If you wanted to learn how to ride a bike or roast a chicken, what would you do? Watch a video or read a book? Sure, maybe at first. But then you’d need to try it yourself. You wouldn’t expect to do it perfectly the first time. You know you’d have to practice in order to improve your new skill.
The same is true for people and conflict. Most of the girls we encounter avoid conflict or speaking up because they are terrified of losing their relationships. It is impossible to become any good something we don’t practice (see chicken roasting above). But if we can re-frame conflict not as the end of the relationship, but an opportunity to grow and change in the relationship, then there is a reason to practice. And there is one way to practice both the “what” and the “how” of communication – role play.
Role play allows us to learn and try out a new set of skills: choosing the right time and place for the conversation; selecting the right words; speaking in a strong, calm tone of voice; using eye contact and body language; and listening.
When you role play, you act out (notice we didn’t say perform—there is no audience) a “scene” where you simulate a conversation you want to have. Your girl plays the role of herself, and you play the part of the person she needs to confront. Role play lets a girl physically experience what it feels like to communicate the way she wants to. Younger girls have an easier time taking their role play practice into a real world scenario. While there might be a delay for older girls between role playing and trying it in real life, role play still gives her the best chance she has of communicating in a new way.
Some girls (and plenty of adults) are hesitant to role play. They might even say it’s “dumb” or silly. It’s awkward for most of us. But awkward doesn’t mean it’s something bad. It just means it’s new. Don’t give up. Remind your girl of something she practices hard at (sports, an art form, etc) and ask her how she’d perform if she stopped practicing.
Once you get her role playing, repeat a single scenario many times in order to try out different approaches and reactions. Be careful not to criticize too much. This is a new experience, and girls can be sensitive to negative feedback. Instead of criticizing each round, trying to point out what you liked about each round (words, volume, etc.) and then ask her try doing it differently (not “better”). Ask her how it feels to speak in this new way. If it isn’t authentic or comfortable for her, she probably won’t ever really try it, so repeat the scene a few times until it feels plausible for her. You can compare doing this to practicing a sports move, or piece of music: you often have to do it several times until you get it right.
Talk together about what kind of body language will be most effective in the role play: will she make eye contact? Smile? Cross her arms or put them at her sides? Remember, how she says it will be more important than the words themselves. Your job is to play a realistic version of the person she is talking to. Ask your girl how this person would react in each round — then do it. Avoid letting your girl succeed and “win” the conflict each time she role plays. It’s nice when that happens, but for many girls, it’s enough to experience saying words out loud that she might normally keep to herself.
If you can, ask your girl to role play something you need to work on. Show her, by example, that practicing what you say can pay off in the moment. Keep in mind that you’re not only introducing her to a strategy for her relationships; you’re showing her that she has the power to improve her relationships herself, and on her own initiative. If role playing at home is too hard, it is okay to take baby steps and start role playing in a car (if that is how you travel), or while doing something else, like dishes. These low risk alternatives don’t allow your daughter to practice eye contact, but she does get to work on everything else.
When you role play with your daughter, she’ll discover what it feels like to communicate in a new way. If she ever takes the role play into real life, she’ll discover that she can’t control the other person and their reaction – but its no longer about that. She’ll discover how good it feels to feel proud of she handled herself in a conflict.