Role Playing or “Real Playing?”

Recently I received a very generous offer from Georgetown University–the place I attended for my Coaching Certification–to return as a mentor coach for an upcoming cohort. It brought to mind my own experiences going through the program, and, in particular, the role playing that we did as part of our education. At the time we thought of it as role playing, but now, as I work with my own clients (and with peers in a continuing education setting), I realize that it wasn’t (and isn’t) so much “role playing” as it is “real playing.”

What do I mean by “real playing?”  In real playing people bring themselves into the exercise rather than choosing to wear the persona of a hypothetical character.  The problems stay real, the outlook is current and the investment is true.  In this way the participants never have to completely step outside of themselves, but can, instead, treat the interaction as a chance for true growth–even though the purpose may be one of education or training.  Real playing to me is a very special kind of interaction, one that is vastly richer than traditional role playing.  It has the quality of true emotion that role playing simply doesn’t have.

But real playing is more than just that.  It requires that each participant step outside his or herself and act also as an observer of the interaction, to objectively (and even a bit dispassionately) assess what is happening as the conversation occurs.  It then involves a review of the conversation–again objectively–to understand what happened: what was learned, what responses were left unsaid, what emotions were felt, etc., all with the hope that those involved will get better at what they do in the coaching environment.

For me, real playing started out as an educational exercise.  However, as I think more about it and explore it’s potential, it is fast becoming a wonderful tool that I use when coaching;  Since real playing requires each individual to be both participant and observer, it has become a fantastic way to teach how to become what Chalmers Brothers describes as “a more competent, more powerful, observer of yourself.”  People learn by watching themselves and each other with an analytical mind, paying close attention so as to give true and valued feedback. It’s a difficult thing to do, this “splitting” of yourself. You must be authentic in two ways, both as participant and as a giver of feedback.  To do so you must observe yourself and others but not let those observations color the truth of your interactions.

I find myself more and more looking to “real playing” both as a way to improve myself and as a coaching technique.  It allows all of us to learn to be both participant and observer, a key element of personal growth.  Yet, unlike role playing we can all remain authentic to the true spirit of the interaction.

I’d be very interested to know what others think.  Is this an idea that resonates with you, either as coach or as client?