Facilitate Instead of Train: Four Ways to Make Learning Stick

Think differently about your meetings. Facilitate, don't "train"

Think about all the formal learning experiences (aka “classes”) you’ve ever led—how often did you facilitate instead of train and make learning stick?

The goal is fully-engaged participants, but how do you do that?

How often did you try to tell the students everything they’d ever need to know about the topic—otherwise known, as my father would say, as “trying to fit 10 pounds of potatoes in a five pound sack?” Your students feel like every minute moves slower than the previous one. It’s an invitation for them to check out and start making grocery lists in their heads.

Conversely, how often have you led a learning session in which you felt completely engaged, connected to the participants, and at the end they wanted more? That’s the magic of the best facilitators—and those skills can be learned.

Personally, I’ve been both. I’m not proud of it, but early in my career I was a “potato sack” trainer. And it wasn’t pretty.

Or fun.

Or effective.

Four ways to shift from training to facilitation

And now I’ve learned a better way: shifting from training to facilitating. And here are the four secrets that will help you facilitate like a pro and make learning stick:

Know Yourself. Instead of “knowing it all” (the hallmark of a trainer), know yourself. The deeper your connection with your strengths, the better you’ll be at leveraging them in service to the attendees with humility, grace, and relaxed confidence. And that builds trust—a lubricant for learning. Plus, you’ll model openness —a critical success factor for learning. Confidence instead of righteousness has a gravitational pull that draws us in.

Know the Material—Deeply. Knowing the material in your head is fine for the potato sack approach. But knowing the material in your heart allows you to get out of your head, connect to the concepts personally, and share stories that demonstrate the value of what they’re learning. That’s both powerful and memorable. Connecting in a heart-felt way is also very freeing—the more you prepare, the less worried you’ll be in front of the room, and the more you’ll be in the moment with your participants.

Know the Participants. Learn about them as much as you can in advance of the session. And even if you haven’t met them before, introduce yourself to them as they walk in – and get curious. Where are they from? What fun activities did they do over the weekend? Where did they go out to dinner the night before—and how was the service (and the tiramisu)?When you take an interest in them—and connect with them right out of the gate – they’ll do the same for you during the session. Plus, you’ll have fun nuggets about each of them to weave into the class – and who doesn’t like it when a speaker connects to a comment we made earlier?

Know (and trust!) the Process. Adults learn by trying something new, testing it against their own existing mental models, and adjusting when it’s needed. This is rarely 100% comfortable. Give participants the space to try new things with grace instead of making them “wrong.” New ideas need breathing room, and as a facilitator you’ll hold the space for the new concepts to take root. By staying positive, asking questions for discovery, reframing ideas, and staying open to different points of view, you’ll make it safe to try new behaviors. And after all, isn’t that the end game of the learning process?

Do you have other hints that work well for you when facilitating? We’d love to hear them—reply to this post and let us know!

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Avatar for Amber Lineback

Amber Lineback

Amber will tell you that her passion is learning — in all its forms. “I believe it happens when we bump into something different,” she says, “Whether it is experiencing a different culture through travel or helping a team work through conflict. Growth is a life-long process, and there’s a wise saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I get a kick out of being the student as much as being the teacher.”