From “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”: How to leverage active listening as an event leader


We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” This quote from the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, couldn’t be more true and important.

Research studies from Salesforce, found that engagement levels are highest if the participants do most of the talking and lowest if the presenter does most of the talking. 

We need to shift from the traditional approach of embodying the sage on the stage, to instead the guide on the side. 

To do this, we can lean into the power of listening vs. speaking and invite our participants to take center stage. 


The first thing we want to do is to shift your mindset in terms of how you perceive your audience. Do you see them as empty cups that need to be filled with information OR as full cups brimming with life experience you can learn from?



When we treat participants like empty cups, it:

 👎  turns them into passive observers instead of active contributors and co-creators

 👎  ignores the valuable life experience and insights from each person in the room

 👎  reduces everyone’s potential for impactful learning 

 👎  discourages critical thinking and long-term memory retention

Instead, when we treat participants like the full cups that they are, we create powerful spaces for collaborative learning. As facilitators, it’s not our job to provide answers to all the questions, but to help our learners think more critically about the information for themselves. 

You can do the following to drink more from the full cups of your learners’ experience:

☕ Set an intention to listen more than you speak

☕ Ask more questions to the group to harness the diverse perspectives in the room

☕ Designate more time for discussions and learning from the group throughout your experience design


You can design an incredible event, but what truly makes it come alive are the people in the room and their unique contributions. Putting your participants in the center of the learning experience is essential – remember to call in, listen to, acknowledge, and integrate the vast life experience they have. As Bill Nye the Science Guy said, Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”

Tap into the emotional side of showing your group that you are fully present and actively listening to them by:

🧘‍♀️ Making eye contact

🧘‍♀️ Keeping an open body posture

🧘‍♀️ Nodding, smiling, and gesturing naturally

🧘‍♀️ Learning names and using them frequently 

🧘‍♀️ Thanking them for sharing 

🧘‍♀️ Paraphrasing and reflecting back what you heard

When someone shares to the group, it is so powerful to thank them by name and paraphrase or repeat back a snippet of what you just heard. This helps your audience feel seen and respected as you relay the nuances or details of what was shared. It sends a message you understood them and are engaged, instead of on autopilot and reciting from a script.


There are infinite ways to integrate active listening in your event leadership and invite your participants to share their wisdom with each other. Here are just a few examples of how to tangibly practice the shift from speaking at to listening and learning from

👍  Ask first ask before you tell. Encourage contributions regularly in the chat and out loud to hear from more voices before you provide your own perspective. We like to use the rule of 3s – hear from at least 3 different people before sharing your input. This especially goes for definitions – ask the audience to share how they define a term first, before you give your definition away!

The 4 Fs of Active Reviewing are also a great guide to ask debrief questions that really tap into the lived experience of your learners and invite more opportunities for listening:

  • Feelings: What emotions came up for you?
  • Facts: What shifted for you? What did you notice?
  • Findings: What did you learn from this experience?
  • Future: What might you do differently in the future as a result of what you just learned?

👍  Weave Themes. Weaving themes is about paying attention to what your audience shares and finding ways to weave those points throughout different areas of your session. When a learner makes a comment and 20 minutes later you highlight it again, honoring their name out loud, they can feel deeply seen. Hint: In case you are quick to forget, it can be helpful to jot down notes of what was shared to easily refer back to later! 

Shifting our mindset from “sage on the stage” to really trusting that the “wisdom is in the room” can make all the difference from a transactional event to a deep and meaningful learning experience.

How do you acknowledge your audience and invite them to share their brilliance with the room? 

If you want to practice new ways of listening with us then don’t miss out on our upcoming Virtual Connection Lab! 

✨ Join our upcoming Virtual Connection Lab on May 17 at 11am PST | 2pm EST with Adam Rosendahl, Senior Facilitator and discover the power of Listening. ✨

Use coupon code “LISTENINGBLOG” to register for FREE. Sign up here or click below.👇




Romy Alexandra is a learning experience designer and experiential learning trainer on a mission to humanize learning spaces.