Thinking that the facilitator has the answers is one of the biggest problems with the way people are entrained to relate to facilitators. Because you are guiding a process, many people will feel that you are also an authority on what to do. They will often stop and ask questions about how things are going to work.
Imagine: you have just done an elegant and energetic Open Space opening and you are ready to hand the process over to the group. You have slowly and clearly explained the instructions. You have showed everyone how the process works. You have restated the theme of the gathering to refocus everyone on the task at hand. Just as you start to walk out of the circle and let the group take over, a hand goes up “Excuse me, but what if no one comes to my session?” And then another “Yes and what happens if there are two things going on at the same time and I want to do both ” And so on…
Here you have a choice. Answering the questions stops everything. And truthfully your answer SHOULD be “I don’t know” but you are also trapped in the pattern of “facilitator as expert” and so you try to answer…”well, you could wait a while and see who comes…and you, you can move around between sessions or maybe see if you can get a session moved to another time slot….”
“Yes but what if…”
And on it goes. And you are not getting to work. And those that are ready are also not getting to work, which is REALLY frustrating because what you are actually doing is indulging people’s anxieties. Anytime you answer a question about a hypothetical situation, you are not helping. You are entraining the group into your perceived expertise instead of letting them discover possibilities on their own.
So there is a better choice and it’s one that I’ve been using for a couple of years now. In the second before you let people get to work you ask the group a question: “Put your hand up if you have enough clarity from the instruction I just gave to get down to work.” Many, many hands should go up. Invite people to keep their hands up, and then utter these magic words.
“If any of you have questions about the process, ask these people.” And then remove yourself from the situation.
This does two things. First it immediately makes visible how many people are ready to get going and that shows everyone that any further delay is just getting in the way of work. And second, it helps people who are confused to see that there are people all around them that can help them out. And that is the simplest way to make a group’s capacity visible and active.
You will have to brave a little fire from time to time. Even after doing this recently I had a person say “Can I just ask a question for clarification, though?” to which I replied “no.” She was shocked. I let people get to work and then went over to talk to her myself.
“What can I help you with?”
She got a little angry. “I had a question about notes.”
“Sure what is it?”
“Well I’m not going to ask it now. I think it was a question that the whole group should have heard.”
You need to help people see that their anxiety and their ego are a potent mix. It may well have been a great question about taking notes. It may well have been valuable on some level for everyone to hear. But almost certainly it would not have been more valuable than the group becoming aware of its own capacity and getting down to work. And if I couldn’t answer the question one on one, then I was left wondering if it wasn’t just going to be some clever grandstanding.
Getting myself out of the middle of the work is hard not only because my ego gets tickled a little by my own role, but because other people’s egos conspire to keep me in the middle. Ever since I have used this technique, turning the group’s attention to its own resourcefulness has never failed.
And as a shameless plug, we’ll cover more techniques like this in my Open Space Technology facilitator training June 2-3, 2016 in Vancouver. I hate adding commercials at the end of a blog post, but click on through if this is something you’d like to learn more about!