In Defense of the Role-Play

Dear Coach,

What’s your view on using role-plays in coaching work?



Dear Sandra,

Certain seemingly neutral words automatically produce anxiety when you hear them. One is “feedback.” Another is “role-play.”

Yet, for soft skills training to be effective, I’ve found role-plays to be essential. When I’m teaching communication skills like the EAR and Period-Question Mark Ratio, the No-FEAR Conversation or the Feedback-to-Feedforward Conversion, leaders typically think they’ve got these techniques down since they are simple. However, simple doesn’t mean easy – at least at first. Moving from concept to practice to habit is difficult. Behavior patterns formed over many years must change. The Three Realities Gap is real.

I’ve found role-plays to be the best method for overcoming this challenge. The leader has to learn that cognition (knowledge of the technique) doesn’t necessarily translate into actual behavior or desired results. Once the leader accepts the reality of self-perception blindspots, he or she can move to practice and over time with diligence to new habit.

For example, let’s say the leader needs to have a conversation with someone that no doubt will be challenging. In the role-play, the leader and I take turns playing the leader and the other person. This readies the leader for the real thing and minimizes the risk that the conversation gets derailed.

Role-Play Rules:

Create a comfortable space. To ensure good participation, the leader must feel comfortable in the surroundings. Typically, this means one on one or small group settings. Conducting a role-play with many observers often produces counterproductive anxiety.

No embarrassment. Expect the leader to struggle at first applying the new concepts. Make it clear there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s normal. As role-play facilitator, I find self-deprecating humor comes in handy. I make sure everyone knows I’ve taken the same missteps they are taking.

Avoid over-orchestration. As coach/role-play facilitator, you don’t want to over direct or overcorrect. The more they talk and the less you talk the better.

Sometimes it’s useful to do an after-the-fact assessment with a role-play. I always like to follow up with the leaders I’m coaching on how the real event went. Did it track the role-play? Were there any unexpected statements or behaviors? How successful was the conversation? If the leader reports a glitch in the real event, we’ll redo it as a role-play. This is often when the leader has that breakthrough “aha” moment that sets him or her up for future success.

The behavioral psychologist Daniel Gilbert has observed, “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they are finished.” As an executive coach, I fully agree. However, role-plays can go a long way in narrowing the gap between problematic self-perception and happy reality.



Jathan Janove is a Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching Master Coach and Practice Leader. You can learn more about him here. If you have a question you’d like him to address, please email us at


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