The Facilitator: Sage on the Stage or Guide on the Side?
In one of our recent public courses to teach facilitation skills, someone used the phrase “sage on the stage or guide on the side”. I think they were having an aha moment about the job of the process facilitator. It is not to be a lecturer or the wise knowledgeable expert, but a person who guides the group through a process to use the knowledge that resides within the group. When we did a web search of this phrase, almost every article spoke of a trend in teaching (vs. facilitation) to stop being the lecturer and be more firmly a “guide on the side”.
This blog addresses how we as facilitators might avoid the subtle impact of hierarchy in the way we treat a group that we are guiding. Our job is never to be the sage on the stage and perhaps even be a guide “at the back of the room”. We have a number of blogs that you will find complimentary to this topic related to the differences between training, coaching and facilitation, or embodying neutrality. We’ve listed those below in the resource section.
Here are four quick points to help you think more about your stance and role as a less visible or dominant process facilitator.
#1 Reduce Hierarchy in the Group
There are underlying foundational principles the process facilitator can keep in mind as they help the group navigate through a difficult or complex event, project, plan and/or decision. The first is to know that there is hierarchy in the room. You, the facilitator, have power in deciding how the group members talk to each other and what information they review for example. And, other members may have more senior leadership roles. One facial expression, hand gesture or sentence from you or the senior leaders can change the dynamics of participation in an influential way. Your job in being the guide on the side is to make yourself completely accessible to the group so they don’t see you as dominant, unapproachable or “better than”. As much as it might sound scary, I find being vulnerable and authentic to be a valuable (yet rarely acknowledged) competency. Vulnerability encourages people to see you as human and trustworthy. That will start to break down the idea that you have been given more power in the group by virtue of that fact that you are their facilitator. Also very important to reduce this hierarchy is to keep every one of your statements and behaviours as non-judging as possible.
To reduce the hierarchy of others in the room, often we can “coach” senior leaders before the group session to stay open, curious and take on a full participant role. We also can ask them to share as much information as they can to ensure more equality in terms of the database that people have. Other ways to break down the hierarchy of senior leaders in the room are to have the leader say something at the beginning about really needing information, reactions, insights and conclusions from everyone in the room. They can also say that they are anxious to get this wisdom so the organization can have a strong foundation to proceed. In addition, I might call on senior leaders at times to voice their opinion in ways that are not set in stone. For example, a senior leader might say, “I’ve been thinking a lot about this. And yet I’m really puzzled about this aspect of the problem. I’m wondering what other people’s experiences are with this?”
#2 Believe in Yourself. Believe in the Group
A second factor of becoming the guide on the side is to deeply believe in yourself as the guide. You have the ability to surface profound respect and knowledge from the group about the situation. You have learned enough about design, tools, process, and stance to do this. Now use it. This inner confidence might be said to yourself like this: “Wow, I cannot believe the wisdom, knowledge and experience this group has. It will be so interesting to draw this out and see what they come up with. I cannot wait. Now, where and how shall I start them on the path to discovering the immense knowledge and insight this group?”
What I’m about to say might seem like a contradiction but this is a trick I use for myself to feel that inner confidence. First of all, I dress in a way that is both comfortable and unique to me yet still appropriate to the culture of the group. I make sure that I’m well prepared in terms of knowing how to set the room up. I have a detailed facilitator guide, co-facilitators, and/or logistical support whenever possible. Finally, I hold myself very straight and in a good postural stance with my feet firmly resting on the ground. I take several deep breaths before the session starts and during pauses when participants are in small breakout rooms. I monitor my facial expression because I know I tend to frown when I’m thinking hard. In other words, I hold myself well yet I’m careful to stand in a way that is non-threatening. I remind myself to smile as often as I can.
#3 Use Small Groups Often
A third factor would be to continually assess your agenda design for ample opportunities for participants to engage in small groups. In these small groups, encourage them to be playful and creative. Use the small groups to process subsets of the larger question but always reminds them before going into breakout rooms of the larger question. It is also helpful to share with them how this more detailed smaller question is going to contribute to the final outcome that will resolve the larger question.
Sometimes it is helpful to have the same people participate in several consecutive small group activities. This lessens the time they need to build trust with each other and allows them to keep building on what they’ve done in a previous breakout room. The reason small groups allow the facilitator to be the guide on the side is that people feel empowered in small groups. This is because everyone generally gets to speak their opinion in a safe space if you’ve set up the small group activity skillfully. Generally, as a rule you might spend as much time as 50-70% in small group work. The large group work is important of course to bring everything together and to have people hear each others’ changing thinking as they move between different breakout activities.
#4 Model Your Facilitator Stance Through Your Movements
This may be obvious, but if you are to be the guide on the side, watch how much time you’re spending at the front of the room. Standing to the side during breakout activities and breaks, mingling amongst small group work, having others coming to the front of the room to share preliminary ideas is helpful as well.
Benefits of Guide on the Side
You might be amazed at how much easier it is to trust the group and be the guide, not the sage. Every time you are uncertain of what to do next, you can simply say to the group, “This is what we’ve done so far. I had been thinking about doing this as the next activity but I’m not sure that right now it’s the best use of our time. Can we take a moment as a group to assess what would be a better way to complete our process?” You can either discuss it with them as a large group or have them discuss it in small groups and come back with their suggestions. You can also suggest a break and have a few help you decide how to adjust the agenda in the moment. This is also a great way to stay guide on the side instead of sage on the stage.
Other Helpful Resources
One Small Change = HUGE Improvement in Meeting Dynamics
5 Big Differences Between Training and Facilitation
When the Facilitator Must NOT Be Neutral
When the Facilitator Knows Nothing or Everything About the Subject
Hi Barbara, I love this article and your emphasis on facilitation rather than being the expert. It’s definitely my preferred way of working when delivering leadership programmes or team sessions. I wonder whether you have any thoughts about individuals who are either used to more traditional methods, or in terms of personality, would prefer clarity and direction and find being asked their opinion about what we might do next both annoying and confusing.
Thanks, Mary for your comment. Let me get back to you on that soon…