How useful is role play as a training tool?

One of the brightest consultants I know is Ned Miller of MZ Bierly Consulting.  Ned has a strong background of experience and skill in training and consulting, and is a gifted writer.  We are connected on LinkedIn and I enjoy his posts.

I mentioned to him that I was intrigued by this comment about him on his LI profile:  “While working with Linda Richardson, he developed an aversion to role plays that continues to this day.”

My thinking was that if Ned has reservations about role play, he must have good reason, and since I use role play a lot in my own training programs, I wanted to be sure I had an objective view of when role play is helpful and when it may go wrong.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedSo let me take Ned’s point of view and point out some danger areas, so that as a sales manager or trainer you yourself don’t simply say, “Oh, let’s just have them role play it,” with no thought to the objectives of learning.  (Admit it, you do this too!)

Safety and comfort—There’s no getting around the fact that many people just don’t like role play. As powerful a learning tool as it can be, it does make some people squirm.  From a trainer’s perspective, remember that you have an obligation to provide a safe, comfortable learning environment. People learn best when they are engaged but also relaxed. Consider that frequent role play, especially fishbowl (which I use often) can be difficult for some learners in your group.

Observer competency—Someone must observe the role play for the purpose of providing feedback, because useful feedback is the key element of the learning.  The role player must have help in seeing what was effective and what needs improvement, or you don’t get the desired benefit. But often the observer is a colleague of the role player with the same knowledge and skills and may a) not know what is effective or not, or b) not know how to phrase the feedback to benefit the role player.  How many times have you heard the observers perform a complete audit of the role player, listing everything they thought the role player “did wrong” or left out? That’s not useful feedback.

Facilitator monitoring—I know I can’t hear everything that’s said in every role play of groups of pairs, and usually I’m the best equipped to provide feedback.  I can’t be everywhere at once.  In a recent session I was working a group through an objection handling model, the first step of which is to make a statement of understanding or empathy after the customer objection. Just about all trainers use such a model.  As an example, we used price as the objection. I asked one participant to role play what he would say to a customer who said, “Your price is too high.” His response:  “I completely understand that you might THINK our price is too high…”  My first thought was that this approach showed no understanding or empathy whatsoever, and would probably lead to an argument.  My second thought was that I was glad I got to hear it. Suppose he did the same thing in isolation with a partner. He would have learned nothing.

Next week I’ll give you some ideas on how to use role play effectively and avoid some of these pitfalls. But until then, go have a look at Ned’s profile on LinkedIn.  He’s a pretty sharp guy.

And of course always remember to…

Think Like Your Customer

About Gregory LaMothe
I teach people how to sell things. I own the company ActionSystems. Visit my website at

2 Responses to How useful is role play as a training tool?

  1. Vern Edin says:

    Great advice my friend!

  2. Pingback: Fable Friday: How to make role play work as a training tool | actionsystems

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