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Social Skills: Role Playing

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 26th 2016

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.


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Role Play Is helpful - Suze - Jul 12th 2011


I like reading about this. Years ago I attended a seminar, and one of the best things they did to show how things worked was to let us role play. It helped us understand better. I would like to role play my interactions with difficult people and be able to get feedback, or actually have my own insight from the experience in order to improve relationships. It is not about just dating situations, it is about any interactions.

lets be real - CW - Mar 31st 2009

The problem with this article is it seems geared toward being a how to dating manual and does not really touch the issue here on social skills, how about a person who is simply married  not a salesman, this article should be written so that is applies to everyone not just certain people. Body language, example walking away from people without saying anythig, getting up leaving a room without excusing yourself, loud over bearing speech, comments that are too bold or rude, interupting people, appearing disinterested, staring at people in public, men who leer at women, pointing, feeling as though you always go to tell it how it is, do you really lack social skills or is it you just dont care? lacking emphathy for others feelings, saying you feel,  looking away when people talk to you, being out with your mate and trying to get noticed by others of opposite sex, being sexist, not making eye contact, quick body movements, being loud, slamming things around  or setting things down too hard. As tivial as some may sound look at the peoples expressions who are around people like this sometime. If you think you lack social skills, ask others around you to give you an honest opinion about how they feel around  you and be able to take their response as well without having a hissy fit.

Role Playing does Work! - Deb - Jun 1st 2008

I really appreciate this section on role playing and believe it really can change a person's life. My life is one - I have been a shy person but hated the feeling and was put in many situations where being shy just did not work. I began "pretending" or "practicing" conversation starters and then started using what I practiced. It worked and now when I tell people I am shy, they laugh and do not believe me. I really am able to converse and also make other people feel comfortable in groups. I really appreciated this section on role playing! Thank you.

I agree! - Sunni - May 8th 2008

I both work with others with different social skill problems and am also always trying to improve my own social skills...  I agree with your article for several reasons...

One is that often people percieve themselves as "introverted" or "extroverted" and somehow think they are locked into that personality trait for the rest of their lives...  What I've SEEN and EXPERIENCED, though, is that most of the social skill traits are LEARNED behaviors.  That a person will feel very awkward and fearful when they are first trying to increase their social abilities,- they will feel like "it's not really THEM".  At that point, it could be easy to give up before the new behaviors take hold. but if they are dedicated and motivated, these awkward feelings will pass and they will start to see themselves in a new light - the new "play acting" will feel more and more comfortable to them, and they will start to see the results of such positive mannerisms.

Another reason I love your focus on developing these skills is that often learning NEW skills is what it takes for leaving old, hurtful behaviors behind.  Working with someone who is depressed, or if I am depressed is easy to keep talking about everything that we are depressed about without ever making a plan of how to get OUT of the depression...  Focusing on skills that will help in life - like social skills - puts out a path in the darkness!

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