The Importance of Role-Playing

A skill is more than just knowledge; it is knowledge applied effectively using specific behaviour. Behaviour can be learnt, and is perfected by practice. We who work with people love talking, and can easily be seduced into long discussions about strategies and techniques – while talking about, we aren’t fully learning. It is only when we experience how a technique works that it becomes part of our toolkit. An ideal way to practice is via role-plays. In this short article I discuss how to make these role-plays more effective.

The eye-openers often come in your role as client

You certainly may use a particular strategy to reach a goal in your conversation. It must, however, fit well with the person you are and be kneaded into a form that fits well with your personal style. And for that purpose role-plays are so, so useful. The other important purpose of role-playing is to develop your empathy by experiencing exactly what another’s interventions do to you when you are on the receiving end of that intervention, typically in the role of client.

Often, students are wary of role-playing, and come up with all kinds of arguments as to why they aren’t useful. They are fake, they take up a lot of time, ‘I am not an actor’, etcetera. All partially true, yet the advantages heavily outweigh the disadvantages. The most profound insights, the so-called eye-openers, often come when you take on the role of client, not in your role of the leader in the conversation. The counter-argument is that you should at least be able to conceive what your client is experiencing. Sometimes, students will say that the case is too far removed from what they can imagine. It is then a valid question whether a profession where you wish to help others is such a good choice …

Empathy is one of the pillars on which any conversation with any depth to it is grounded. So, if you find it difficult to connect with a case, that is probably the best reason to practice doing exactly that: By taking on the role of client, parking your resistance and taking on a curious attitude. By training your imagination, step by step you will master this skill too. Empathy can be learnt!

You learn nothing from a perfectly executed role-play

Another obstacle is the tension you experience when you feel yourself observed, and thereby judged. Sometimes students feel they should do everything perfectly straightaway in their role; that they should remember everything, get all the nuances down pat, etcetera. Yet you learn absolutely nothing from a perfectly executed role-play! You only prove what you are already capable of. Usually, the desire for instant perfection is counterproductive: Instead of busying yourself with the client, you are being awfully busy with yourself, for example by constantly checking that you haven’t forgotten something, or by ticking away items on your mental checklist whilst performing a specific intervention. It is better to see a role-play as a learning moment, and it is from your mistakes that you will learn the most. The art is to play with the intervention to such an extent that you discover its boundaries. Have a look how far you can go before it really goes wrong. Time-outs are ideal in this regard: The moment you run into a brick wall, call a time-out, ask for comments or tips if necessary, and then restart the role-play at an appropriate moment. This might mean redoing the whole role-play again and again until you are happy with the result; or each time use a different approach. These kinds of thing you can do during a role-play, not live with clients!

Particularly because busying yourself with the content of the technique instead of the content of the (played out) conversation works counterproductively, the tip is to shelve your library of knowledge during each role-play. Prepare yourself beforehand with what you want to learn, let it go, and then go into the play as naively as possible. After each fragment you can reflect on what happened, which of the techniques you master, and which still need some work. In part you will already know this straightaway; another part may follow from the debriefing after the role-play.

Debriefing: Nothing is as demotivating as receiving commentary on every triviality

A debriefing can be a valuable addition, yet the tendency is often to discuss too much and too extensively, and also to talk about the case instead of about the role-play. If you have explained up-front what your learning points are, then the debriefing need only address those points. The debriefing should also be short and sweet: Nothing is as demotivating than receiving commentary on every single triviality next to the main points the debriefing should address.

Instead of looking at want went right or wrong, develop alternatives
Another powerful learning instrument is a video recording of your conversations, both in the role-play and in the live situation. In the live situation you will need to inform the clients that you are recording, what the purpose is, and that the recording will be deleted as soon as it has been analysed. When analysing a video fragment, deciding the way in which you will do so is essential. Most people find it easier to learn new behaviour than to unlearn old behaviour, and you can use this principle to your advantage here: Instead of paying attention to what isn’t going that well, it is better to concentrate on broadening your toolkit. When you have more tools in your toolkit, the chances become ever greater that when a particular situation arises, you will grab the more effective options. The less effective ones will slowly extinguish themselves due to disuse.

So, instead of analysing the recording on the basis of what went wrong, after each fragment – irrespective of whether it went well or badly – think of at least one way how to approach that situation differently. This isn’t as simple as it sounds, as students need some time to get used to seeing themselves played back on video, and also to learn how to let go of their judgements. The aim of analysing video recordings this way is to generate new behavioural alternatives, which can then be tried out in future role-plays. By regularly doing this for an extended period of time, you will gradually broaden your toolkit to the degree that you automatically make ever better choices when certain situations present themselves.

Role-plays, role-plays and yet again role-plays

Conversational skills, both basic and advanced, can only partially be gleaned from reading books on this subject. They become reality, and able to be utilised, only after they have been practiced. Role-playing is an ideal instrument for that purpose. A role-play should, however, be seen as a learning moment, not as an exam. Playing the role of the client is often underestimated: By experiencing how an intervention actually affects you as client, you will realise how things affect you, and simultaneously you will broaden your empathic ability. In brief, practice makes perfect, and conversational skills aren’t developed by reading books, but by actually trying out that which you have read until those skills become your own.

Excerpted from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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