Fear Factor
Posted on April 16th, 2014

by Elizabeth McCallum


When new participants come to us for their roleplay practice, we know we are facing a reluctance to change from a couple of different perspectives. First, change, of any type is hard. Research tells us that one in nine people will not change their lifestyle choices after open heart bypass surgery. It is often the case that our participants are eager to practice and convert the knowledge they’ve obtain from a workshop or e-learning but we know that it will still be a challenge for them. Second, almost everyone hates roleplaying. Roleplaying done poorly, which it is in most workshops, can be embarrassing and generally has little value.

The reason is simple: in a workshop, the content is new to those roleplaying.  No one is an expert at demonstrating the content, nor are they expert at delivering feedback on it.  To address reluctance, we spend time at the beginning of the first call with participants to ease them into the process of learning. Participants are given explicit instructions about what they are to face, including ways in which to prepare themselves, and still we witness anxiety until the first scenario is underway. Why do we all face this apprehension when it comes to something new?

It is so easy to judge with just our words, even if they’re meant to be kind: She’s nice, he’s a jerk, you didn’t listen, they’re pretty good… In his book, Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg states that we have been brought up with the concept of judging everything – as good, bad, right, wrong, etc. – and to attach appropriate consequences to that – if you’re good, you deserve to be rewarded, if you’re bad, you deserve to be punished. So when it comes to facing a roleplay, one of the most basic emotions is the fear of being judged – and perhaps found wanting.

My colleagues and I encounter new participants every day and I am always impressed by their skills in using rapport to establish a relationship.  Able to build a connection within just a few minutes, this skill is most evident when faced with the reticent participant. I can’t hear the participant on the other end of the line, but I can hear their coach’s words and nuances, and can always recognize the moment when understanding is reached, fears allayed, and there is an agreement to move forward together.

The coaches instinctively identify the basic needs that must be met in their participant, such as a need for respect. By understanding that this need is important, they offer what Dr. Rosenberg terms “Compassionate Giving;” they strive to meet that need. The participant is paraphrased and empathized with, and as a result of feeling heard and understood, trust is built. The roleplay can then proceed, offering benefit to both coach and participant through the ability to give and the ability to learn. 

So while we can’t avoid the anticipated nightmare of having to roleplay before a packed room of peers and bosses, we can address it with empathy and paraphrasing, and above all, with compassion.

Elizabeth has been a coach with e-roleplay since 2004. She is also an actor, costume designer, writer, copyeditor, landlord and entrepreneur.

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