NOURISHING ROLES: Effective Role Training in Organizational Settings

Poorly executed roles can stifle a group’s creativity, raise anxiety and lower
safety in training sessions. This workshop demonstrates several concrete
principles for creating successful role training vignettes. From initially engaging
your group to navigating responsible closure, we will learn and practice effective
tools for action-based role training. Use of action structures can increase interest and engagement during your lectures or seminars. This workshop is appropriate to anyone interested in incorporating action methods to energize their presentations.

JL Moreno, the father of psychodrama and sociometry, frequently reminded
people, “The body remembers what the mind forgets.” Clinically this helps to
explain trauma responses and flashbacks. It also acknowledges how information
learned in action can be more easily retained. In a business setting, adding
action to presentations or seminars can enhance people’s learning and offer
opportunities to practice new behaviors in a structured, safe setting.

Many individuals have experienced poorly executed role play in classes, retreats
or seminars. Frequently, there is minimal preparation or engagement,
inadequate closure, or unnecessary clutter that confuses, rather than clarifies the learning objectives. This workshop is designed to offer concrete steps to
facilitate proficient role training in your presentations.

Having roots in psychodrama, we will utilize both specific language from
Moreno’s teaching and identify parallels to business/organizational situations.

One of Moreno’s key insights was that people were not resistant. He believed
they were either not properly warmed-up or were warmed-up to a different issue. We can consider this in terms of an individual’s engagement in an organization. When an issue is not well-received, consider whether people had sufficient time and opportunity to become engaged. Often when an organization makes abrupt changes, reactions occur because people did not have time to warm-up, to adjust or feel involved in these transitions.

In your presentations, are participants known to each other or are individuals
meeting for the first time? What common threads connect the members? In
psychodrama, this is ‘sociometry’ - the measuring of our social choices and
connections. Sociometry identifies the level and type of cohesion in
interpersonal settings. Psychodrama offers several tools for assessing and
improving these dynamics. This workshop will apply sociometric tools that
support cohesion and participation during role training modules.

When group members are unfamiliar with one another, time spent in building
cohesion will typically result in more focused, productive sessions. Often,
workshops involve an “Ice breaker.” Generic icebreakers tend to fall short. An
effective warm-up engages participants while directing them towards your
intended goals.

There are some simple structures to begin engaging individuals. Utilizing action
can raise energy and combat lethargy or indifference. We will experience a few
examples of activities that increase involvement.

In psychodrama, we frequently refer to these as spectrograms’.

One obstacle to effective problem solving is all-or-nothing thinking. Using
spectrograms is a simple action structure that identifies the shades of grey.
Begin by delineating a line on the floor. This can be a curved line or angled
along the walls, depending on your space. Identify a clear description of each
end of the continuum, and ask everyone to stand and place themselves wherever
they see themselves along this line. Have them explain their reasons for this
position with one or two individuals standing nearby. This check-in both
assesses the accuracy of their position and begins making connections with
others with a similar perspective. As facilitator, keep both sides positive. If the
choice is “I am totally dedicated to my job” and “I am apathetic about work” there will be strong external pressure to stand at the dedicated side. The group and facilitator will then lose valuable information. Instead, identify another positive value such as: “I have a number of strong outside interests, such as my family, church, health and self-care.”

In addition to participants sharing with someone nearby, you can ask a few
people along the continuum to make a statement to the whole group about their
choice. This brings data to the whole group and can develop additional common
ground. If someone is standing in a zone by themselves, ask if anyone in the
group identifies with that area on the continuum, thereby supporting an otherwise isolated individual.

Circle Sociometry
This is a warm-up that gets people moving and helps to identify both common
ground and differences. Members stand in a large circle. One person steps into
the circle and says “Who like me ______. “ They then give a criteria. The only
stipulation is that this criterion needs to apply to the person naming it. This
prevents voyeurism. The leader can begin, and if you have an assistant or a
colleague, have them further model the warm up. Criteria will emerge from the
group, and people are reminded to practice self-care-- if someone does not feel
safe identifying in with a criteria, they have that option. Just remind participants that when you identify with someone, you’re valuing and reinforcing the initial person’s risk-taking. In addition to warming up a group, the various criteria gives data indicating the participants level of safety. Do they remain with innocuous criteria: “Who like me: wears glasses, has a pet, speaks two languages?” Are members taking more risks: “Who like me: has been divorced, lost someone to COVID, is LGBTQ, grew up in an alcoholic home?”

Speed Sharing
In groups with few previous connections, a lack of warm up could result in
disjointed participation. Conversely, if you have each individual introduce
themselves, it can deflect considerable time from the goals of the session and
frequently becomes tedious. Rather than falling into either extreme, this is an
action structure that allows participants to make a few brief connections in a short time frame.

Have individuals form dyads. Tell them they will share their name with their
partner and respond to a specific criterion. They will have one minute. When
time is called, each individual is to rapidly find a new partner and wait; there will
be another criterion given. If someone does not have a partner, instruct them to
hold up their hand so that people are quickly paired. You can call time with a
chime, taping on a water glass, etc. Begin with fairly innocuous sharing. You can
gradually bring in criteria that relate to the goals of your presentation

An example of a sequence might be:

  • Share your name and a favorite book or movie.
  •  Share your name and one reason for being at this seminar.
  •  Share your name and a goal for the next year.
  •  Share your name and a strength you bring to your job.
  •  Share your name and a goal/hope you have for our organization.

By doing a series of 3-5 of these, individuals can form connections with a few
individuals in less than 8 minutes. The result is a more cohesive group. By
keeping the time to one minute, people are unlikely to become anxious about
maintaining lengthy conversations or pressured to reveal deeply.

Three Sentence Stories

Another way to keep introductions brief and focused in smaller groups is to ask
people to introduce themselves in three simple sentences (no stringing several
phrases using ‘ands’ buts’ or semi-colons.) One sentence is your name and then
just two more. Encourage the members to give one group clap at the third
sentence and move on to the next person... "My name is Steve. I’m in the group to learn what the hell ‘role training’ is. When this workshop is over, I will play with my dogs." ( ! Clap ! )

Asking for a volunteer to take on a role without any warm-up risks either inhibiting people or having a narcissist dominate a role. There are steps to avoid these consequences and create an effective role training:

-Be clear on your objective: Is it training for interacting with difficult customers?  Does it involve appropriate boundaries in the workplace? Are people improving assertiveness skills? Overtly identifying a concrete focus helps in planning the role training as well as supporting those who take active roles.

-Don’t make one person responsible for the role:  Asking one individual to
become the aggressive client or the confused coworker both puts pressure on
that person and allows others to become less engaged. Bypass this by having
the group collectively develop these roles. Collaboratively creating a role
engages more participants. You can start with a volunteer or begin developing a
role and then ask someone to step into this position. While others brainstorm
attributes, be clear these are options for the individual taking the role, not
demands. Otherwise there is a risk someone could ‘set up’ the person taking the
role. From the group’s created pool of characteristics, the individual can choose
qualities that seem applicable and ones they are willing to assume.

-As facilitator, you can question the group to generate ideas for developing the specific role:  Keep the primary focus on the goals of the assigned role. Ask
questions that flesh out the role: “How old is this person? How long has this person worked here/been our customer? What are their interactions like with other staff? Have there been similar dynamics in the past?” You can also ask
basic questions regarding this individual’s age, gender, ethnic or racial
background. By listening to the suggestions from the group, some of their
concerns will be voiced, regardless of whether they are overtly incorporated into
this specific role.

-There is no need to maintain one individual in a role training vignette: Someone might not be effective in a specific role. There might be additional perspectives from the larger group that surface only when roles are fluid.

Some specific techniques that can enrich role training sessions:

  • Hold and process: When a key learning point occurs, ask those in the
    role training to “Hold” or “Pause”. This gives the group opportunities to
    discuss key points, engaging and eliciting feedback from those in the
    observing role. In a stuck moment, the group can brainstorm options.
  •  Step In: You can pause the action and ask the audience for alternative
    ways to handle a situation. When someone suggests an option, invite that
    person to step into the role and demonstrate their response.
  •  Tag Team role training: A variation on the above, create an expectation
    that anyone in the active roles can step out; at that point another person is asked to step in.
  • Split Screen: Set up two or more separate chairs. Each chair represents a different approach to the dynamic being addressed.
  • Worst Case scenario: This is both a fun and effective technique when people feel pressured to ‘do it right’ - as if there is only one solution. This can be done as a prelude to appropriate role training or to intervene if a vignette is becoming stuck. Audience members step up or speak from their chairs, verbalizing the worst possible responses to the situation being demonstrated. If someone comes up with a creative ‘awful’ response,acknowledge that and ask, “Can anyone top that?” This can bring in humor and lighten a difficult topic. An additional advantage is that subsequent efforts at an appropriate solution appear more reasonable.
  • Set clear time boundaries: If there is a tight schedule for the role training part of your presentation, announce that at the beginning. That allows all participants to know their time allotment.

Keep to the goals: Often people feel they need to bring a clear conclusion to a
role training. If the goal was achieved, wrap it up! Save the dramatic
denouement for the movies and theater. Sometimes learning points are lost
when the story is dragged out.

Individuals take a role for the benefit of their group or organization; it is a gift. Be respectful. Those individuals need to be acknowledged as themselves, and
given an opportunity to let go of any parts of their role that don’t pertain to them.  This applies to everyone but is particularly important for those who assume more challenging roles. Neglecting to de-role an individual playing the difficult client or the intrusive coworker affects not only that individual but unconsciously affects how others perceive them. They risk being scapegoated or labeled. This, in turn, makes future role trainings less safe for everyone.

There are a number of simple steps to help an individual let go of their roles in a
training vignette:

An individual can be asked to introduce themselves and name one way they are
different from that role: “I’m not Hannibal Lector. I’m Steve Kopp and I enjoy biking.” If the individual is familiar with the group, you can ask members to share one way the individual is nothing like the role. For darker, more difficult roles, it helps to generate two or three ways they are distinct from the role they played.


  •  Remind the participants that those taking on roles are giving of themselves to help the group learn and practice skills. It is important to respect boundaries. While people can talk about their own experiences,
    don’t gossip about things that others say.
  •  Work from the periphery to the core. In something as simple as a
    Continuum or Speed Sharing, start with non-threatening criteria and
    intensify the criteria if the group continues to respond from a place of
    safety. Stop or step back if people start showing inhibitions.
    Roles that are seemingly innocuous to you might be triggering for others. When utilizing role training, be attentive to both the active members, and also to members of the audience.
  • One challenge in engaging a group in action is that energy can escalate and become too intense. If a role training vignette becomes volatile, call aHold, and bring in cognitive perspectives. Invite people to offer suggestions, problem solve, make observations; move them from their emotions to a rational, thinking state. Are you facilitating a one-time demonstration or a continuing project? Ongoing groups develop cohesion, which can lead to greater vulnerability and risks.


If material from this workshop generates interest, you can find additional
resources/trainers through the American Society of Group Psychotherapy and
Psychodrama (ASGPP) at:

Another resource is the American Board of Examiners in Psychodrama,
Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy at:
Both sites can provide you with names of local certified practitioners and trainers in psychodrama and sociometry. Many individuals and regional collectives offer training, both in person and on-line. There are also several books, journals and articles offering further information.

Additional warm-up structures can be found in the Warm-up Archives at my
website: Thank you for participating in our workshop.
These notes review the information we covered. You may use these resources,
but please retain my name and contact information on any copies of these

For further questions or comments, my contact information is below.

Stephen Kopp, MS TEP

My appreciation and thanks to our session assistant, Ms Pan Dudley, LCSW

Copyright 2022


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