Facilitating change: Five Lessons learnt facilitating training in Zambia

I am travelling to Zambia next week to evaluate and build on a project to improve access to emergency care in the country. It seemed like a good time to reflect on some key aspects of what constitutes successful facilitation.  At the same time I’m working on a PhD proposal that builds on story-telling as a catalyst to change within communities (and organisations).

1. Pay attention to the etiquette 

Globalisation has provided us with the concept of a global village, which ignores the cultural differences that continue to exist, despite globalisation’s ‘melting pot’ effects.  What is accepted in one culture may be completely unacceptable in another culture.   These cultural differences may be amusing to some, or cross the line and be offensive to another.  As a facilitator it is important that you are aware of cultural variances and adapt accordingly.

In Zambia following protocol is important.  The importance of greeting and re-introducing the topic was highlighted in small group discussions where the participants would do this whenever they spoke.  When asked why, they stated that it’s rude not to.

During general conversation it is considered inappropriate to get directly to the point.  Etiquette dictates that you enquire about people’s health and wellbeing prior to discussing the issue at hand.  This is true in most of Africa.

Hierarchy dictates that junior staff waits for senior staff to communicate or participate first.  This is an important consideration for group work and can be managed by agreeing when house rules are set that the normal work hierarchical barriers do not exist in the group.  Participation will be seriously hampered if this interplay is not managed.

2. Story-telling is an educational tool

Human cultures tend to create narratives as a way of making sense of the world.  Story-telling is a very personal aspect of the wider African culture.  Traditionally, stories are passed orally from generation to generation and many survive solely by memory.  Stories are a way of passing the culture between generations including history, beliefs, traditions and community values.

In Zambia, story-telling is such an integral component of the Zambian culture that the Lusaka National Museum hosts a story-telling program, where stories are told by elders as a cultural educational tool.

What did we have before universities and schools?  We had stories. Story-telling is an integral part of learning and when applied as part of the course design significant learning may be possible.  Storytelling may enhance sense-making processes and has the capacity to support and grow relationships.

The ability of story-telling to cross cultural and community lines allows for various perspectives and provides a view into a different world.  Story-telling can identify themes and encourage participation; as such it can be utilised as a way of introducing a new topic or change in topic without losing momentum gained in a previous session.

Participative, interactive group work, where stories are shared, is an important facilitation and teaching method.

3. Meeting the group’s needs and expectations

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” “I don’t much care where –” “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”  – Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland

Write expectations and/or objectives for the session on a poster so that all participants remain aware of what would constitute a successful session.   This is an effective and simple self-measurement tool. At the end of a session, ask the participants whether they have clarity on the session’s goal, and/or if they feel that they have achieved the goal.

Even if the mandate is not clear, the facilitator and participants can set their own expected outcomes and work together to meet these.

Another way to measure outcomes would be to ask a question such as, ‘what did you learn that you are going to use in your work going forward?’  If used in a group discussion it may even result in further unintended learning.

4. Giving and receiving feedback

We should move away from end-of-course feedback after a lengthy workshop.  This is especially true if the participants are not coming back for another session. The feedback does not speak to their priorities or interests, so why would they feel inclined to help you plan your next session?  The focus should be on the now, this course, this day, this experience.

It’s important to acknowledge negative feedback and ask for suggestions on how things can be improved.  The actions taken, following negative feedback, is of great importance to demonstrate that the facilitator values the feedback and respects the participants.

Some highlights of our Zambia feedback sessions included:

  • Making available the opportunity to practice skills and methods
  • Providing freedom and autonomy, whilst practicing a skill
  • Teaching must be practical and hands-on
  • Part of being participant is being an observer
  • The need for flexibility in the educator’s teaching so that they can adapt or explain points in different ways.
  1. The truth about assumptions

…Never assume…. During one feedback session the participants stated that the presenters assumed a level of knowledge that was not present.  This can refer to both overestimating knowledge as well as underestimating it.  Question the obvious.  Adapt the material to the real context (not the assumed context!).


We need to be sensitive to participant needs and why people are attending workshops and we should strive to meet their expectations.  A little bit of flexibility is required to change the plan, especially when working in situations where there may be power failures and other difficulties and time constraints.