Monday, August 26, 2013

Insecurity 105 - Growth through role play

The Art of Role Play

We've all been in a situation at work, where we've had a conversation that's gone really bad, and it churns over and over in our mind for days and weeks afterwards as we sketch out all the things we would have liked to say.

In my book, The Elf Who Learned How To Test, I put one of the elves – Magnus – under duress in a conversation with management which goes badly.  The conversation troubles him considerably, and he ends up revisiting it a lot.  So much so that when he's in a similar position later on, he's thought through the conversation, and handles it much better.

Experience is a great teacher – we are put into scenarios which don't go brilliantly, and we learn to handle them better though internal retrospection and trying things differently.  Hopefully there are people who can guide us and we can learn from, and we're never put into a career-ending position.  But it's always a risk.

What if there was a way to get the experience, without the career-ending jeopardy?  Oh wait … there is …welcome to role play.

Here when I talk about role play, I'm talking about the acting technique over the Dungeons and Dragons game variety when you use dice and magic spells.

I spoke a little about acting techniques when I talked about my friend Michael Powell, and our drama group, A Flash Of Inspiration.  The core idea of role play is that you're put into a scenario, and have to act out your responses.  But the scenario is played out with a coach or mentor in a safe, private environment, and you get to analyse your responses.

As such, role play is a great way to get experience of scenarios, and explore some of the things we'd say when under duress.  However a lot of people have difficulty getting into the spirit of it – it feels (even to actors such as myself) a little silly and awkward at first.  Last week at STANZ I got to join in with Matt Heusser in an exercise with an element of role-play, and got a little too into character – but it was interesting to see how my test team would respond to questions and scenarios from me as  a “head of software development”.

Here are a few pieces I've learned when I need to role play to prepare someone …

Keep it safe, keep it secret

Book a room on another floor if possible that no-one can see into and wonder “what are they up to?” - you don't need distractions.  What happens in the role play session needs to stay in the role play session – it needs a level of trust.

Differentiating between you talking as a coach and talking as a character

Watching Matt at STANZ, he would often have to make a point of saying “I'm coming out of character to tell you this ...”.  It helps to have a very visual distinction.  I sometimes like to wear a cap as a mentor, and take it off to play the character, so it's very clear who I'm talking as at any point in time.  It also means the coachee in the role play can ask you to put the coach cap back on if they need help.

This may seem all very wishy-washy, but it helps for the person you're coaching to know who you are playing at any given time.

Give the coachee options

Much like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, give the coachee a couple of lifelines.  These help if it's getting a bit too intense, and they need help.  Remember role playing has to happen in a safe environment – it is without doubt the most important thing.  The coachee needs to feel stretched and a bit out of their comfort zone, but feeling actual duress can be unhelpful.

A couple of standard ones I use,

  • Timeout – simply that they want to pause for a moment because it's getting too intense.
  • Cap on - asking me to put the coaches cap back on, and break out of character to give advice.
  • Swapsies – to be used occasionally, but it allows the two of you to swap roles for a while, so they can see how you would react to such questioning


Don't just do the role play exercise – go through what you've done together.  Pick out the bits they did well, point out any glaring mistakes, and explore possible better alternatives to handle what was thrown at them.

Does it help?

It certainly does, the more you practice certain scenarios, the more you're able to give sensible answers under duress.  Through similar role play with test mentors I've had, I learned to handle questions about defects from management better, and it became the Teatime With Testers article, “Understanding the defect mindset”.  Indeed some of those questions are excellent to use in a first role play if you so desire.

Likewise, in my Rapid Software Testing course, I got to work through an amazing role play with James Bach with tested and stretched me considerably.  The more you practise such scenarios, the more natural and fluid your answers will be, and the less you'll be heading home going “I wish I'd said ...”.

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