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Social Skills: Role Playing

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Whatever your native social skills capabilities may be, you can improve them with practice. Your degree of social skill may never be completely fluent or polished, but it is not necessary that this occur for you to realize gains in the quantity and quality of your relationships. Even small improvements are sometimes enough.

Many social skills are behaviors, and, as you now know, the way to improve behaviors is to practice, and to seek out feedback to help you correct any mistakes you may be making. As it is sometimes difficult to find opportunities to practice social skills in real life, you should know that practicing them in a simulated situation known as role playing can also prove quite helpful. Role playing involves play acting - acting out a feared or avoided social situation, such as giving a speech, or engaging in small talk, or asking someone out on a date. You imagine the scene in as much detail as you can, and then act out the interaction as realistically as you can. Role playing is easiest and most helpful when you are able to recruit other people (e.g., friends, therapists) to help you. You play yourself and they play others you fear to interact with. The two (or more) of you simulate and improvise a feared interaction, trying to stay in character for as long as possible. As each instance of role playing ends, you can ask your helpers for feedback on your performance, soliciting ways that you might present yourself better or more effectively. When it is not possible to role play with other people, you can turn to an alternative strategy, which is to role play by yourself. Tape or video record yourself practicing a speech, or asking someone out, and then listen to or watch yourself afterwards so as to critique your own performance. Role playing by yourself is potentially awkward. The lack of a partner makes it difficult to truly simulate an interaction, and, as a socially unskilled person, you are not in the best position to give yourself the sort of feedback you really need to know how best to improve. Still, every bit of practice helps to improve actual performance

A variation on the theme of role playing is called Fixed Role Therapy. In fixed role therapy you act as though you have certain characteristics that you aspire to have, but don't currently have. For a period of time set by yourself, you pretend to have these desired characteristics as you go about your life and interact with people. For example, if you are a shy person, you act as though you are more outgoing. The purpose of fixed role therapy is not to help you develop a fake personality, but rather to allow you the experience (and practice) of living your life from another perspective which you would normally never consider. The artificiality of the task tends to free people up to take it on. Though they might not be able to be outgoing on their own, they are able to do it when it is prescribed play acting. Having acted out such a fake fixed role, people then have the experience they need to integrate desirable aspects of that role into their normal selves. In other words, having play acted at being outgoing, people now know how to be more outgoing within their own personalities and feel more comfortable doing so.