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Role play and realism in forming new habits

What are you like with role playing? How do you feel on team building days or other similar activities when an enthusiastic tutor invites you to stand up and play a role that is unnatural (perhaps) to you. Many years ago I used to hate the prospect of performance but for a long time now I have been something of an enthusiast. In my coaching practice I often encourage my clients to play roles as a means of exploring the different perspectives that different people might have about a particular scenario. Occasionally there has been reticence and I have sometimes not been able to find the language to reduce the sense of risk and increase the sense of purpose.

That search for the right language led me to reading Cathy Salit’s excellent book Performance Breakthrough on using improvisation methods in coaching. She describes her ‘Becoming Principle’ in which she encourages people to practice ‘becoming who they are not…….yet’. She talks eloquently about how we are performers in plays of our own making and we have the ability to change our performance. As children we do it all the time while our capacity to do so reduces over time as we take on and adhere to the more singular characterisation of our adult life. I can’t do Cathy’s work justice here so do have a look at her book.

I just want to focus on one of the things she talks about; encouraging people to give a performance ‘as if they were <fill in the blank>’. A shy person might be encouraged to give a performance of a confident public speaker, a person without faith might perform as if belief was in their very core, a anxious person perform as if chilled out. The opportunities for using this in coaching are endless provided that the client is comfortable with the prospect of playing their role and in doing so will manage to advance their personal cause.

While reading the book I was became aware that I was not perhaps testing the Becoming Principle on myself. What roles and behaviours did I want to change? Given that I was reading the book while on holiday in Spain I thought to try out a couple of roles and see if I, any my wife, noted any difference. The first was to behave ‘as if I found it easy to relax and do nothing’. The reason for doing this is that over many years I have created my own narrative that if I am not busy then I am not doing anything of value. This clearly misses the simple point that we need to rest to be at our best when it matters. I get that, yet still typically I want to fill every day of any holiday with an itinerary of worthy activity. In my holiday world there always needs to be a plan.

However, on this occasion I sat myself on the casting couch and gave myself some serious performance direction. I was not allowed to ask questions that began with ‘what are we going to do……?’. If I started to get fidgety I would consciously encourage myself to relax and was reminded to do so by the sign saying ‘RELAJANTE’ on the fridge door. Finally, I did not allow myself to look back at a day that lacked a focal point of activity and immediately be inclined to dismiss it as an opportunity lost!

Day 1 was a challenge and I was very conscious of the considerable effort I needed to put in to keep to my new role. Day 2 was easier, day 3 more so and I came to the point amazingly quickly where I learned for myself the value of relaxation, the importance of not being on the go 24/7. I learned, or returned to my consciousness, the fact that appearing to do nothing has its own purpose and it was a good choice to make in this context. I learned a good deal from doing this and reminded myself what can be achieved by experimentation and how practicing a new, more valuable habit is of value to me as well as my coachees. Not only did I notice, my wife did too and was wise enough to leave me to it until the time came for me to ‘fess up’.

The second role I tried out led to an experience that was equally positive yet which had a cautionary element to it too. I decided to play a role ‘as if I could speak Spanish well’. The context to this is that I have a good understanding of vocabulary and grammar and can read books and newspapers in Spanish reasonable quickly. I can concoct the most beautifully crafted sentence with all the right pronunciation and emphasis… my head. I can even speak it…..even to a Spaniard. Occasionally I do. Then I feel obliged to pause in expectation of some form of celebration, a fanfare, and ecstatic hug or a big bonhomie slap on the back as reward for my prowess. Of course when I get it right, and I normally do if I get my sentence in first, the fact I got it right is their norm and there is no need for celebration. So what happens is our neighbours listen carefully, give nothing away with body language but they indicate understanding by doing that fairly common thing in everyday conversation. They reply. At that point the realities about my role play hit home. As I stumble around trying to find the perfect formulation for my reply I become confused, frustrated and then downright angry that I cannot play this role.

It took only a few repeats of this ‘scene’ for me to know that I have done that foolish thing when you ask too much of yourself, or others. It was something that I am very mindful of when engaging clients in role play. I make sure that they are comfortable to engage with the role, are committed to fulfilling that role, and have the tools to reach the proficiency they desire. I had all of these, apart from the last. What I actually needed to do was to be able to do the best that I could, and to be happy that I was doing so. So I changed my role to one where I behaved ‘as if I was happy to speak Spanish just as well as I was able to’. It did not make me a linguist but it did ensure I gave it my best shot, and enjoyed what I did achieve, rather than be annoyed about what I did not. So my three reflections on this are that (i) role play is good experimentation for exploring your thinking and being (ii) the role needs to be aspirational yet within reach using existing skills and (iii) I need to invest much more time speaking and listening to Spanish if I wish to be more fluent!

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