How is it that some people appear to glide effortlessly through their lives and careers, when they may not necessarily have the most qualifications or the keenest technical skills? Is it a conspiracy, fate, or the fact that this group have acquired a higher grade in influencing skills in the ‘University of Getting On’? I have some observations from a relatively unknown standpoint, which I’d like to share with you.
I have worked as a freelance Corporate Roleplayer in the UK for nearly seven years, having attended Drama School (aged 40) eight years ago. For many it seems, the world of Corporate Roleplay is shrouded in mystery. Even my spellchecker hasn’t heard of it because it keeps underlining the word! But in Britain it has emerged into what Victor Hugo famously described as ‘an idea whose time has come’.
I have ‘roleplayed’ (even the inverted commas don’t appease my spellchecker) for sectors as diverse as Local Government, Oil and Gas, Aviation, Automotive, Rail, the Police, Fire Service (no ladders involved), Mobile Telecoms, Banking, Accountancy, Legal, Insurance, Manufacturing, and dozens more. What I have found is that truly effective people in the workplace – and in life too for the most part – ALL share a relatively narrow but 100% transferable suite of people skills.
But before I come to those, let me give you some more context of how businesses use roleplay to train their staff, as it may not be familiar to you and might spark off some development ideas for your own enterprise:-
1.Roleplay for Sales Training:-
This is always an enjoyable one for me, having worked in sales for 16 years. The client company – eg a car retailer – writes a ‘brief’, often with the help of a third party training company, and that brief will describe several different ‘types’ of prospective car buyer, including their current vehicle, their buying ‘style’ and their budget for example. The roleplayer will play one of these ‘types’, with the salesperson who is being trained – the ‘delegate’ – aware that I’m a roleplayer but unaware of my personality. One can have several roleplayers at a training event, all swapping roles between sessions, and so many delegates can be ‘processed’, if you’ll excuse the phrase.
It’s then incumbent on the delegate to build rapport, ask questions, summarise, and if appropriate (it often isn’t but still happens!) close the sale. A ‘facilitator’ from the client or usually the third party training company sits in the meeting and invites post-roleplay’ comments from the delegate, any peer group observers, and the roleplayer.
The crucial value given by the roleplayer happens after the roleplay (15-30 minutes on average) is over. The roleplayer gives the delegate feedback on how the delegate made them feel during the interaction, and will refer to specific things the delegate said or did that created that feeling.
For a salesperson, this is gold dust. How many potential buyers may have left their showroom holding a brochure, saying they’re ‘just looking’, when the truth was the salesperson kept looking over their shoulder or kept speaking over the end of that customer’s sentence? For many salespeople, a well executed roleplay training day can be an epiphany of huge proportion – and I have often had the satisfaction of hearing that a salesperson I roleplayed with is selling like never before. But sales training is only one application of many….
2. Roleplay for Conducting Job Interviews:-
This type is particularly popular in the Finance sector, where highly intelligent candidates perform brilliantly in interview only to be proven an expensive mistake once they’re hired. How can these mistakes be avoided? Roleplay!
The roleplayer is given a fictitious resume/CV and a collection of examples he/she can use to highlight a particular competence being sought, eg, leadership skills, influencing others etc. The delegate (often working as a pair with another) then begins the interview, rapport, niceties etc, and then asking about the resume, finally asking competency-based questions.
The danger that all interviewers face is making a snap judgement about the candidate early on, and then making all the subsequent responses ‘fit’ this pre-conceived notion of their suitability. The roleplayer will come across as affable, enthusiastic and highly employable – just like the expensive errors of the past! But in the competency questions the roleplayer will be deliberately evasive and hypothetical in their answers, trying to entrap the interviewer with their bonhomie.
So the detailed answers in the roleplayer’s head will only be given if the interviewer sees through that friendly veneer, and drills down the ‘funnel’, ie, a good, short, open question, followed by picking up on part of their response. If the delegate doesn’t drill down, the roleplayer will happily give them woolly answers all day. This is a great learning experience for the interviewer, and many poor recruitment decisions can be averted.
3. Roleplay for Appraisals and Disciplinaries:-
For these, the roleplayer becomes the ‘appraisee’, and will again give specific feedback on how they felt and what the delegate said or did to cause it.
The most common failing among delegates is to focus overly on the ‘tick-box’ task of delivering their own message, whilst appearing oblivious and often non-caring of any issues that are underpinning the appraisee’s performance or behaviour. Transmitting to the detriment if receiving is very common in roleplay exercises.
4. Roleplays for Conflict Management:-
The conflict can be about anything, but the failures and successes in this exercise – regardless of industry sector – have an uncanny resemblance to one another. The successful delegates focus on the issue fuelling the roleplayer’s extreme behaviour and allow the roleplayer to ‘blow off steam’. The unsuccessful delegates insist on challenging the behaviour itself, interrupting and trying to drown out the roleplayer – ending in fireworks.
In terms of Transactional Analysis, the successful delegate, when faced with ‘child’, will refuse to step into ‘parent’ mode and will stay resolutely in ‘adult’. It is hard for anyone to remain in ‘child’, when their ‘adult’ is being ‘hooked’ – ie being spoken to in calm rational tones. The roleplayer – like in reality – feels stupid if he/she remains petulant. However if the delegate’s ‘parent’ is successfully ‘hooked’ then shouting and behaving rudely feels frighteningly natural!
5. Forum Theatre:-
This is a popular format for using actors in the workplace, and delegates generally prefer it as it’s less exposing. This is a common set-up for it:-
A group of between 10 and 20 delegates watch a 3-5 minute scene performed by two roleplayers. This scene would usually contain some very poor practice from one of the roleplayers – let’s say a very poor handling of a ‘harassment in the workplace’ complaint. The scene would then restart in one of two ways……
a) The audience would stop the scene whenever poor practice occurs, and suggest a better thing for this roleplayer to say or do. The scene carries on until the audience collectively (in reality only the ‘activists’!) ‘iron out’ all the bad practice. It can create interesting debate as the audience often have wildly conficting views on what good practice is.
b)The scene restarts with an audience member taking the place of the roleplayer who’d been exhibiting poor practice. The audience then prompt their colleague through the scene. It is best to ‘tag’ – ie keep swapping the audience member in the hot seat. It keeps it fresh and generates the wonderful frisson in the room – ‘I hope it’s not me next!!’
The great thing about any Forum Theatre exercise is that you have the ability to ‘play with’ time. You can ‘rewind’ to the start whenever you like, or just to the moment before the delegate made that comment that started the roleplayer crying! The only thing you can’t do is fast forward to the end!
Corporate roleplay has been a blessing to me, giving me a priceless insight into what does and doesn’t work in the complex and fascinating world of Human interaction. But having been a ‘house guest’ in so many companies – copied into their most pressing and often confidential issues – it’s the similarities more than the differences that I’ve found the most intriguing.
So what are these core ‘soft’ skills that seem to always differentiate the good performers from the also-rans or the ‘must-do-betters’ in every area of business and most areas of life?
You will be amazed at how simple and even mundane they sound. But one thing they’re not is commonplace. The few that have and use all these skills are moving ahead, running companies, leading, inspiring, and empowering others. Think of someone you really enjoy being around. Bet they’ve got most of these…..
I cannot tell you how often I experience poor listening as a roleplayer. The most common reason is that the delegate is planning their next question while the roleplayer is talking. The vital clues behind the issue are missed, often because the most significant comment is at the end of the roleplayer’s sentence – just at the moment the delegate is drawing breath to deliver his/her pre-planned response.
SOLUTION: Listen intently to the other person, and ask your next question based on part of their response. You don’t need to be planning your next question, because the most important question of the moment will be obvious if you listen – especially to the last things they say. A throw-away comment at the end can be very revealing and can open up a whole new avenue of questioning.
2. ASKING ‘OPEN’ QUESTIONS
What is an ‘open’ question? Very simply, one that cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. A short, simple open question can elicit huge amounts of information when used. You’d be amazed at how seldom this is done well. Most questions I get are one of the following three types of ineffective questions….
a)‘Closed’ questions :- Now there are times when clarification is sought (often in a police or courtroom scenario) when a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is exactly what’s needed. Most times I get asked closed questions when they’re the opposite of what’s needed. A series of yes/no answers makes any conversation feel like an interrogation, and the questioner not only gets next to zero information, but they have to formulate their next question from a standing start. Avoid questions that begin ‘are you’, ‘did you’, ‘were you’ etc.
A classic mistake is to ruin a great open question by tagging a closed one at the end. The questioner believes wrongly that the two second silence following the question must mean the question was poor, so they try to ‘improve’ it. Here’s an example of the several thousand instances I’ve experienced:-
Q Which part of that project did you find the most challenging?.......(pause)
Was it the attitude of your colleagues?
Followed by silent, internal groan from roleplayer!
b)‘Leading’ questions:- These are questions, virtually always closed as well, that give the respondant a steer towards the answer desired, often used in poor interviewing.
Eg. Q ‘Did you run training sessions like seminars and workshops?’
Q ‘What sort?’
A ‘Well, seminars and workshops always worked well’
c) ‘Multiple-headed questions’:- Television and radio interviewers are often guilty of these, surprisingly. They are poor questions because you’ll only ever get an answer to one of them, usually the last (almost certainly ‘closed’) If you’d not bundled them together, you could have got all the information.
Eg. Q ‘So how are things going? Who have you met so far? Which of the sessions did you enjoy the most? Will you come back next year?
A ‘Oh yes.’
SOLUTION: Use short and simple open questions to enable the other person to talk. Whatever your agenda is, you’re moving closer to it when you’re listening – not when you’re talking. The best open questions begin with…
WHERE, HOW, WHEN, WHICH & WHAT.
Other great ones to use aren’t actually questions at all, but will give you 100 times the information that a closed question will….
‘TELL ME ABOUT…’
3. ‘DRILLING DOWN THE FUNNEL’
The term sounds a bit ‘Heavy Industry’, but anyone on their first date would do well to get good at this! The technique is all about following up a good open question with another question that is specifically about part or all of the other person’s response. The other person feels hugely appreciated if you do this because it shows
a) YOU LISTENED
b) YOURE TAKING AN INTEREST
That’s why I mentioned dates!
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this for a first date, (they’ll think you’re odd) but in a business setting it is both powerful and underused. How it feels for the other person when you summarise is that you listened, you want to reassure them that you’ve understood, and you mean to do something positive with this information.
5. USE OF SILENCE
Silence is the most underused ‘tool’ in Human interaction, and yet it ought to be the easiest to master, oughtn’t it? How difficult can it be to shut up? Very, it seems.
In sales roleplay, the silence after the closing question is sacrosanct. If this is ever flouted, there is a sharp gasp of astonishment from the watching peer group.
But the effective use of silence goes far further than the sales arena. After asking a good open question, the questioner MUST remain silent, so that the respondant has time to formulate their answer. If you talk over this because you can’t take the pressure, that moment and an element of trust is lost. The better the question, the more silence will follow it. DON’T TALK. They are feeling the weight of that silence too. You’ll get much further listening to them filling it than you doing so.
SO WHERE DOES ALL THIS GET US?
My experience with Corporate Roleplay has taught me that the basic building blocks of effective Human communication are within everyone’s grasp. You know the saying ‘common sense isn’t that common’? I feel that ‘soft’ skills are similar in that very few of the hundreds of people I’ve roleplayed with consistently use these skills, though ALL of them understand how effective they are. I’m usually not around in the aftermath to see if the penny really has dropped! I hope it has for many.
I’m reminded of an old saying – ‘to know and not to do is not to know’.