Professional role players comprise a ubiquitous feature of training and development programmes these days. Like the flipchart, they survive changes in training fashion because there is no better technology for doing what they do.  Sadly, the increasing sophistication which role players bring to the job has done nothing to encourage participants to actually look forward to role playing.

Let’s face it, working with role players is galling enough for consultants.  I regularly have to endure lunch breaks in which participants ignore my conversational gambits about the philosophy of learning in favour of fawning all over the actor across the table in the belief they’ve seen her in EastEnders (note to would-be fawners: try asking if they’ve been in The Bill; the answer is always ‘yes’.).  And if you happen to have hired a role player who produces real tears in a simulated appraisal meeting, then you’ll never shut the participant up as they express their awe at being in the presence of dramatic Royalty. (Honestly, if only I’d known getting positive evaluations was that simple, I’d have packed an onion in my luggage).   

I’ve found the most effective way of putting a stop to such shameless groupie behaviour is to remind the participant in question that it’s their turn next.  The average individual’s response to working with actors changes dramatically once they realise they’re expected to do something themselves, rather than just watching their colleagues suffer and offering sagely feedback from the sidelines.  Suddenly all the drama happens offstage, as it were.  The greatest actor in the world pales in comparison to the oscar-winning performance of a participant who says with complete conviction “No, you see I learn better by watching others/reading the course notes/sitting on my own and thinking/etc.”

What this person is actually saying is “I don’t want to confront my imperfections,” which is the inevitable consequence of practising a skill or behaviour that is not a strength.  An individual’s preference for learning from a book is not really because the book is a better vehicle for effective learning.  In fact it is precisely because the book is an inadequate vehicle for learning – in that it does not require you to move beyond your comfort zone – that we inherently prefer it.  (I’ve frothed about this before: see

This is all fair enough and understandable human behaviour.  On the occasions when I have engaged the help of a role player colleague to work through situations of my own, I have also found myself descending into the long dark night of the soul, and been left wondering whether I’m old enough yet to apply for voluntary euthanasia.  What I find more surprising is the extent to which many people get hung up on how ‘artificial’ role playing is, as if by trying out a skill you are not being true to yourself.  The participant’s post-role play mantra “In real life I wouldn’t have done it like that” is part defensive reaction, part statement of a deep belief that consciously adapting your behaviour to fit the situation you’re in is in some way fraudulent.

But consider this: the great actors of our age, regardless of the role they are playing at the time, are always nevertheless being themselves.  They simply bring certain aspects of themselves to the fore.  This authenticity is what makes them great actors.  (The actor Roy Kinnear once said in an interview: “When people ask me: ‘how do you see this character?’ I say: ‘I see him as short, fat and bald – because that’s the way he’s going to be played.’”).  Bad actors paste a role onto themselves and leave cracks showing.  We, the audience, do not believe they are who they claim to be, because it is not derived from some truth within themselves. (Come on Alan Yentob, give me a job on a pretentious late night BBC2 Arts programme: I’ve clearly proved I’m up to the job.)

Back to the plot:  I have several times in the last couple of weeks watched individuals role play real-life situations in which some aspect of themselves is getting in the way (for example, a fear of conflict leading them to avoid giving someone difficult feedback).  In each case, I invited the individual in question to replay the scene as if they were someone else: the other person’s boss, for example, or a neutral party with no ‘history’ in a dispute.  Every participant who gave it a go – none of whom would describe themselves as ‘an actor’ – was transformed, and dealt with the situation in question impeccably.  Were they playing a role?  Yes.  Were they being themselves?  Also, yes – with a different aspect of themselves emphasised.  We are all role players in our lives, bringing different parts of ourselves to the fore to suit the situation.  The trick is to accept that it’s OK to do that.