Using role play to practise challenging conversations

Posted & filed under Blog, Communication Skills Coaching.

Role play is an extremely effective way to encourage delegates to practise challenging conversations in the safe environment of a training room. I have carried out role play sessions within a wide range of sectors, (including medical, care work, scientific, telecommunications, pharmaceutical, banking, Business Schools, etc.) and for an extremely varied set of situations. For all of these, the principal is the same; if a delegate is able to practise a conversation that worries them (either because it is looming or because it went particularly badly), the pressure on the individual when in situ is greatly reduced. They will have been offered tools and techniques both from the role player and the group as to how to best deal with this situation in the future.

To run a successful session, the delegate tells the role player about a particularly challenging conversation. The role player then takes on the role of the other person, making it as realistic as possible. During the conversation, the delegate or role player can stop at any point and open it up to the group for feedback / ideas of how to move forward etc. The role player will offer the delegate honest feedback on how they feel the conversation is going.

As the role player is doing all the ‘acting’, there should be no pressure on the delegate; all they need to do is be themselves. In my experience, even if there is an initial reserve about the exercise, delegates are always extremely positive having done the role play. They are always very surprised at how realistic the experience was and how the session has conjured up the genuine emotions they have to deal with when having these conversations.

An example of this was a recent role play I carried out with a delegate who was preparing for a conversation with a direct report. The direct report had previously been a colleague on the same level as the delegate (and also a friend). They had both been interviewed for a more senior role and the delegate had got the job. Therefore she was now managing her colleague. Unfortunately her colleague’s attitude and work ethic had been poor since this decision had been made and the delegate had been told by her manager that she needed to give her direct report a warning about her work. This was clearly a very delicate situation. The delegate’s nerves about the conversation meant that she adopted a dictatorial tone; her vocal tone was harsh and she was telling me what to do. Consequently our conversation didn’t go well. As a group, we offered the delegate some tips, including the use of open questions and pauses. When we re-ran the conversation, we managed to reach a much more positive conclusion, predominantly because the delegate was giving me more time to think, speak and feel like I was being listened to.

Role play is a powerful tool to give delegates a valuable chance to practice a challenging conversation before they have it – something we never normally get the chance to do.

About Helen

Helen is our Aziz expert equipping senior executives with presentation and communication skills. She has worked across many different sectors and her clients include Roche Pharmaceutical, GlaxoSmithKline, London Deanery, Barclays Bank, Transport for London, National Grid, The Royal Household, Costain, Vodafone and Warner Brothers.

Following her training at Birmingham University and the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, Helen worked in many of the leading theatres throughout the country. She also spent a year working at the National Theatre. Helen’s film and TV work includes various productions for the BBC and independent film producers. She has also worked in radio and voice-over and has narrated a number of children’s audiobooks.

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