Rehearsal and role-taking in Interpersonal Skills learning

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rehearsal and role-taking as vital to skill learning

introduction to the basics: creating realistic scenarios

The simplest approach to the study of the kind of event the student is being prepared for in the world of work is to reflect on case studies by case discussion. However, a major limitation of any case discussion would be that it is restricted to awareness as the key outcome. There is a great emotional distance between reflection in the abstract and live experience, where feeling, hidden agendas, immediacy and non-verbal communication dominate the communication. This raising of awareness may well be considered sufficient as a stage in a long term process of development along the lines below or as an introduction which quickly and deftly brings students in to act out the parts under discussion.

taking on roles

Such case studies and simulations derived from real life, together with the elements of interpersonal skills analysed out of these are the bedrock of practical work. Any case study is likely to lend itself to acting out the roles and dialogues therein. Indeed, as a case discussion is developing, a skilled teacher might invite a student who has just proposed a next step or an alternative approach to demonstrate, first the form of words that might work and second to say them in an appropriate manner. One or more other students may be invited to stand in for people in the counterpartal roles, perhaps even giving them lines from the actual or hypothetical event. Plenty of space should be given for mini-rehearsal, as it can take a little time to warm up and take on the roles being acted out. The essence here is to get closer to the reality of life, by providing suitable stimuli (from other people), active participation involving feelings and live experience (however simulated) and allowing non-verbal communication and timing to be explored in greater depth. In addition, there is the possibility of inviting feedback from the other participants as if from the characters being portrayed. In spite of the main emphasis perhaps being away from the limitations of the main actor (the professional role(s) involved) nevertheless, they have great potential to learn from their practice of the skills.

As always, respecting the artificiality of such practice, there is always a reality within which learning is highly relevant. In general, the learning is highest for the student playing the central professional role, next for those playing counterpartal roles and least for observers (but see role reversal below). Breaking larger groups into smaller groups, triads or pairs, may increase efficiency. This gives more students opportunities for rehearsal or discrimination practice.

prescriptive training

Sometimes it may be appropriate to play out a scenario in order to show students the right way, or the accepted way of doing things. For example, a group in training for the police might play out a scene with one or more suspects, witnesses, and victims and one police officer. The purpose might be to show how to make an arrest and call for support. A doctor in training might play out one of the many different interviews, consultations or news-giving interactions with a patient or relative. Each profession will have its own typical scenario and procedure or standard formula for its conduct. Role partners would be briefed with a personal history and characterisation. The learning task might be to deal with the sort of character portrayed or to elicit key information from them. In such cases, either the role counterpart or an observer would be able to assist in the reflections of the trainee role on the actual procedure and variation from it. The role counterpart would be in the best position to comment by recalling their experience from within their simulated role and giving an account of why their character behaved as they did.

creating opportunities to a set level of difficulty

One advantage of the case study approach is that the complexity of real life scenarios can be simplified to suit the students' stage of training. Additionally, the vignettes being played out might be small sections of a real life situation, in order to focus on quite specific skill or skills elements. Over the duration of a course, such complexity would be increased in line with students' growth in understanding and skill. One disadvantage of such simplification is that it might take too much out of the challenge or it may be too far away from real life.

creating opportunities to reverse roles and learn empathy

One vital aspect of the playing out of roles is that students are required to take on the mantle of their counterparts (patients, clients, colleagues and so on). In so doing, they must put themselves in others' shoes, imagine how they think, feel and act and the needs and personal histories lying behind such roles. Whilst their peers are acting as themselves in the training activity, the role-players must make things as real as possible, by responding in character to the precise style, words, looks, gestures, eye contact and so on. This may well mean that practice meetings seem to be unsuccessful. It is in the debrief that hidden experience is brought to light and the rationale for the actual responses. However, the opportunity here goes beyond simply providing data to improve performance. In entering the world of the client (or other counterpart) there is a training in empathy. Insights about the client world are forming. The ability to recognise client's needs is growing. Effective professional action always comes about through accurate empathy. Insights are available to students playing all the roles. Repeated pooling of these experiences and insights enables a course group to progress rapidly.

creating opportunities to reverse roles and learn anticipation/value of model

Going slightly further, students practising being the professional might be asked to switch roles and take on the mantle of the counterpart. They would then have to imagine the kind of response such a counterpart might make to their actions and words in the previous moments of the training activity. They would continue to switch roles until the lessons had been learned. Peers assisting would repeat the last lines of the dialogue, non-verbally and verbally to jog the role reversal. From time to time, the teacher would require students to take time out, and invite them to disclose their thoughts and feelings in each role to illuminate the situation. Re-playing parts of the scene armed with the new insights would take the activity in new directions with increasing success. The final debriefing would summarise all relevant critical points along with the different characters' thoughts and feelings, so to reveal the underling dynamics and hopefully demonstrate the value and validity of the models being taught. In a re-enactment of a real situation or a rehearsal for a forthcoming situation for one of the students, such role reversals will enable the student to anticipate and prepare for probable responses and even pre-empt responses which would lower success. Re-enactments and rehearsals take us right into psychodrama (below).

sufficiency of debrief needed for full value

Time and time again in this text the need for a full and proper debrief of appropriate length is emphasised. I make no apology for this. It is our responsibility to maximise the learning potential of our case studies, simulations, role plays and skills practice sessions. Sometimes a great deal of data must be elicited from participants about actual events and observations, about their experiences, their thoughts and feelings, the images of themselves and others they formed, about how these arose, and about how events unfolded as they did. The more students are involved as participants the longer should be the time given to this reflection. The more complex is the situation portrayed, the longer the time. And after the data is gathered it needs to be processed fully, linked with any relevant theory or even new theories formed from the experience. And after that the implications of the developing understanding need to be worked out. Each student should take away at least one implication, ideally one resolution to put into practice, one promise to fulfil. So debriefing may take anything from as long again as the practical (say for a paired focused exercise) to ten times as long (for a group simulation of a complex event, especially if there is an unusual outcome). Failure to debrief sufficiently may even lead to hardening of attitudes, dismissal of potential learning, reinforcement of inappropriate attitudes and skills and rejection of the active methods being used.


In all cases where students play out a defined role, taking on a character not their own, students should 'de-role' afterwards. That is, at a suitable point, before entering the puzzling out stage of the experiential cycle, they must remind themselves of who they actually are, where and when they are. They should not continue with the mantle of the role which was played. They should come out of role. A round of “What's your name? Where are you? How old are you? What are you doing here?” is usually sufficient. This can be done in the pairs, triads or small groups. At the end of the exercise, before leaving or going on to a new activity, this de-role-ing can be repeated. You might invite them as they finish to shout their real names all at once or leave silently and imagine they leave the clothes of the character they were wearing in a heap on the floor in the centre of the room. It is sometimes the case that students leave a session still in role, and behave out of character (still in the character of the role played). Generally, the longer the duration in role and the more intensive the scenario, the more likely is it to stay in role. It is not what we want to happen.

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