Role Play

Learning about roles and responses


Role play gives participants the chance to simulate characters and situations in order to prepare for and practise real decisions and actions. Participants perform, observe, interact, reflect, provide and receive feedback, and analyse the case in question.


How to use it

Role play gives participants the chance to simulate characters and situations in order to prepare for and practise real decisions and actions. Participants perform, observe, interact, reflect, provide and receive feedback, and analyse the case in question.

How to apply it

  • Identify learning objectives and get to know the personalities of the participants, either early in the course or in an earlier phase of training.
  • Select a real scenario that highlights the key concepts of the course or learning session and adapt it to suit the participants and the setting
  • Ask for volunteers to be role players. These participants are given set roles and act out the scenario according to their role.
  • The role play is structured into the following four elements, which must be carefully planned in advance.
  • Briefing: Explain the purpose, process, roles and situation itself. Give participants time to read and digest the resources.
    Provide resources such as background information, an outline of key actors’ perspectives and an overview of relevant relationships in the first stage. More specific resources could include policy documents, stakeholder characteristics, existing levels of interaction, stakeholder agenda and other key indicators.
  • Interaction: Participants act out the scenariostage. Allow enough time and the appropriate environment for participants to formulate relationships and begin to explore the roles.
  • Forum: Participants discuss the situation and negotiate solutions for the scenario. The forum stage can take place in conference style or other set-ups appropriate for discussion.
  • Debriefing: This is the most crucial element. It requires enough time to share feedback, reflect on objectives and deal with questions from the participants.
  • Feedback should follow SMART principles (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-bound). It should describe specific things that the observer saw and heard, relevant to the exercise and the participants. Feedback needs to be achievable and given immediately. It is best to let the protagonists comment on their performance themselves.

How to adapt it

  • In Improv Prototyping, participants focus on role-playing solutions to smaller parts of the bigger issue being explored, and then build the parts into an overall solution to the problem, or a ‘prototype’.
  • In spontaneous role play, ask participants for examples of actual problems they have experienced (ask during the course, or in an earlier phase of training), then select the main issues for a role play.
  • Wrong Way, Right Way Role Play first demonstrates an improper procedure and asks participants to provide a constructive critique. A second role play then illustrates an ideal approach based on best practice and participant contributions, followed by an in-depth debrief.
  • The Tag-Out Technique helps minimize awkward or undesirable scenarios for participants, and to include more participants. Divide participants into two or more groups. During the role play, once a set time has elapsed, or when the first volunteer reaches an impasse, they raise a hand to request a replacement from their group.
  • In Multiple Role Playing, multiple small groups enact the scenarios simultaneously, instead of simply observing others. This can also reduce anxiety among participants who are uneasy speaking in front of large groups.
  • Total Group Role Playing resembles a debate. Two groups are assigned either a pro or con position.They develop an argument defending their case and prepare rebuttals to possible positions of the opposing group. A representative from each group is then sent to the opposite camp to present and defend their position. After about five minutes, initiate the role reversal phase by switching the groups of participants one by one at five-minute intervals. This will strengthen arguments and balance conflicting perspectives. Continue to rotate until each person has participated in both groups.

Case study


Demonstrating best practice with a role play


Working with the UN for ILO field staff


Robin Poppe, (Learning and Communication)


The objective was to strengthen the ability of ILO field officials to promote the Decent Work Agenda within the UN country team by demonstrating approaches and techniques for effective meetings. Due to time limitations, the facilitators decided to illustrate best practice, rather than to provide each participant with practice.

The afternoon before the session itself, the facilitators asked strong and articulate people to play roles that resembled their own personalities the following day. If they accepted, they were given a brief study guide to prepare for the role. The seating arrangement was designed to stimulate participation, instead of just one-way observation by the other participants. Four characters were seated at a centre table surrounded by the other participants in a circle. The circle was separated into four groups, and were assigned to the closest central character, who became their representative.

The external participants acted as the ‘coaches’ for their ‘representative’ in the central circle. If the key character faced difficulties, committed errors or requested assistance, their group quietly decided on the next step and sent someone to whisper instructions into their ear.

The Role Play was successful due to careful planning by facilitators and active participation by the learners.


  • Substantial time is required for preparation.
  • Conduct in combination with other methods, such as Fishbowls or online Discussion forums.
  • Assign roles to participants to create a mirror effect, to help participants get an outside-in perspective of their own position in relation to others and to create a climate of open-mindedness.
  • Reduce anxiety about role playing in front of a full group through any of the following approaches:
    • Organize the activity late in the learning programme when people have founded relationships and an open environment is well-established.
    • Select only volunteers for the initial rounds.
    • Be clear that there are multiple ways to act in any given situation, and that mistakes are an important aspect of learning.
    • Create opportunities to warm up before the central exercise, such as practising in pairs.
  • Always lead the group in applause for the role players.


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