Parallel Lines Roleplay

The shortest way to do a roleplay with a group in a complex challenge

Time: 10-40 minutes Group Size: 8-50+ people

Set Up the Roleplay

  • Frame the roleplay (introduce the topic) • For example, if the topic is on nonviolent intervention say: “We’re going to explore options for personally intervening in a violent situation.” Or for a roleplay on fundraising: “We’re going to practice ways to help with effective fundraising.”
  • Get people into two parallel lines • This gets people right into motion. Because people are busy pushing back their chairs and trying to figure out what “two parallel lines” means, they are less resistant to the activity. Note also that we do not use the word “roleplay,” because sometime people have a negative reaction to it. Instead we say we’re going to “explore options” or “practice possible choices” etc.
  • Make sure the lines are equal • When the two lines are formed, ask them to acknowledge the person across from them (for example, shake hands or nod at each other). That instruction (a) helps people bond for the exercise, and (b) makes sure everyone has a partner.
  • Explain the scenario • One line has the role of “the activists,” who are getting to try a new behavior (fundraising, de-escalating, etc.). The other person would be playing a role: for example, the person being asked for money or an angry counter-protestor.
  • Set up boundaries for the roleplay • “The way this exercise works is that I’ll start things off by saying ‘Begin,’ and after a while I’ll say ‘Stop’. We’re generating options here, so be creative and try some things you don’t usually try.” You may need to add appropriate rules, like no physical contact, hitting, etc.
  • Give people a minute to get into the role • “Take a minute to get into role. Go inside and find that part of you that sometimes can get (annoyed, reluctant to give money, etc). Use that part for this exercise. And those intervening, think of what new behavior you might try… BEGIN!”

Run the Roleplay

  • Observe the roleplay • Stop it as soon as energy starts to go down. “STOP!”

It’s okay that it takes a bit of time for people to go back to where they were, because that time is a meaningful transition. Laugh along with them. For the perfectionists who worry that they didn’t do it “right,” the relaxed facilitator laughing may help them shake off an intense or challenging role (for both sides).

Debrief the Roleplay

Here’s where this format makes good use of time. We immediately dive into reflection:

  • Ask those in the “ACTIVIST role” for their feelings • You’ll probably need to be forceful and specific about this. It’s their feelings you want, not what they did or their self-critiques. Coach them by giving examples of feelings, if need be. Feelings indicate deep motivations and invite greater awareness of what led them to their own behavior choices.
  • Get options from those in the “NON-ACTIVIST role” • Ask the non-activists what was effective—even if it was only slightly effective—that the activists did. You’re coaching the non-activists to notice both their internal reactions and the behaviours of their partners. Be patient. If someone shares something that didn’t work, just go right on and again say “We’re looking for anything your partner did that worked in some way, even slightly.” If you keep re-asking and re-phrasing this question, you’ll get useful responses.
  • Summarize • Quickly summarize a few of the behaviors that worked: “asked a question… made eye contact… talked softly… in another case, talked loudly… expressed empathy… surprised you with a distraction.”

Re-Run the Roleplay

  • Reverse roles • Do it exactly the same way and you’ll be rewarded by people doing a much better job at every point. They’ll try harder to get into role, they’ll be more creative, they’ll be more aware.
  • Announce that you’re doing it again, reversing roles • Be sure to emphasize exploring options. Tell them that it’s fine to repeat things, fine to try new things, and fine to try a bunch of things. Thank the folks who are now fulfilling a different role in advance.

Remember: If you’re practicing skills like “de-escalation” there’s a saying: practice makes perfect. In real life action scenarios (that include stress, urgency, unexpected conflict, etc.), people are often not in their most rational frame of mind, and the more practice, the better and more likely people will remember!

  • Debrief •  The same way as above.

Generalisation Step

  • Bring the group to the chairs facing the big paper or chalkboard •  Title the big paper: What worked? Prompt them to recall what they shared in the reflection debrief. Writing it down helps the visual learners and supports the generalisation process. Feel free to ask more questions about what anyone says, or even contradict it, for example, “Can eye contact really make a difference to someone who is angry?” Allow discussion so people can bring up other examples from their lives or anecdotes they’ve heard because this is a way of generalizing. If you have a story of an intervention you made, this is a great time to tell it.

This is a great time for introducing larger theory and connecting with bigger themes of your workshop.

Note: This format is sometimes called “quick and dirty” because of the debrief: the facilitator asks ONLY ONE SIDE for feelings, and ONLY ONE SIDE for effective behaviors/options. Then the role reversal debrief also contains one side only. The quickness of this format avoids focusing on any one thing for a long time.