After leading a recent fundraising training, I read the following comment on one of the evaluation forms:
What was your favorite part of the workshop? The role play.
What was your least favorite part of the workshop? The role play.
Clearly, this person had participated in something uncomfortable, learned a lot from the experience, and was willing to admit it.
After reading this evaluation, I did my little happy dance.
Why people don’t like role plays
When previewing the agenda at the beginning of a workshop, I often say, “Before we’re done, we’ll be doing a role play.” Everyone groans. “When we get there,” I continue, “I will lock the doors. No one escapes.” This always gets a laugh. (For the record, I’ve never locked the doors — at least not yet.)
Why do people find role plays so challenging? A few thoughts – and feel free to add to this list.
- The process of stepping into a different role or a new situation is inherently awkward. If that situation involves asking for money, the level of discomfort goes way, way up.
- People fear they will perform badly. No one likes feeling incompetent.
- Those who show up expecting slides and talking heads (yes, your talking head) will be surprised to learn that they’re required to actively participate. It might feel like a bait-and-switch.
- For the introverts among us, anything that involves public speaking – even one-on-one public speaking – can be terrifying.
Why you need to include role plays
Few things in life can be mastered without practice or rehearsal.
You can’t learn to ride a bicycle without falling a few times. Before inviting guests, you might want to prepare that complicated recipe once or twice, just to get it right
That delicate conversation with your spouse or your boss? Undoubtedly, you’re planning what you’re going to say – maybe even rehearsing the words in your head.
Practice doesn’t guarantee perfection, but it will make you stronger, smarter, and more effective.
Role plays are practice, pure and simple. When you practice recruiting a volunteer, or pitching your nonprofit to a potential donor, or asking an ineffective board member to improve his performance – well, having practiced, you’ll do it better in real life.
Furthermore, feedback from your partner as part of the exercise can raise your skills to a whole new level.
Let’s be honest. Role play exercises are not appropriate for all training situations. But a well-designed and clearly-facilitated role play is one of the essential tools in the trainer’s toolbox.
Tips for effective role plays
Because role plays can be stressful, you need to structure them and present them as clearly and simply as possible.
- Give specific instructions, including how much time you want people to spend on each part of the exercise.
- For the sake of clarity, you may want to model the role play conversation first. Here’s a super-simple exercise, Trust Your Instincts – Six Quick Asks. I suggest you demonstrate it in front of the full group before asking participants to pair up and practice it themselves.
- Always include time for partners or teams to give each other feedback – both compliments and suggestions for improvement.
Embrace the discomfort!
Real learning takes place when people are willing to try something challenging.
As a trainer and facilitator, it’s your job to guide them to, and through, that discomfort – firmly, gently, and compassionately.
As you’re designing the agenda, ask yourself: How much “productive discomfort” is built into this session? Then think about adding a role play.