To Role Play or Not to Role Play?!

To Role Play or Not to Role Play?! – 

I was lucky enough to have ‘served’ an incredibly intense ‘apprenticeship’ as a trainer. I didn’t quite realise it at the time, but for 2 years, my professional life consisted of leaving home in the north of England on a Sunday evening, or very early Monday morning, travelling for several hours and starting my week either in a meeting 200 miles away from home or delivering some kind of classroom based training.

I had been with the company I was working with for over a year on an in-dealer programme and this gave me a great introduction into field-based work. All of the stuff they don’t tell you how to do when you first land this seemingly exciting job. Yes, it’s great being somewhere different everyday, it’s great being the guy that swans in, points out the obvious and creates small but impactful changes to a client’s business, yes it’s great joining senior management team meetings and being the ‘expert’ in the room. But what they don’t tell you about is the 3 hours on a Sunday mapping out your route (couldn’t afford a sat nav at the time), printing off my AA route map directions for each location that week. Ironing clothes and packing bags, sorting out enough finances to get me through the week, prepping materials and learning course notes, making appointments, changing appointments, returning phone calls, reporting on your activity, completing mileage reports and expenses claims, etc, etc.

When the programme I had been employed to work on came to and end I had a choice to make. Luckily for me, a couple of opportunities came up to get involved in classroom training and straight from the first delivery I knew that was where I wanted to be. I had found my calling! Also, lucky for me I had a director willing to recognise this and willing to invest some of their time in my development. And so, the process began.

I was paired up with and sent to observe members of the existing training team. Taking key points from each and developing my initial understanding of what good sales training looked like. A question that would drive me for the next 10 years or so.


What does good training look like?

Well actually, good training looks very similar to bad training. In fact, some of the best trainers I worked with didn’t look very good at all but that was their genius. Now here’s where the question gets a little bit more complex because by good training, do we mean that everyone has a fun day and they fill in the ‘happy sheets’ at the end with top marks? Does it mean that all of the participants come away with some kind of learning, or does it means they come away with learning, some motivation and the tools required to make some behavioural changes in their workplace?

To answer this, firstly I need to differentiate. If we consider teaching to mean to the transfer of ‘new’ knowledge, training to be the application of that knowledge into the workplace (or activity), coaching to mean the refinement and improvement of technique in application and mentoring as the strategic guidance, motivation and support required to develop my activity beyond what has been learned.

Now we can focus purely on the training, with the goal being to take new and existing knowledge and create a pathway for that knowledge to be implemented into the participant’s day to day activity. Luckily enough there’s a model for this. In fact, there’s a model for pretty much anything nowadays!


Kolb’s Model 

David Kolb’s learning styles theory is a model designed to map out the way in which we learn, identify key activities on the part of the trainer and the participants, enable learning designed to create effective learning activities that lead to new knowledge and the implementation of that knowledge.

Here’s the controversial bit. I would take a guess that 80%+ of the professional trainers and educators I have worked with over the past 15 years have a rudimentary if any understanding of this model, let alone apply it in their training design and implementation.

Let me share an experience with you. During a training design briefing meeting with a client we were discussing content around communication between sales advisors and customers, and the client told me he would like to see a reference to a piece of content (familiar to most training professionals) around communication channels, driven by research completed and published by Professor Albert Mehrabian. Now, this client heads up the design and delivery teams for one of the most prestigious learning organisations in the UK automotive sector and during this conversation about the content I identified that he didn’t really understand the content. So I asked him, “have you actually read the book?” “Well not all of it…” was his reply. “But I’m familiar with the content.”

This is not a comfortable place to be, your client is telling you what they want to see in the content of the course you are tasked with designing, yet they have completely misunderstood the content they are asking you to write. Through a very tentative conversation and re-direction I was able to make the point that although Mehrabian’s model demonstrates 3 channels of communication, most people in our field had NOT read the book (Silent Messages) and took their knowledge from slides passed down to them or plagiarised from previous training. Now one key ingredient, for those familiar with the content, is that Mehrabian qualifies his findings based on the inclusion of emotion and attitude. There’s a more in-depth discussion here, but my point for this blog is that this happens a lot. ‘Training professionals’ take a small piece of information and use that as their foundation without bothering to research the rest of the subject which brings me back to role play!

Right from the very first training course I attended as a delegate; the fear of role play was driven into me. It was used almost as a controlling weapon. Now, don’t get me wrong, some people absolutely love role play, they thrive on the chance to display their knowledge or skills to the rest of group and I applaud those people. I’m not one of them. It makes me feel singled out, on the spot, tested and judged. I was later to find out that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

In almost every course development process I’ve been involved in, the discussion around the inclusion of role play has been evident. Usually driven from the training manager who wants ‘experiential’ learning and role play in the course. As my knowledge and understanding of learning developed, so did my own internal questioning of the value of role play in training.

Kolb’s learning style theory provides four key points from concrete experience through to active experimentation. And the active experimentation is the point that sales ‘try it’, ‘do it’ and you’ll learn from the experience. What I later uncovered about this process that, like Mehrabian’s communication model, there is an underlying element that MUST be in place fo this process to have value. In this case that’s the desire to want to do it, to try it.

Now, I understand that some trainers are lucky enough to have audiences that have elected to be on the training and have a level of confidence that allows them to engage with role play and take the learning from the exercise. I don’t always have those audiences though. Often I have front line staff who are learning to deal with complex situations that will determine their customers level of experience, so although they are performing the tasks on a daily basis, my goal is to challenge them to refine their approach and develop their understanding of the situation with the goal of selling more products, delivering an improved customer experience or both.

So, how do I overcome the challenge of providing an ‘experiential’ learning experience without making some or all of my delegates feel uncomfortable, because what I am certain of is if I do make them feel uncomfortable, then in relationship to the cognitive dissonance created by the situation they will simply withdraw from the learning process (support or inoculation defence).


For me, the solution is to work with what I do know.

I know asking some groups of delegates to role play will make them feel uncomfortable and reduce the learning experience. What I also know is that when delivering online skills based training that is directly related to the role and their daily actions, then the delegates are almost certain to experience the situations being discussed on their return to work. If I can create a strong enough proposition throughout the other elements of the Kolb model and provide a task/ exercise/ activity that is supported by specific tools, documentation and if possible verification, then I know they will have that active experimentation in the right environment for them and be able to identify a brand new concrete experience. I just need to make sure they are directed, focussed and motivated to go through this process.

What does this mean then? Should we role play in training or not? The simple answer for me is yes. But only if the participants or group of participants is engaged and comfortable participating. If not, then you can still achieve the desired learning outcomes through the effective application of the whole of Kolb’s model. In my experience, if you set out to achieve this through correct position, self, group and led discovery, detailed conceptualisation and provide the tools and materials to complete the tasks in the workplace, then not only will you achieve the desired learning outcomes, but you are also far more likely to link the learning to the participant’s daily behaviour and role activity, and create a more effective behaviour change – this also links into the Ebbinghaus curve in regards to sustainment activity, creating another opportunity to extend knowledge retention and increase behavioural change.

In any case we, as trainers and educators must work hard to create effective positioning and be aware of Bloom’s affective domain in creating value to the learner, ensuring our delegates WANT to participate in any experiential activity and not simply include it in the training for the sake of having it in the training.


Thank you for reading

– Alan


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