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Give a man a workshop, and he’ll learn for a day. Teach a man to facilitate, and he will engage for a lifetime.

Or so the saying goes.

Last week, I had the most fantastic experience! I joined Samantha Sutherland and headed to the Cook Islands to train several local public servants how to facilitate.

To say our participants were less than enthusiastic about undertaking three days of training was an understatement. Many of them felt they already knew how to lead a meeting, and most had run community engagement sessions before. In addition, like all of us, they had many competing priorities calling them back to their desks.

Our training would end with them running a conference for 200 people, which meant by the end of the week they needed to be ready and able to facilitate groups of up to 50 participants.

Samantha and I ready for day one!

Day one was all focused on the basics. What you need to know to be a facilitator, how to structure a session, why planning is essential, what to do when faced with difficult people, and what types of activities you can run. It was the foundation of good practice, not about the conference itself. This was about building capabilities and skills they could use in any scenario.

The joy and the laughter throughout this day, helped us survive in a small room, with high humidity and no aircon. The group engaged with the content and were willing to give any activity a go. We practice information-gathering activities, ice breakers and energisers which formed bonds with a group of people that hadn’t worked together before.

We discussed at length how they would facilitate in their cultural circumstances. They would potentially be facilitating their cousin, their brother, their uncle, the chief of their village or an elder – how would they get that person to stop talking in a hierarchical culture. Sam and I learnt more about the Cook Islands in the one day than we would have on any holiday.

Facilitation training!

Day two we started to shift our focus to the conference by practising the types of activities we would be running. These were all completely new to the group (and to most people on the Cook Islands), they had simply never undertaken brainstorming or information gathering in such a structured way before.

Each participant had to do a practice run of one of the activities before receiving feedback. They could select any topic they liked which meant that I got to learn about local restaurants (yay!), how to grow Taro in the Pa Enua, the lack of opportunities for youth and the challenges that tourism is bringing to Aitutaki.

Learning about growing taro

Day three we brought in our team to join the facilitators. Amy Arbery, Paige Pettit, Sue Houzaife and Jennyfer Ngyuen flew over from Australia to help us out and to work with the locals to run the conference. Our team was welcomed so warmly by the facilitators, and there was an instant rapport in the group. Everyone was put into a team of three that they would work with throughout the conference – two facilitators and an assistant from our team. The teams spent the day together figuring out how they would work together and what roles they would each play.

For our final day of training, we were in the Ministry of Health building, just outside of the main town of Avarua. We decided to run our activity of the day, an ice breaker, outside. The view of the ocean and the sea breeze made this a simply magical moment for our crew – it was definitely a “is this for real?” experience.

We finished the day with a visit to the auditorium, which is an amazing open air space that holds the Cook Islands annual cultural dance competition. The visit left everyone excited for the next day and more familiar with the space they would be working in.

Conference day! If I said, we weren’t all running on adrenaline by this point I would be lying. There was a lot of nervous energy in the group, but we were prepared, and I knew we would be able to handle anything that was thrown at us. It was amazing to watch all of the conference participants flowing through the doors ready to share their insights into the future of the Cook Islands economy.

Conference underway!

The conference is something I will never forget. It was absolutely one of my career highlights.

I watched seven people that we had trained confidently stand up and lead 40 -50 people through three facilitated information-gathering sessions. They ran the sessions flawlessly, dealing with difficult characters with humility and grace, provided answers to tricky questions, and kept people engaged and activity even into the heat of the afternoon. I have never been more proud!

Peerui, Dorothy and Paige leading one of the sessions

From our perspective, the conference was a huge success – we collected a massive amount of information to provide in a report back to the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management. Our activities were well received despite being new to the whole community. Our facilitators ran their sessions well and gained some great new skills.

However, I knew we had a success on our hands when our facilitators were asked to lead the Public Sector Leadership conference the following week! Yay! I was so excited for them. It was great they were going to be able to put their new found skills to use so quickly.

Our whole team at the end of the conference

This was a great lesson for me in how important it is to deliver services that will also build capability. We could have waltzed in and run each of the sessions ourselves. But I don’t think it would have been as effective as we would not have had any local context and not understood the cultural nuances (or the local language). Instead, we helped to build the capability within the public service, giving them the skills to better engage their communities, and hopefully some new friendships.

Our Australian team at the end of the conference with our ‘ei katu (flower crown) gifts

Samantha and I are thinking about running facilitation training in Canberra early in 2020. It would be a full day course where you can learn facilitation fundamentals. If you are interested we would love to hear from you – please PM or email me at hello@elmcommunications.com.au

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