In Defense of Simulation

In our field of consulting and training, we tend to encounter some resistance. It just kind of comes with the territory, and we’ve come to recognize the subtle tell-tales of contention: a bristley question, a stoney glance, a mumbled aside. But when it comes to proposing simulation as a training method, the controversy we encounter isn’t usually subtle at all. Oftentimes, the mere proposal of simulation is enough to engender forthright resistance; put trainees in the admittedly uncomfortable situation of a first-time simulation, and that resistance turns to defiance.

Considering that simulation can be challenging for buy-in, why do we continue to champion it? Because it works. Simulation methodology is the best way to teach a skill, secure agreement on the approach, and then fully develop the skill to proficiency. 

People don’t learn through listening to lessons—they learn from experiencing them. When it comes to training, you can preach the same lesson a dozen times, but until the student experiences it, they’re not committed to its enactment.

When we implement simulation training, we first demonstrate a negative simulation, followed by a period to debrief, and then a positive simulation. Finally, we switch roles and ask the student to demonstrate the simulation. 

This approach duplicates the benefits of learning through experience. First, the student experiences what not to do: the discomfort of experiencing that wrong behavior cultivates buy-in, and they understand why it’s wrong and why they should avoid similar circumstances. Then the positive simulation exemplifies the correct behavior, which the student experiences. When demonstrated so soon after the first simulation, the positive simulation stands in stark (and replicable) contrast. The student then understands both why the wrong approach is wrong, and why the right approach is right, having experienced both. At this time, it’s the responsibility of the teacher to switch roles and observe the student in the role of enacting the positive simulation to ensure they’ve learned the lesson and can implement it moving forward. 

Another benefit of simulation training is that there’s no expiration. If you follow the steps above and the student’s simulation isn’t perfect, that’s ok—you can do it again. All you have to do is tweak the simulation slightly and relaunch. 

The periods between each simulation (negative, positive, student) also provide an opportunity for the coach to provide valuable feedback. The student thrives off the positive feedback and learns from the negative feedback, adapting both their simulation and their skillset to the insight the teacher provides. It’s important that feedback focuses on the behavior, not the results, so that the trainee knows how to change their approach and actions in order to produce different results. For example, result-based feedback like “The customer was frightened by your approach,” isn’t as effective as behavior-based feedback like, “When you approach the customer from behind and didn’t announce yourself, it frightened them.”

The value of the simulation training method is that the trainer can actually see what the student does. Once they’ve seen it, they must provide clear, concise feedback in order to “coach” the salesperson to better behavior. This insight and ability to communicate it well is the most important part of the process, so it should be specific and detailed. 

Much of the resistance we encounter in regards to simulations is that people associate simulation with role play, and role play with, well, play. In truth, simulations are structured and focused and provide an opportunity for everyone to practice new skillsets without the pressure of the real-life situation, like a sales floor or a real customer. Think of simulations as sports drills: in football practice, the coach has the quarterback practice throwing again and again with slightly different scenarios so that he’ll be prepared when he takes on a real opponent. It’s the same thing with simulations in your business: you’re helping your employees practice new skills before the big game. 

Part of that resistance is also just the result of stage-fright. We’re always sure to set a gracious, welcoming scene for students so they can feel comfortable practicing the simulation. And by going first, the teacher also disarms some of the discomfort around the exercise. 

One of the most effective ways we disengage resistance is by establishing context before the simulation. Introducing training without a “why” is likely to produce some contention regardless of its format. By first establishing context and explaining why the training is happening and why it matters, you can get the trainee on board. If you don’t, they’ll be stubborn the whole way through. 

Simulation may cause some initial discomfort, but once students become accustomed to the training approach, it becomes second nature. Practicing is almost inherent to the human condition, so practicing the important skillsets of your job should be too. 

Whether you call it role play or simulation, this act of practicing is something we do every day. It provides a safe space and formula for us to practice a new skillset that we need to learn. Just like practicing a new habit, like a workout program or running regimen, is uncomfortable at first, you practice the moves until they become normal. Your body may first resist the new workout because it’s not accustomed the approach, but when you repeat the cycle over and over, you reprogram your body and brain and normalize the actions. 

That’s a simulation in your day-to-day life; now just apply those same concepts to your trainings. Yes, it’s uncomfortable at first, but as your body and brain learn the motions, it becomes customary and you learn the lessons therein. 

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