Why Pay More? The Pros and Pros for Investing in the External Role Player for Interpersonal Skills Training

As a training community, irrespective of context, we are in the fortunate position that engagement of external role players for simulation based training and assessment has come a long way in the last 20+ years. Many sectors, public and private, invest in a professional service, and the benefits are well established anecdotally, via course evaluation, and in some cases benchmarked against measurable outcomes such as Customer Satisfaction Index scores and improved in-job performance. However, degrees of scepticism still exist, and interested parties sometimes find themselves needing to make a case for such service provision in the face of budget restrictions and/or the need to influence fund-holders who may have less familiarity with, or understanding of, interactive methods. This article aims to support those wanting to include professional role play in their educational activity, by offering a case for high-end external role player inclusion.

The reader may reasonably question my position on the basis that I am affiliated with role player provision in both medical education and the corporate sector, but the desire to develop a high end resource stemmed from the early 90s in wanting a first class service for medical and subsequently other learners for whom the teams I work in had, and still have, responsibility. Those learners in turn are responsible for the sensitive management and wellbeing of others, and as such deserve a robust, quality assured learning experience. To that end my position within my own organisation is the same as those reading this article.

Role play is a well established means of engaging learners across disciplines healthcare, law, education, industry, etc., creating live scenarios for teaching and testing purposes, and generating feedback that can be practically activated in the workplace. It’s widely accepted that discussion of what ‘one might do’ is different from ‘actually doing’, and that contextualised learning is memorable and impactful. The question is the degree to which role play services are sought externally, and the level of expectation around investment.

A myth still prevails in some instances that role play methodology can be ‘tried by anyone’. That as long as the facilitator is willing to set it up, and that someone is present who can be asked to ‘improvise’ (delegate or external participant, irrespective of experience) simulation will have benefit. Experienced trainers well-versed in the method can testify to the frequency of occasion where – however meticulously or professionally their own provision is planned – delegates have negative (and often understandable and emotional) pre-perceptions based on past experiences of poorly planned or poorly executed attempts at role playing. Left unaddressed, this can present a significant barrier to ongoing personal professional development.

The bottom line is, quite obviously, that the quality of educational resource invested in is proportionate to the quality of learning achieved. A ‘cost neutral’ solution is to ask delegates to role play the protagonist – the disgruntled service user, the angry patient, the distressed (eg bullied) colleague, the under-performing junior and so on. This may have some value if the specific aim of the training is role reversal, but to do this well needs extremely careful pre-positioning and acknowledgement that many delegates find portraying emotive, plausible characterisations difficult, struggle to feedback with integrity or skill, and may find the subject matter embarrassing or difficult for personal reasons. A further risk is that the quality of the learning experience for the trainee managing the interaction becomes dependent on the skill, ability and engagement of the peer they are role playing against – who in some situations will be someone they already know well. Pressure to be ‘helpful’ in combination with suspension of disbelief, and sometimes difficulty taking the exercise seriously can present a significant facilitation challenge and reduce positive outcome.

In acknowledgement of this a ‘low cost’ compromise can take a number of routes. Drafting in ‘volunteers’ (one historic example being secretaries for an exam), the trainer taking the ‘roles’, or finding the lowest cost agency being examples.

Taking these one at a time, drafting in ‘volunteers’, firstly, is high risk in terms of skills and experience. Professional role players are trained in a range of competencies that the lay volunteer simply won’t have – improvisational skill, character range, flex in role to accommodate the needs of under-confident and highly performing attendees, understanding of the educational context and learning outcomes, ability to give objective, evidenced feedback and recommendations based on experience and so forth. In that sense they are a training partner, and the trainer need have no concern about managing their involvement. The volunteer scenario can also leave the trainer managing additional emotional challenge, if the topic proves ‘close to home’. An example I’m aware of is a volunteer being asked at minimal notice to enact a victim of bullying where it emerged she herself had been similarly recently bullied, The need to manage her emotional reaction overtook the session and left delegates unsupported while the trainer managed her distress offline. This is not typical, but remains a risk.

The trainer taking the ‘role’ him/herself depends on his/her skill in characterisation, removes the realism of an ‘unknown’ face (unfamiliarity helps delegates engage), and deprives the trainer of managing the learning task objectively as an observer. Being free to facilitate the learning, to pause the action, to take notes, to keep a whether eye on the group and protagonist reactions and so forth is undoubtedly helpful, and the presence of an additional person focussed on the educational outcomes provides support through their feedback.

In relation to ‘low cost’ provision it is certainly true that role players/actors can be sourced at varying rates in a competitive marketplace, and services suited to a tighter budget may have their place in some categories of work. As a cautionary note however it’s worth reflecting that the difference between ‘acting’ and ‘role playing for education purposes’ is not always fully understood. Professional role players with performance experience offer well reported advantage, but it is not true that every individual with ‘acting’ prowess is suited to or skilled in, being part of a classroom dynamic. In every booking scenario the client should seek assurance from the role play provider that the individuals hired do indeed have the relevant skill, training and context experience for any important training or assessment scenario they may be managing, as educational expertise is not always guaranteed. At risk of controversy, from experience over 24 years, and in line with any other professional sector, the highest quality and most seasoned professionals are simply not available at ‘low rate’ – typically for good reason and because they are in demand elsewhere based on evaluative track record.

Seasoned role players will add value to the training event precisely because they are trained experts. They will have years of experience of the training context behind them, in some cases will have teaching and/or modelling qualifications, and will have substantive histories in the support and delivery of education. They will be accomplished in communication, and be able to support the trainer fully in delivering the outcomes for the event. Understanding the learning context is paramount, in order to deliver a fully rounded educational, safe, productive experience. If the quotation is higher from a particular provider it is likely to reflect this.

It’s relatively easy on paper to look at role player cost as a negotiable, but the cost of not investing early on is higher. In recruitment and selection the ‘cost’ of appointing an inappropriate candidate in terms of remediation and loss is far greater than the initial investment, and ongoing…. In training, failure to embed workable outcomes through low initial investment stacks up financially in terms of desired outcomes, meeting targets and improvement. The cost of a professional, reputable, educationally aware role player usually offsets easily against retrospective evaluative data and improved performance organisationally. In summary, professional role players are objective, can support the trainer educationally, and add value to the event with no risk of personal agenda, conflict, emotional management or professional concerns. In short, if you want the best, book the best.

Dr Connie Wiskin