is a technique pioneered by Brazilian radical,Augusto Boal. A scene is played out by two role players where the outcome is unsatisfactory. Participants are then asked to comment on what they saw taking place and what they would change. The scene is replayed taking on board these suggestions. During the replay, any member of the audience is allowed to shout “STOP” and make further suggestions that will change the situation or resolve the problem.In classic Forum, an audience member takes the place of the role player being coached, showing how they could change the situation to enable a different outcome.A facilitator is used to communicate between players and participants and draw out the learning.In development centres it is a useful way of introducing the participants to the concept of role play where they can observe and influence from the safety of their chair!


A simulation is a live play, managed by aSimulation Manager and based on a particular organisation, usually in an off-site location. Role players, staying in role throughout the duration, play the key roles in that organisation and interact with the participants through one-to-one and team meetings and end of day presentations. The added value to client companies is that they get an opportunity to observe the capabilities and potential of their people first hand.


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 and constructive feedback to the participants at the end of each role play. This will be 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 their colleague doing and feedback the insights gleaned. Harbour and Connick describe observers as being hugely beneficial to the participants' learning: ‘How often in life do we get the opportunity to gain from such focused attention? We not only have our own response to the role play: we can also benefit from our fellow role players' observations, the tutor’s point of view and the feedback from the observers.'

Working with professionals

Using a professional role play provider should mean the role players are professional 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. 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.

The trainer can alleviate those fears by introducing the professional role players early in the session, using terms such as 'skills practice' rather than role play and by explaining that there are no tricks, that all are working from the same script and that they will be not asked to take on a role other than themselves, so they can focus on their learning. It is interesting that following a day of working in this way, participants frequently rate the role play sessions as the most valuable part of the day/course.

What can it be used for?

There are many types of training where role play adds and indeed can be a critical element:

  • Performance Management Programmes
  • Conflict management
  • Leadership development
  • Introduction to management skills
  • Sales
  • Influencing skills
  • Competency-based interviewing skills
  • Mediation skills.

It has successfully being used for managers, business leaders, lawyers, HR managers, sales personnel, hospitality, bankers, doctors, surgeons, and for trainees in medicine, law, policing, nursing, psychiatry and psychology, and in fact, anyone who has to have authentic and challenging conversations in their professional or personal life.

About the Author

Rita Smyth is founder of Role Players for Training, which provides full-time professional actors, using drama-based skills, to facilitate and support learning and development in business, professional firms and executive education, as well as communications training in third level education. Rita worked as a HR professional for 15 years.

This year we have yet another first for our Annual Reviews of Employment Law in Dublin – professional actors from Role Players for Training will be, you guessed it, acting out scenes in front of the audience. The session they will be taking part in is:

Dealing with Unreasonable Employees

It’s bad enough having to struggle through a recession or public spending cuts without having to deal with passive-aggressive, glass half-empty, never-happy colleagues who won’t move on and annoy someone else. Is it possible to turn around their personalities, so they are engaged and actively contribute to your organisation? Sometimes. But it might also be possible to use their negativity against them and remove them from the organisation. Author and trainer, Sophie Rowan, Pinpoint, and Antonia Melvin, Associate, O’Connor Solicitors, direct a lively, interactive session for both scenarios and discuss the options with the help of Rita Smyth, Creative Director, Role Players for Training.

Find out more information on our Annual Review of Employment Law 2016 conferences by visiting our events page -

Find out more about Rita and how using professional role players can add significant value to your workplace training

Tel: 01-4553991

This article is correct at 09/09/2016

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.