By Paul Casey


The act of role-playing and reflective listening can play a crucial part in an individual’s liberation from addictive, troublesome behaviors. “Many factors such as verbal responses, personal characteristics, intentions and context interact to influence process and outcome in counseling.” (Rautalinko, E, 2007). It is common knowledge in the counseling field that addiction is partially created by traumatic experiences that cause an individual great distress. The individual finds temporary relief in a substance or activity but does not heal the core issue that is perpetuating the core distress. A counselor can use the very powerful technique of role-play to bring an individual back to the very moment where the person was derailed off-course so to speak. This paper will explore various role-playing situations.

An Example

A woman has been abused in the past by her mother or father. The counselor decides to play the role of the parent. The counselor then encourages the woman, with great care and in an atmosphere of safety, to go back to the moment when the trauma was inflicted. The counselor uses trigger phrases such as “I am so sorry I abused you, please show me all the hurt I caused you.” The woman allows herself to remember the abuse.

Great healing can happen in these moments. The process and power of understanding the trauma and forgiving oneself can bring immense relief to and liberate the individual from repeating abusive situations. Eventually the trauma is no longer stuck in the subconscious causing the person to repeat cycles of addiction and abuse. The trauma has been brought in to the light and diffused. The feelings of self worth fill the individual with a desire to take care of him or her self instead of self-destructing. Role-playing brings true awareness to what is going on in the moment. And what is going on in this moment can be a direct result of what happened in the past.

 School Bullying

I would like to go into the fascinating study of participant role approach to school bullying. “The view of bullying as a group phenomena has become increasingly salient in the literature and has started to guide empirical research as well. Consequently, intervention methods targeting the whole peer group and utilizing peers as facilitators of change are becoming increasingly popular.” (Salmivalli, 1999) Researchers have found that not only the bully and victims are involved in events of school bullying but the behavior of witnessing adolescents also changes and encourages the bullying. These witnesses incite the bully with laughter and encouraging gestures. These students are called the reinforcers. It is obvious that the bully has a core trauma where he or she has been bullied her/himself. This adolescent is going to act out his/her core trauma by passing it on to someone else. As for the victimized student, it is very difficult to attain a different role amongst his/her peers. He/she has probably been harassed in the past and is carrying fearful expectancies. These students become easy targets for students who need to play their role as bullies. So how do we change the roles of bullying, victimization, and reinforcer? “If we think about intervention against bullying, the most obvious general principle implied by participant role approach is that since most children are somehow involved in the bullying process and their respective roles are supported by the group, intervention should be directed not only towards the bullies and the victims, but towards the whole group.” (Salmivalli, 1999)

Techniques of general awareness raising through role-play help students realize why they are acting the way they do from peer pressure and conformity. Counselors come into the classroom and set up scenarios where students are encouraged to reflect upon their own behaviors in bullying situations. These discussions take place in small groups or in pairs. Students are also given direct feedback on their behavior in a bullying situation. It has been found that students feel the urge to stand up for the victim but lack the knowledge and courage to do it safely and effectively. “Exercises using drama and role-play can be useful in both awakening motivation and offering a safe context to rehearse certain anti-bullying behaviors that the students have not tried before such as simply stating to ‘stop bullying’”. (Salmivalli, 1999)

Role-play can also be an effective way to explore the feelings that come up in these intense situations. During the role-play the bully can be confronted in a safe manner and asked why he or she feels the great need to bully another. Students can be asked why they tend to side with the bully and why it is so difficult to stand up for the victim. As for the victim, assertiveness programs are also being taught. The victims learn to act as if they don’t care, to contain their feelings and to stay calm.

I feel that changing the roles between the bully and the victim during role-play would be a powerful technique. The victim could understand that the bully is really very unhappy and insecure. By acting the victim, the bully could very well be triggered to remember incidents of bullying in his/her own life. The students who side with the bully could play the victim role and feel the painful experience of being attacked by many others. The most powerful scenario would be the bully playing the hero role and standing up for the victim. This could bring a transformation of consciousness from predator to savior.

Working with the Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual Community

I would like to touch on how the effects of role-play are enhancing counselor skills for working with gay, lesbian and bisexual (GLB) clients. “A number of different racial and cultural groups are now recognized as having unique counseling needs. A number of researchers have defined cultural identity as including demographic variables such as religion, gender, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation.” (Kocarek, C and Pelling, N. 2003)

There is an ethical obligation of counselors to be competent when working with diverse groups. The studies on the treatment of the GLB clientele are in their infancy but there is knowledge regarding GLB issues about which counselors should be aware. Specific issues include GLB support networks, lifestyles, homophobias, heterosexism, and appropriate and inappropriate therapeutic goals when treating GLB clients. “The lifelong process of ‘coming out’ for GLB individuals is especially important for practitioners to know about.” (Kocarek, C and Pelling, N. 2003)

The treatment of GLB couples and family issues involving children are also areas of knowledge about which a counselor should have a strong awareness. Role-play again becomes an effective technique for healing deep-seated beliefs and trauma in the GLB community.

An Example

A young gay man is terrified of ‘coming out’ to his parents for fear of a lack of acceptance and outright abandonment. In a therapeutic setting his counselor can play the role of the parents and act out different triggering scenarios. These could include complete acceptance as well as total rejection. Of course the more joyful scenario would be complete acceptance but playing the role of rejection gives him the strength to stand in his own convictions no matter how his family member reacts.

“To create the safe environment that is necessary for learning to occur during a role-play exercise, we have developed a model for structured role-play that gradually exposes participants to greater levels of feedback and scenario difficulty.” (Kocarek, C and Pelling, N. 2003) Their model for role-play exercises is broken up into three levels. The role-play exercises at level one are composed of both clients and counselor. All participants are asked to pair up and act out a scenario. Goals of scenarios at this level are to establish trust, address language, and assumptions that are heterosexist. Level one is a warming up before addressing deeper issues. The second level of role-play adds an observer component. The scenarios at this level are slightly increased in difficulty in addressing such things as same-sex partners and ‘coming out’. Level three role-play involves small group role-play of five to six individuals. Scenarios at this final level include more complex situations and conditions such as GLB identity, developmental issues, coming out to a parent and social-political issues. Finally a summary discussion after the exercises are completed is suggested to help participants process and solidify their knowledge and skill learning. The authors suggest that all participants discuss as one large group what it was like to participate in the role-play scenarios. They review culture shock and explore how participants can continue learning on their own and with the support of others.


In summary, we live in a reality where intense emotional traumas come to us all. With society’s collective fear and mindsets of oppression, it seems quite pertinent to use the counseling technique of role-play. Role-play is a genuine gift that can be used to confront and release the pent up trauma that is working unconsciously inside us all. Role-play can be used as the practice “skit” before confronting the individuals with whom we need closure. Role-play techniques are invaluable for helping us and our clients to stand and speak about who we truly are without shame, regret or fear.


Kocarek, C. and Pelling, N. (2003). Beyond knowledge and awareness: enhancing counselor skills for work with gay, lesbian, and bisexual clients. Journal of multicultural counseling and development, April 2003: 99-108.

Rautalinko, E, (2007). Reflective listening in counseling. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 61:#2: 191-208.

Salmivilli, C. (1999). Participant Role Approach to school bullying: implications for interventions. Journal of Adolescence, 22: 453-459.