Role Playing: Riding the Ginormous Elephant in the Training Room


Role playing has been used as a sales training tool for a many years, yet the expectation of having to role play with others still strikes immediate fear into the hearts of many. Trainers see it as an opportunity for employees to practice their new skills and knowledge in a safe place, but trainees see themselves in danger of suffering the severest injury that can be inflicted – embarrassment in front of their peers.

Quite often, it is the “ginormous elephant in the training room”. Role playing strongly resembles public speaking and according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 74% of people suffer from social anxiety, and many people fear public speaking more than death. But since role playing is a valuable learning opportunity that results in greater learning gains and retention, we need a way to move employees past that fear and inspire them to jump up and ride the elephant. Here are 3 steps you can take to achieve greater success during your next role-playing session.

  1. Explain the Process and Set Expectations

Role playing is often presented without explanation or expectation. As a result, it is not uncommon for employees to immediately dislike the idea. They get hung up on “acting”, when in reality it has nothing to do with acting. The general purpose of a role play is to provide a safe place to practice, fine-tune skills, and obtain new knowledge. A sports analogy works well here. Present the following question, “How many of you like to play _____?” “We could spend the next four hours discussing ____ or we could spend time practicing _____. Which would you rather do?”

  1. Determine Your Approach

The planning and approach for role play should be determined before the class meets. Consider the following:

  • Jump in the Hot Seat: The trainer is the best person to set expectations by modeling each role play for the entire group. A sprinkle of humor and little exaggeration helps to clarify your point and put everyone at ease. Model a familiar scenario in front of your entire class while they score the presentation (use a mystery shopping report) based on their understanding, knowledge, and perception. Debrief with an open dialogue regarding what could have been done differently. Proceed with a second role play based on this new knowledge. This time give the trainee a turn.
  • Take a Micro-Bite: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. We know the best way to accomplish something big is to approach it in smaller pieces. When you break down, for example, the telephone process into the following 2-3 minute role plays: the greeting, connecting with the customer, building rapport, identifying specific needs, etc., you are able to make small corrections in areas you might have missed otherwise. This is much more effective than asking employees to model the entire process at once.
  • Three is Company: Two people take designated roles as leasing consultant and customer, and the third person plays the observer role. They rotate roles.
  • Use Real-World Scenarios and Environments: Gather prospective role play scenarios from current employees. Remember—this is practice—so, why not practice what is taking place at the office? If possible, the role play should be performed where the scenario would take place – in a leasing office, in an apartment, walking through the fitness center, etc.
  • Do it Early and Often: Introduce people to the role play experience early in the process by holding micro-bite role plays from the start of training. This gives the trainees time to become more comfortable with the idea of practicing in public. Don’t let the ‘the ginormous elephant’ loom large in their minds all day.
  1. Stay Connected
riding the elephant2

Walk around the room to make sure everyone is engaging appropriately in their roles. Set an alarm to make sure each person gets their fair amount of time in each role (5 min max). Refrain from commenting on the details of their particular role play during the process. Save that for the debriefing which comes next.

  1. Dual Debrief Your Teams

There are two debriefings that should take place – in each respective group and as an entire class. The small group has an opportunity for personal reflection and to benefit from their fellow role players’ observations while the entire class can share their experiences and learning gains. Post the questions for discussion on the board. How was the role play helpful to them? What did they find difficult or uncomfortable? What will they do differently next time? Document the key highlights shared by participants to be used in future training sessions.

The biggest challenge for most trainers will be encouraging employees to ride rather than hide from the “ginormous elephant in the training room”. But role playing is a priceless learning experience that provides a chance to practice being on the job. It serves as close to real-life experience as you can get, and we all know that experience is often the greatest teacher.

Maria Lawson

Vice President of Training and Development

Ellis Partners in Management Solutions