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How Role-Playing Can Enhance Empathy

Putting yourself in someone else's place is not just a metaphor.

Key points

  • Role-playing challenges us to inhabit another person’s reality and it has long been used in therapy.
  • In 1941, a psychologist took on the role of his client to better understand his experience and predict his future actions.
  • Role-playing was further developed as a therapeutic tool when a psychiatrist built a stage on which patients could enact their conflicts.
  • Role-playing is also important in non-violent communication, which has been applied to conflicts around the world.
J. L. Moreno. (1946). Psychodrama. Beacon House.
Source: J. L. Moreno. (1946). Psychodrama. Beacon House.

Empathy is often described as standing in another’s shoes or putting oneself in someone else’s place. These expressions are more than metaphors, as they embody the powerful therapeutic tool of role-playing.

More than a century ago, the social psychologist George Herbert Mead described the self as a social entity. He argued that we build up our sense of self through our interactions with others; we imaginatively inhabit the perspectives of those around us and perceive ourselves through a social lens. This ability to adopt other perspectives was also called empathy or role-taking. In 1941, the social psychologist Leonard Cottrell deliberately took on the role of his client, Mr. Jones, who was having marital difficulties. To more deeply imagine Jones’s experience, Cottrell took on his voice, writing, “I lived through a crisis in which I mustered the courage to leave her. After I left I was lonely and lost. I came back…”[1] Cottrell explained that adopting the first person not only made Jones’s experience more understandable but also made it easier to predict his future actions.[2]

Role-playing was further developed in the 1940s as therapeutic psychodrama by the psychiatrist Jacob Levy Moreno. Moreno got his start in improvisational theatre in Vienna in 1922. He became the director of the Beacon Asylum on the Hudson River in New York and built a tiered stage on which patients could enact their conflicts. Audience members and clinicians stepped onto the various platforms to act out important people in the patient’s life, and to personify the patient’s inner feelings and thoughts.[3]

Role-playing as a method to enhance empathy is also key to the practice of non-violent communication (NVC), developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. Rosenberg learned the empathic methods of clinical psychologist Carl Rogers while studying for his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in 1960. In Rogers’s empathy-based psychotherapy, the therapist “tried on” the client’s experience “as if” it were their own, without judgment or analysis. Rosenberg adopted empathic listening methods in nonviolent communication as a way to identify one's own and others' feelings and needs. Once a dialogue about feelings and needs begins, reconciliation and understanding often follow. Rosenberg applied NVC to conflict in all parts of the world – in American school integration programs in the 1960s, in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and between warring groups in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, among others.

In the following excerpt of a role-play enacted in a 2002 workshop, Rosenberg plays the role of an empathic mother to her son, who plays himself:

Son: I feel despair around how negative you are, how you’re always looking at things to criticize about the world, about me, about life.

Mother: Let me see if I can hear that. If I’m hearing you correctly, you’d like some understanding about how painful it is for you to be around me when I’m in so much pain and how it leaves you constantly feeling under some pressure to have some way to deal with my pain.

Son: Yes.

Mother: You’d like some understanding of how much pain you carry with you from having been exposed to this for so long.

Son: That’s partly accurate. I’m angry because it feels like I have to fight inside of myself, to protect my own ability to choose, to perceive things the way I want.

Mother: So how wonderful it would be if you didn’t have to work so hard to live in a world that is quite different from the one I painted for you.[4]

In this role-play, the son expressed his feelings and received an empathic response from his “mother.” Once he felt his experience was acknowledged, the son was ready to listen to his mother’s feelings, which Rosenberg then imaginatively described:

Mother: There is so much I want to tell you… but at the moment, there’s just a horrible sadness to see that I handled my pain in a way that didn’t meet one of the needs that I’ve had my whole life, the strongest need that I can think of: to nurture you… I just felt a depth of sadness that I didn’t know other ways of saying: "Hey, I’m in pain, and I need some attention."

Only after expressing himself and feeling heard did the son have the emotional expansiveness to consider her feelings and needs. One onlooker said it was healing to hear the mother express sadness along with her desire for her son to be happy. Spectators derived benefit from the role-play and felt more hopeful about improving similar dynamics in their own relationships.

Role-playing challenges us to imaginatively inhabit another’s reality. In doing so, we diminish our intense investment in our side of the story. Once we loosen our tightly held convictions, however slightly, we gain a greater emotional flexibility to interact in new ways. Our emotional shift may in turn elicit surprising responses from our difficult family member, friend or neighbor, leading to new and more satisfying patterns of interaction. We may not be able heal all rifts, of course, and many entrenched conflicts require extensive work, but by imaginatively and empathically taking on the roles of others, we can begin to transform our real-world relationships.


[1] Cottrell, Leonard S. (1941). The case-study method in prediction. Sociometry 4(4), 358-370, 367. See also S. Lanzoni. (2018). Empathy: A history. Yale. pp. 158-170.

[2] Cottrell, L. S. & Ruth Gallagher. (1940). Developments in social psychology, 1930-1940. NY: Beacon House. 54.

[3] Murphy, Gardner. (1937). The mind is a stage, Forum and Century 98, 277-280.

[4] Rosenberg, Marshall. (2012). Living nonviolent communication: Practical tools to connect and communicate skillfully in every situation. Sounds True. pp. 83-89.

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