Role Training: developing and reinforcing social and self-competencies


Role Training: developing and reinforcing social and self-competencies by Roger Schaller


Role conserves is a classic psychodramatic concept used to denote learned, familiar, tried-and-true patterns of behaviour associated with the performance of a particular role. They offer people security in the sense that people know how to behave in different roles related to particular situations, but also harbour a risk for rigidity. Explorative role provides an opportunity to training new, more productive ways of behaving: recognizing one’s own inadequate behaviour and developing or reinforcing social and self-competencies. In this article, Roger Schaller presents the learning process that characterizes role training by breaking it down into five different phases, based on the George E. Miller’s (1990) Pyramid of Assessment. The first is the knows phase in which therapist and client analyse a problematic situation from the client’s memory. In the knows how phase the therapist imparts knowledge about the social competences needed in this problematic situation, before the client is encouraged to spontaneously apply and practice the rehearsed skills in improvisations concerning potential real-life situations in the shows how. In the last two phases, called does in, the client applies the rehearsed skills in a role play with scenic simulation and then tries  to apply the behavior trained in the role play to everyday life.

Role Training: developing and reinforcing social and self-competencies

Role conserves

Role conserves is a classic psychodramatic concept used to denote learned, familiar, tried-and-true patterns of behaviour associated with the performance of a particular role. Role conserves are like the autopilot function: they are behavioural patterns that worked well-enough in a specific situation before, and are hence (automatically) applied again and again, even if they are less than ideal. On the one hand, role conserves are societal products that help preserve a culture. They offer people security in the sense that people know how to behave in different roles, and they can also be used as the springboard for new spontaneous and creative performance. On the other hand, however, role conserves also harbour a risk for rigidity (Hochreiter 2004, p. 135).

By allowing clients to practice behaving and re-acting creatively and spontaneously, role play can be used to counteract the risk for rigidity associated with established role scripts. Explorative role play, as introduced earlier, is always an attempt to overcome the risk of being limited by role conserves. Explorative role play is a first step to training new, more productive ways of behaving: recognizing one’s own inadequate behaviour and developing or reinforcing social and self-competencies.

British adult learning and skills experts Graham Cheetham and Geoff Chivers (1996) distinguish between four different components of competence:

  • cognitive competence, involving the use of theory and concepts, as well as informal tacit knowledge gained experientially
  • functional competence (skills or know-how), those things that a person should be able to do when faced with a specific task
  • personal competence, knowing how to conduct oneself in a specific situation and including dimensions such as impulse control and toleration of frustration
  • ethical competence, the possession of certain personal and social values.

To be successful, behavioural training must be embedded in a learning situation that activates all four components of competence; it is not enough for therapists to just impart knowledge and/or train particular skills. Successful behavioural change critically depends on the extent to which the client is emotionally invested in the learning situation. Psychodramatic role play is thus the method of choice: by simulating situations from real, everyday life, clients experience how it really feels to behave in different ways in different situations. Clients are therefore able to develop not only the necessary cognitive and functional competence, but also the necessary personal and ethical competence needed to stimulate sustainable behaviour change.

Phases of role training

Based on George E. Miller’s (1990) pyramid, the learning process that characterizes role training can be broken down into five different phases, described in more detail in the following sections:

  1. Knows: Therapist and client analyse a problematic situation from the client’s memory. They identify the problematic and anxiety-invoking aspects of the situation. They formulate a goal behavior as precisely as possible, and the client models the behavior in his/her imagination.
  2. Knows how: The therapist imparts knowledge about the social competences needed in this problematic situation. The relevant skills are precisely described, modeled and practiced. Training manuals often refer to this phase as “skills training”.
  3. Shows how: The client is encouraged to spontaneously apply and practice the rehearsed skills in improvisations concerning potential real-life situations.
  4. Does in therapy: The client applies the rehearsed skills in a role play with scenic simulation. Typical skills training or improvisation without dramatization may not activate all dimensions of a situation. Within the context of the simulation the client can experience dimensions of the situation that he or she may have failed to notice beforehand.
  5. Does in real life: The client now tries to apply the behavior trained in the role play to everyday life. The therapist and client agree when, where and, if applicable, with whom the client should test out the new behavior, and define how the new ideal beahavior can be observed and evaluated.

“Knows” phase

The previous chapters have already dealt with this first phase of learning: through psychodramatic assessment and exploration, clients becomes cognizant of their own behavior in a specific problematic situation and formulate goals for new behaviour. Dramatizations make the immaterial objects of World 2 (emotions and sensitivities) and World 3 (theories, hypotheses, ideas) visible. Putting these objects of Worlds 2 and 3 on the stage can help clients notice aspects of the situation that they may have not seen before, and/or change how they evaluate them.

“Knows how” phase

After the problematic situation had been dramatized in a diagnostic or explorative role play, the therapist and client work together to formulate a few sentences describing the new ideal behaviour. In this phase it may be helpful for the therapist to stimulate model learning by demonstrating or showing a video of the ideal behaviour. The therapist and client identify observable characteristics of the ideal behaviour and establish criteria for success. To ensure that the first role play is a mastery experience, it is important to start with a behaviour that the client can perform without too much difficulty—one begins with rather easy behavioural sequences that gradually become more difficult.

“Shows how” phase

During improvisations, actors can spontaneously adapt the text according to their own mood or the whims of the audience. Improvisation was an important element of commedia dell’arte: a scenario sketched out what the actors should accomplish in the scene and what they should talk about, but did not define how they should do it. Swiss theatre expert and philosopher Richard Weihe (2004) likens how actors focus on the scenario of commedia dell’arte to how musicians study a score they intend to later transform into sounds. He describes the scenario as like a stash of action potential which the actors set free. Because actors determine the dialogue as they go along, they essentially become co-authors of the scene. The scene is generated from a combination of a fixed storyline with variable dialogue. Actors have a high degree of in- dependence from the literary blueprint, opening the space for improvisation (p. 227).

Moreno (1923), the founder of psychodrama, was the first to introduce improvisation—that is, spontaneous and free play on a sort of theatrical stage—to psychotherapy. In psychodramatic improvisation, group members are provided with a basic theme for a scene (e.g. people meeting late in the evening in the waiting area of the train station). Group members then spontaneously choose roles and improvise the scene, which can then be analysed and further developed. In this way group members can experience and practice social competencies in different roles. Other group members can observe the scene and participate in the analysis.

The procedure for behavioural training in the individual setting is somewhat different:

1. Preparing for the first role training (improvisation)

    • A stage is defined and arranged.
    • The roles are distributed on the stage. The client may potentially instruct and/or demonstrate how the therapist should play the role of the antagonist.
    • The role play often takes place in a later phase of the therapeutic process. It is best when the client has already performed a role play with the therapist (e.g. during assessment), so that he or she is already familiar with the method and dealt with any potential awkwardness.
    • The therapist informs the client that they will participate in several roleplay sequences. The therapist and client establish the goal and organisation of the first sequence.

2. First role training and interim discussion

    • Either the therapist or the client should demonstrate (a part of) the desired behaviour in the role play.
    • The client can also act out an undesired behaviour, in which case he or she is encouraged to exaggerate the undesired behaviour so that it is impossible to miss.
    • Afterwards, the therapist and client analyse the scene together (e.g. problems, successful application of new behaviour).
    • The therapist and client discuss any experienced thoughts, emotions and physiologic-motoric reactions.
    • The therapist helps the client to activate their resources for achieving his or her goal, potentially with a mindful- ness exercise or visualization.

3. Second role training (potentially with new resources)

    • The client acts out the situation (potentially somewhat adapted) once again – this time using his or her re- sources. The scene can be acted out again and again until the client really makes full use of his or her resources.
    • The client should not focus on the behaviour itself, but rather on the cognitive processes that make behavioural change possible (or block it).
    • After the role play, it is important to thoroughly de-role and leave the stage (e.g. “The role training is finished. Now we are back in the here-and-now of the therapy session. We are going to strip off everything that belongs to the conflict role on the stage. I’m Roger again, you are Michelle again.”).

4. Role feedback and analysis

    • The client describes what he or she experienced in the role, including his or her impressions and feelings. Then the therapist potentially describes what he or she experienced.
    • Together, the therapist and client evaluate the effective- ness of the role play.
    • The therapist and client discuss whether and how the client can apply the trained behaviours in everyday life.

“Does in therapy” phase

Effective behavioural training depends on the extent to which cli- ents’ emotions and cognitions can be realistically activated. Improvisations are often based on rather stereotypical life situations, and hence they often fall short of adequately engaging the client. Scenic simulation with psychodramatic instruments and techniques can help bring the cli- ent’s real life into the therapy room. The problematic situation is concretely and convincingly recreated on the stage: “What, when, where, who, how?”. In scenic role training we act as if the scene on the stage were real life. To achieve an adequate level of realism, the set-up of the scene must be detailed and include precise specifications about, for in- stance, the time, place, and spatial arrangement. The scenic role training in the “as-if reality” consists of six steps, summarized in the Table 1:

Table 1: The six-step procedure for scenic role training in the fourth “does in therapy” phase of learning.

“Does in real life” phase

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings! Nothing has really been achieved until the client is able to apply the new behaviour in real life. Thus, in the last phase of role training, clients must try out the new behaviour outside of the therapeutic setting. It is often unfeasible or undesirable for the therapist to accompany the client as he or she attempts to apply the new behaviour in the real world, especially because problematic situations tend to pop up unexpectedly. Therapists can therefore as- sign “role play homework” that encourages clients to systematically ob- serve and record their own behaviour, as described in the following section.

Role play homework

During the fifth phase of learning, it can be quite helpful to have clients systematically observe and record aspects of their own behaviour (e.g. in a diary). Here are some tips for conducting “transfer” or “in-vivo” role plays in everyday life:

  • The client is encouraged to consciously seek out problematic situations. The idea is that the client directly confronts anxie- ty-invoking situations and/or objects (known as exposure in behavioural therapy). Clients try out new ways of behaving in everyday life analogue to the behaviour practiced in the role plays.
  • Everyday life role plays should be conceptualized as behavioural experiments in which clients’ expectations of control play a central role. The client uses a diary to record how well he or she expects to be able to control his or her behaviour in different problematic situations.
  • In a first step (and depending on the kind of disorder or challenge), everyday life role plays can be conducted together with the therapist.
  • It may also be beneficial for the therapist to take over the cli- ent’s role and demonstrate the undesired behaviour in an in-vivo role play. Then the client is able to observe the con- sequences of the problematic behaviour from a different perspective.
  • The client and therapist can generate behavioural rituals that make it easier for the client to transfer trained behaviours to everyday life.

Ultimately, clients must transfer the new behaviour tested out and trained during therapeutic role play to their everyday lives. “Role play homework” encourages clients to seek out problematic situations outside of the therapeutic context and apply the practiced behaviour in real life.

American psychologist and founder of dialectical-behavioural therapy Marsha Linehan (1993) provides examples of role play homework. As part of skills training, she encourages clients to practice applying the interpersonal skills learned in therapy in difficult everyday situations, for example:

    • Change the topic of conversation during a discussion.
    • Ask colleagues for a favour (e.g. when a colleague is making coffee, ask him or her to make an extra cup for you) or ask for feedback about something you did at work.
    • Reject somebody’s opinion.
    • Assert an opinion (e.g. about a tv show or book, or a political view) that differs from the opinion of your parents, spouse/partner, or close friend.
    • Arrive at an event 10 minutes late.

In general, there are different variations of role play homework (based on Fehm & Helbig 2008):

  • Client takes on the role of self-observer; records and evaluates own behaviour.
  • Client observes and evaluates a difficult situation from a different perspective (e.g. from the perspective of a member of the opposite sex, an asylum seeker or work superior).
  • Client acts out a problematic behaviour consciously or in an exaggerated manner (symptom prescription);
  • Client does something that directly inhibits the problematic behaviour (e.g. time out, relaxation exercise);
  • Client performs a milder version of a problematic behaviour (e.g. reduces rigorously washing hands to specific times);
  • Client performs a functional instead of a problematic behaviour (e.g. shares own needs with a partner).

The therapist should develop and plan potential homework exercises together with the client. With regard to content and form, just about anything goes: therapists and clients can give free rein to their creativity.

An example based on treatment of a client with a generalized anxiety disorder: The client suffers from extreme worry that he might make a mistake at work. He thus finds it very difficult to leave work at the end of the day and ends up working a lot of overtime. At home he spends the entire evening ruminating about mistakes he might have made, and his rumination sometimes continues on into the night. The therapist suggests a homework exercise: “To a certain extent, your worry and rumination serve a purpose. To find out what it is, I would like you to conduct a small experiment. Next week on Tuesday and Thursday I want you to go home at the end of the normal working day. Do something else to distract yourself: exercise, go to the movies or theatre, whatever you would like to do. In our next session we’ll discuss how this affected your work performance.”

As in the preceding example, from a psychological perspective it is useful to frame such homework exercises as “experiments” in which mistakes and failures are not only permissible but also instructive. In such experiments the client has multiple opportunities for success, both with regard to making accurate assumptions (e.g. “Will I be successful if I am well-prepared? What will happen if I am not prepared?”) as well as successfully performing the behaviour itself. The key is that the client learns to anticipate his or her own behaviour and predict the experiment’s success or failure. Clients can use a worksheet to make note of their prognosis and actual experience (see Table 2).

Table 2: Reality check worksheet template

The homework exercise with the worksheet provided above helps dismantle role conserves and habitual attitudes, which can only be sustainably changed though concrete thoughts and actions in everyday life.

Role training with audio and video feedback

As a last role training exercise, the therapist and client can watch and/or listen to recorded role play activities. As described in Parts A and B, the stage helps clients gain a measure of distance from their own behaviour in the role play. Video or audio recordings make it easier for clients to examine their own behaviour from an even more distanced perspective. Clients can more clearly recognize elements of their own behaviour particularly when watching it on-screen. The visualization makes it possible for clients to observe and reflect about their posture, facial expression, body language, and manner of speaking from an external perspective with the therapist. However, clients often find it difficult to transfer what they observe in a video recording to a new role play or to everyday life. This is because successful interactions proceed implicitly, without conscious control. It is therefore usually best to record just short sequences and focus on one or two specific, pre-defined behavioural elements.

Most people feel somewhat uncomfortable and embarrassed when watching themselves on-screen. Clients with low self-esteem or de- pressed clients, for example, may react to recordings by belittling them- selves. Therapists are thus obligated to provide the client with positive feedback (“… but you seem really nice…”, “Don’t be so hard on your- self!”). Such exchanges shift the focus away from the role play and also systematically reinforce clients’ tendency to self-depreciate, since the therapist essentially rewards the client for belittling him- or herself with positive feedback. To avoid reinforcing self-depreciative tendencies, feedback on audio- and video-recordings should be highly specific and focused on particular behavioural elements. Therapists should pose concrete questions that encourage the client to observe specific dimensions of his or her behaviour, for example:

  • “What did you set out to do?”
  • “Using a scale from 1 to 10, to what extent would you say that you behaved how you would ideally like to behave?”
  • “Did anything positively surprise you?”
  • “What was better this time than in the last role play?”
  • “What did you find easier in this role play than in real life?”
  • “Do you feel differently about your behaviour now?”
  • “What would you like to try out next time?”

One of the advantages of audio- and video recordings is that particularly decisive moments can be replayed and discussed. Progress in behavioural training can be documented and can be used to boost clients’ confidence. Because they can shift the focus to clients’ problematic self-representations, video recordings should be initially avoided when working with anxious and socially-insecure clients.



Cheetham, G., & Chivers, G. (1996). Towards a holistic model of professional competence. Journal of European Industrial Training, 20(5), 20–30. doi: 10.1108/03090599610119692

Fehm, L. & Helbig, S. (2008). Hausaufgaben in der Psychotherapie. Strategien und Materialien für die Praxis [Homework for Psychotherapy: Strategies and Materials]. Göttingen: Hogrefe.

Hochreiter, K. (2004). Rollentheorie nach J. L. Moreno [Role theory according to J. L. Moreno]. In: Fürst, J., Ottomeyer, K. & Pruckner, H. (Eds.): Psy- chodrama-Therapie [Psychodramatic therapy]. Vienna: Facultas, p. 128–146.

Linehan, M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press.

Miller, G. E. (1990). The assessment of clinical skills/competence/performance. Academic Medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 65(9 Suppl), p. 63-67.

Moreno, J. L. (1923) Das Stegreiftheater (ein Regiebuch für Stegreifspiele). Potsdam: Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag

Schaller, R. (2019). Imagine you are….Role Play in Individual Therapy, Counselling and Coaching. Biel:

Weihe, R. (2004). Die Paradoxie der Maske: Geschichte einer Form [The Mask Paradox: History of a Form]. Munich: Wilhelm Fink.

Originally published in: Schaller, R. (2019). Imagine you are….Role Play in Individual Therapy, Counselling and Coaching. ISBN 978-0-359-67529-6

Information about the author
Roger Schaller: Psychotherapeut für Kinder, Jugendliche und Erwachsene und als Verkehrspsychologe. Leitung des Institutes für Psychodrama und Aktionsmethoden (seit 2013)