Empathetic Bridge Role Play


Students use role-playing during a case study to demonstrate narrative leadership and improvise how they would handle a difficult situation if it arose in the workplace. Through this activity, students have a chance to practice leading a group through a moment of disruption.

Introduction: After learning analytically about Public Narrative as a leadership skill in moments of group disruption (such as a moment of loss or change), students could successfully analyze the narratives of others and point out why a leader's intervention was/wasn't successful. However, students were struggling to articulate what a better intervention might have been, and weren't able to actually practice this skill themselves. In week five of the seven-week module, after in-depth analysis and conceptual teaching, we decided to create a role-play so that students could experience this practice themselves. By actually jumping into the role of the leader and attempting to construct a narrative in the moment, students experienced what worked and what didn't, and became able to actually construct a narrative themselves. Now their in-the-moment improvisation will be improved such that they not only can analyze past cases but also can move forward skillfully when these situations arise.


  • Analytically understand leadership skills
  • Practice leading a group through a moment of disruption
  • Practically create and implement a narrative intervention in a moment of leadership challenge

Procedure - Before Class: The instructors prepared a handout with brief (2-3 sentences) mini-cases and longer (<1 pg) long cases detailing a challenging workplace situation.

Procedure - During Class: The case handout was distributed to students and the instructor lead students through the following steps:

Step 1 (~8 min): Read and analyze the case. Students were given the case and allowed time to analyze what type of leadership challenge it was, brainstorm strategies, and write down elements of a response.

Step 2 (~6 min): Pair-Share. Students turned to a partner to practice their narrative for two minutes. The partner then gave feedback for one minute. Students then switched roles and repeated. This practice gave students more confidence to volunteer to practice their intervention in front of the whole class in the following step.

Step 3 (~15 min): Role-Play! The instructor designed a group of students to be the ‘listeners’ for the case. Before the role-play started, the instructor asked how the ‘listeners’ were feeling in the situation. Next, a student volunteer was called up to practice their intervention narrative in front of the class (a second version of the two-minute response they had practiced with their partner). During the role-play, the instructor had the ability to hit ‘pause’ so that something could be discussed with the class as it was happening. After the role-play, the instructor checked back in with the ‘listeners’ to see how effective the narrative was in shifting their emotional state. The instructor then elicited feedback and coaching from rest of the class. The role-play was repeated with different narrative intervention approaches.

Step 4 (~10 min): Debrief. After the activity, the entire class participated in a group discussion to gather key takeaways. The emphasis was on what worked and what didn’t in each situation. They also discussed the differences between practicing narrative interventions rather than just analyzing them.

Step 5 (optional, ~20 min if time remains): Rapid-Fire Round. Student volunteers went in front of the class and pulled mini-scenarios from a hat. They then improvised their response on the spot with no preparation. The instructor did this portion of the activity in a ‘freeze-frame’ style, allowing other students to jump in and practice the same case. The class debriefed again after the rapid-fire round.

Procedure - After Class: Students produced analysis papers of a case with much stronger understanding of what to say next time. Students reported much more confidence approaching situations of leadership challenge in the future.

Experiential role-play learning enables students to take on understandings in new ways. By actually practicing something, students get a deeper analysis of the concept and are more able to see it as a possibility for their leadership going forward. Experience begins to build muscle memory for actually enacting leadership skills in the real world. In so many cases, we need to improvise on the spot and don't have time for long analysis. This type of role-play helps make cases real and opens doors to new types of learning unavailable in purely analytical classrooms.

Our tips? Make sure you have clear instructions and tight timing. Work to ensure that as many students can practice the technique as possible and get into the role play. Create an environment where failure is celebrated, so that students can mess up, try again, and learn from their mistakes.