Stepping Up: The Value of Role-Playing, Part 2

By Ron Hiraki

In the last Stepping Up, we described how role-playing has been used and continues to be used in fire service training. This role-playing or training can be more effective and valuable when both procedural and interpersonal elements are practiced. The practice helps people overcome reservations, and members can practice different strategies. Experienced people should be available to give feedback. In this article, we will describe how to design and administer role-plays.

Designing Role-plays

Remember that role-playing requires two people. The person applying and delivering the information is the source; the person who wants or needs the information is the target. A common role-play scenario calls for a company officer to talk to a firefighter who needs to improve. In this case, the company officer would be the source and the firefighter would be the target.  

The design of role-plays can be so complex that the objective of the role-play, issues, facts, and attitude of the target are written down and discussed with either the source person or the target person. In some cases, scripts are prepared and the roles are rehearsed. When creating a role-play for a promotional exam, this effort is necessary to ensure a high degree of correctness, fairness, and consistency. In settings where the role-play is not scored, the design can be simple and still be effective. Putting brief notes about the objective, issues, facts, and attitude on a note card will ensure that the target person delivers the correct facts and stays focused. 

Here are some suggestions for designing role-plays.

1. Identify the specific roles to be played (e.g., firefighter and citizen, company officer and probationary firefighter, company officer and struggling firefighter, company officer and problem firefighter, chief officer and citizen with a complaint, chief officer and problem company officer, and so on).

2. Select an issue or a problem for the scenario by drawing from real-life experience. This could be tailored to your students, the fire department, or the community. The role-play scenario must be relevant and credible. Additionally, the scenario must be practical. The scenario must be one that can be appropriately handled by the source person. A role-play where the source is forced to say, "That's way above my pay grade" has little training value. 

3. Consider the value of doing several short role-plays (5 to 7 minutes) vs. one longer role-play (15 minutes). Shorter role-plays allow students to work the scenario twice and learn from their first experience or to switch roles.

4. If the students are more experienced (e.g., veteran fire officers), consider developing several scenarios of varying difficulty and complexity. Students could be given a choice of scenarios or begin with an easier situation and move up to a more involved one. Look for a point of conflict or difference, an area where both parties view the issue or problem from a different perspective. Interpersonal communications coaches refer to this conflict or difference as "the gap." Closing or reducing the gap is a common objective of role-plays.

5. Prepare an outline for each role-play and for the source person and the target person. Keep it short. Keep it readable. Keep it realistic and credible. Roles can be outlined on a note card, along with the objectives, issues, facts, and attitude. Some of the facts, attitude, or reaction need not be shared with the other role-player(s). This can make the role-play scenario more challenging and can illustrate if the source person can respond appropriately to various reactions by the target person.

Setting Up Role-plays

A role-play can be set up in a variety of ways. One person could be trained to play the role of the source or target and repeat his or her roles with a series of individuals. By doing so, the individuals have a chance to interact with the same character.

Two people could practice different approaches to the same scenario and switch between being the source person and the target person. Other people can rotate into the role-play using the knowledge they gained by watching the previous role-players.

Setting up the role-play may be enhanced by asking students to share real-life experiences related to the scenario. For example, prior to practicing a performance evaluation conference, a company officer may share that they once had a firefighter who was very defensive, angry at the comments and ratings, and who attempted to talk the company officer into changing the comments and ratings.

The most important factor is to set up the role-play so that participants know its relationship to the training or goal and purpose. Improper set-up can cause the participants to be confused and the make the time spent attempting a role-play feel as if the time were wasted. Unfortunately, this happens frequently, causing people to cringe when a "role-play practice" is announced. Depending on the role-play and personalities of the participants, role-play exercises can be entertaining, fun, serious, and enlightening.

Administering Role-plays

Role-playing should follow the instruction of the knowledge and skill so that the students can use or apply those knowledge and skills confidently. Don't allow students to "wing it" or "stumble" their way through a scenario.

Allow time for role-players to talk about what they were trying to accomplish and their strategy. This allows the students to understand each other's position, to develop empathy, to determine the level of assertiveness, and possibly change attitudes. Keep it general enough to avoid possible nit-picking or teasing.

Allow the instructors and other students to observe the student's knowledge, skill, and abilities; and then give feedback to the student role-players. The feedback allows the students to learn from the instructors and their peers.

In The Winning Trainer, Julius Eitington states, ". . . in the actual life situation we perform and behave, but rarely does anyone share their reactions about what we've done and how we can improve upon it."1 A well-executed role-play allows the role-players to share their reactions.

Role-play Is Training, Practice, and Builds Your Experience

Role-playing under the supervision of, or with, a knowledgeable and experienced fire officer can be great training and good practice. It some cases, it can even build your experience. Some people may argue that it is not real-life experience, but that is the value of training and role-playing. Learn and even make mistakes here instead of in real-life situations.

You can practice traditional role-play scenarios such as talking to a citizen unhappy with the fire department or talking to a subordinate about his ecent less than stellar work performance. You can think of role-play scenarios based on real-life situations in your fire department.

He table below presents some role-play scenarios you can try. The correct procedures are based on your fire department's standard operating procedures (SOPs) and culture. You colleagues can tell you if your interpersonal skills were effective.

Stepping Up: The Value of Role-Playing in the fire service

1 Eitington, Julius E. The Winning Trainer, Second Edition, Gulf Publishing Company, Houston, Texas. 1984. p 67.

Stepping Up: Ron HirakiRon Hiraki began his career as a firefighter in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions leading to his final assignment as assistant chief of employee development. Completing his career as an assistant chief for a small combination fire department, Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. He holds a Master of Science degree in human resources development, and is a consultant to number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs.

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