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Is this the world’s most effective role play?

When it comes to your training participants, two of the dirtiest, or perhaps scariest, words you can say during a session may be: role play. In today's podcast, John Crook, Head of Learning at Intersol Global, offers some thoughts on how to make role plays more authentic and robust.
John Crook on role play

John Crook is the Head of Learning at Intersol Global. In his role, he needs to train people on how to conduct investigative interviews and he works with a number of finance organizations as well as law enforcement. It’s pretty important that the people who leave his training can effectively conduct these interviews – a lot of money, or even people’s lives, could be on the line.

Practicing these interviews is an essential component for his training programs, but your run-of-the-mill role play certainly wouldn’t do the trick for such a sensitive and crucial skill. So how does he get people to practice? And what lessons might you be able to take and bring into your own practice or role play scenarios? John shares his thoughts in this week’s podcast.

Introduction 

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I’m your host. I’m also the Co-founder of an instructional design company called Endurance Learning, and today I am joined by John Crook, who is the Head of Learning at Intersol Global. We’re going to talk to him in just a minute about role play scenarios and the role that paid actors might be able to play in a training program.

But before we get to any of that, I’m going to let you know that today’s podcast is brought to you by Soapbox, which is an online tool that you can use for about 5 or 10 minutes, and you can take care of about 50 or 60% of the work when it comes to developing a live, instructor-led training. So basically, you go in, you tell the computer how long your presentation is, how many people will attend, whether it’s in-person or virtual, what your learning objectives are, and then Soapbox will instantly generate a training plan for you with clusters of training activities that are designed to help you accomplish what it is that you set out to achieve. If you want more information, or if you want to try it for free for two weeks, go ahead and visit www.soapboxify.com.

Okay. I’m here with John Crook, the Head of Learning at Intersol Global. Thank you for joining us, John.

John Crook: The pleasure’s mine, Brian. Thank you for having me.

Brian Washburn: I’m excited for this conversation. We spoke a little while ago and I was like, “Ooh, that would be really cool to bring into a podcast because”– well, I’m just going to let you actually kind of paint a picture for the audience about the kind of work that you do at Intersol Global, and more specifically, why would someone hire you to do some training for them?

John Crook: Yeah, so Intersol Global was formed in 2013 working with global banks, assisting the auditors in how best to manage audit meetings on difficult conversations. So how to ask difficult questions and how to obtain evidence or information as ethically as possible. So Intersol Global starts off as a training company. So we train something called investigative interviewing, which is based in psychology, and it’s a way of, what is sometimes described in a lot of the areas that we work in across different sectors, as soft skills. So some of the listeners might recognize them as soft skills, how to interact with other human beings. We specialize in that area to obtain information in a timely manner, effectively and ethically working through those different areas that we work in. So we’re a small company. We’ve–there’s about 45 employees. So we’re a small company based in the UK, and we specialize in different areas, but mainly around investigative interviewing.

Using Role Play With Actors to Develop Communication Skills

It's talking to people, it's interviewing, it's trying to listen for, not just what the person's saying, but maybe what they're not saying.

Brian Washburn: And it’s interesting that you kind of describe your core focus as soft skills, right? It’s talking to people, it’s interviewing, it’s trying to listen for, not just what the person’s saying, but maybe what they’re not saying. And trying to determine, you know, is what’s happening or is what I’m being told is it truthful? Is it honest? And one of the things I find so fascinating about your training is that in order to do this, you bring in paid actors for certain elements of your training programs. Can you share a little bit about what the actors bring to a training session that you can’t simply do through role play between two training participants? Or even a role play where a participant would come up and you know, speak to you as a facilitator?

John Crook: Yeah, so it’s an area that we’ve developed, Brian, about two years ago, probably forced into it with COVID. And obviously, like I’m sure a lot of businesses across different areas were struggling with COVID and how best to create a bit of a unique point for ourselves, we felt that it would be worth exploring bringing in actors to create as live a possible situation as we can. Because like you say, it’s not the skills that we teach or develop are not simply about asking questions. It’s not simply about listening to a story, although human beings are storytellers, and we will utilize some of that as we go through the training.

What they brought is a reality to our training.

So we found that using role play could sometimes create a situation where people were with another delegate, either too helpful or not helpful enough, or unrealistic. So we brought in actors. We were really fortunate to come across a young man who he’s got lots of contacts with young actors– and actors I say “young,” I don’t mean in age, but in experience. So we’ve– one of our actors has appeared on a soap opera here in the UK, so he’s been on TV. We’ve had no film stars as yet. So what they brought is a reality to our training. So we were able to brief them to follow a brief getting to role effectively and play that part as real as possible.

There are some downsides to it, but we have found that the delegates themselves—the attendees of our courses—have found real value to having this real person playing the part of the interviewee.

Because we certainly found that there is lots of theory and we do have lots of theoretical, didactic sessions and lots of exploring with tabletop exercises, so, best to do this. But it’s such a practical skill that we felt that we needed to add that extra dimension, if you like. It did cause us some issues. We’ve got to say that from a training manager’s perspective, that’s caused us some issues using actors. There’s a cost implication, obviously. There’s logistical issues around it. In this type of scenario where we are chatting, Brian, now online through Zoom or something similar, we could manage it. But actually going out onto locations became more difficult. So there are some downsides to it, but we have found that the delegates themselves—the attendees of our courses—have found real value to having this real person playing the part of the interviewee.

Brian Washburn: I was going to ask, you know, what is the reaction of the participants or the attendees when you say, “All right, now we’re going to practice, but we’re not actually going to do role play?” I mean, if somebody was to say that in a training, I’m sure everyone would be like, “We don’t have to do role play!” But we’re bringing in actors, so we’re going to actually simulate the situation. What’s the difference that you found between the attendees just doing like a typical role play where it’s an attendee-to-attendee and working with actors who have been kind of given personas that they take on?

John Crook: So, we have to be very careful from a trainer perspective. So like yourself, Brian, experienced in training, experienced in making the safe learning environments for delegates. You have to be really clear that this is going to happen through the training. So on a joining instruction situation in those initial contacts with the company– and we mainly work with companies, although we do have a small amount of individuals who come through our website to just do it individually. Mostly it’s companies, so we have to be very careful and explain it. And you do get exactly like you’ve identified from your experience, Brian, the initial, you know, “I’m glad I don’t have to do role play” because it’s not everybody’s thing. Although, some people really do enjoy. Then to the realization that, “Oh goodness, this is another person who’s going to be interviewing that I don’t know. So I have to go through all the formal rapport building, getting to– demonstrating to this person that I can be trusted and that I can deal with it.”

You've got to be very careful and really clear about the instructions to the learners so that they can maximize what they're going to obtain from the session.

Some of our training was quite sensitive, so we deal with some sensitive issues of misconduct in a workplace or in an establishment. So some of those are more sensitive than others. So sometimes it’ll be a financial matter, sometimes it’ll be a more personal matter, depending on the client. It’s so refreshing to hear from you the identification of what was the issue. And I would say that to anyone listening to considering with actors, you’ve got to be very careful and really clear about the instructions to the learners so that they can maximize what they’re going to obtain from the session.

How Can You Raise the Quality of Role Plays With a Limited Budget?

Brian Washburn: And so for those who are listening who are thinking, “Man, if I had an unlimited budget, I’d absolutely bring actors into programs too. But I don’t have an unlimited budget, so I’m left to do a role play. What advice might you offer to raise their quality of effective role play activities? Like what’s your secret sauce? What makes the actors so effective, and what might people be able to do if they don’t quite have the budget to bring in actors to make their role plays more effective?

John Crook: So I’ll deal with it in two different sides, Brian. So with the actors, you’re going to be really fortunate to be able to engage with something that is affordable. So we over here in the UK, I’m sure there’s something similar, there’s a rate at which actors under their equity rules, I think, which is like the union for for actors in the UK and Europe, actually. We haven’t used them in North America, but we have flown actors across to a different part of Europe to utilize those skills.

Ultimately, being confident enough that if something goes slightly wrong in the role play to just call a timeout, stop the situation, reset everyone.

So they have a rate, but it’s about clear instructions for the actors. So it’s about investing your time as the trainer to write clear roles about what you want them to do and step by step as it goes through, so create the persona of the person. So what I learned from doing that with actors and briefing them directly is the confidence to directly instruct delegates and what you want them to do and how you want them to do it. And ultimately, being confident enough that if something goes slightly wrong in the role play to just call a timeout, stop the situation, reset everyone. Make sure, even if you have to take the actor out to– so it can break down, it could be laughter, it could be people drying up – they don’t know what to ask. So all those things, I think, it’s the confidence of you as the lead trainer and recognize it.

Actually, one of the things that we talk a lot about in our training, because it’s those soft skills, is that if you consider a position of hierarchy, if I’m interviewing someone who’s reporting a misconduct in a workplace, certainly as an external person out of the workplace or a manager, I sit in a position of hierarchical dominance with that individual. So we talk a lot about that and how that might influence the situation. So we can utilize that hierarchy to make sure we clearly instruct the person who’s role playing and it’s not to– I’m trying not to use too many kind of local colloquialisms here from the UK, but “wooly” if that means anything, right? So a bit too not clear enough with your instructions. And that would be what I would say in role plays that our experience is you’ve got to be really clear, set some really firm guidance and rules around the part, and be careful about what kind of role plays you’re asking them to do. So we work, for example, some of our work is around sexual misconduct, and that’s a very difficult thing to ask, another delegate to talk about. You’ve gotta consider about people’s lived experiences and all those areas. So sensitive, thoughtful control.

With the actors and the cost perspective, we found that by utilizing actors, early career actors, they love the experience.

With the actors and the cost perspective, we found that by utilizing actors, early career actors, they love the experience. They’re able to build their own– they call them show reels here in the UK- where we can recall the situations and they can use them on those show reels. So they’re developing their own career and learning. So they get as much outta of our training as we get from them really. And we utilize– we use a recording we work in partnership with a company –called Indico who are a Scandinavian company who do a lot of the recording solutions for workplace interviews or law enforcement interviews or anything like that. So their company might be recognized by some of people listening to this over in the United States. And they offer a recording solution on an iPhone or a tablet, and we find that by recording the situation, we can give the person self-reflection learning, and we have vicarious tasks for the observers. So, yeah.

It’s demanding for you as a trainer because you’ve gotta be on it all the time. You’re not sending people away to do 20-minute exercises and you can just go and visit them as they’re going through it. You’ve gotta be really thoughtful, maximize the learning. So I feel that I’m really fortunate, as a training manager of our company, that we can utilize actors to maximize that learning. But equally have experienced, from a cost perspective, sometimes from clients where we use other delegates to role play, and that’s been my learning, is that real clear guidance about what you want people to do when they’re working with you.

Effective Role Play Sessions – 3 Key Tips 

Brian Washburn: Yeah, I heard you’ve mentioned three things here. I heard you mention the clear guidance, and it’s interesting, one of the things when we do role play, we’ll give guidance to both parties in the role play, right? So the person who’s supposed to be practicing the skill, but also the person who is kind of in the “actor” role, right? So they have some clear guidance as well. And we also will sometimes say, “Hey, don’t actually give them this information unless they ask the right questions. Or don’t say this unless they ask the right questions.”

The two other things I heard you mention was it’s okay to stop the role play in the middle.

John Crook: Yeah.

Brian Washburn: And reset if it seems to go off the rails or if it’s going in the wrong direction or if it’s not accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, stop it. Reset it, right? That’s what practice is for. And the third thing I heard you mention is recording. And we’ve found that by recording scenarios, the participants will take it much more serious, and then they can actually see themselves in action afterwards so that any feedback that they get, they can compare that feedback to the video. And it’s super helpful, because it’s really easy to say, “Okay. Thank you for that feedback. I don’t think I say ‘are’ so much or I don’t think that I was asking the wrong questions.” Whatever. When you see it in the video, the video doesn’t lie. So I think that those were kind of three big takeaways that I heard you mentioned.

If things go a little bit awry, there might be something that happens in that role play that is just a real opportunity for learning objectives and maximizing.

John Crook: I think it’s really important to learn around role plays. You’re absolutely right. From your experience and anyone working in this area, don’t forget both parties or all three people, if you’ve got three people role playing, you know, in different areas. Or maybe a note taker or a minute taker is in there as well to make it real for the learners, Yeah, absolutely, make sure that you are clear with everyone around what you want them to do. And equally as well, like you said, if things go a little bit awry, there might be something that happens in that role play that is just a real opportunity for learning objectives and maximizing. And you might even stop it for something that’s just really excellent work that you just want to flag up to everyone.

Brian Washburn: John Crook, Head of Learning at Intersol Global. Thank you so much for giving us some time just to hear about how you bring in paid actors in order to practice some very, very specific skills that a typical role play may not actually be as effective in using. So John, thank you for your time.

Thank you everyone else for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen. If you know somebody who might find today’s topic on creating realistic simulations and role play scenarios to be important, go ahead and pass along a link to this podcast. If you want to be notified of a new podcast when it’s hot off the press, go ahead and subscribe at Apple or Spotify, wherever you listen to podcasts. Even better would be if you give us a review of the podcast or give us a like. And if you’re interested in learning more about a broad range of learning and development strategies, including role play and why it might be a radioactive element, you can pick up a copy of What’s Your Formula? Combine Learning Elements for Impactful Training at www.amazon.com. That was written by yours truly.

Until next time, happy training.

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