The Suicide Prevention Implementation Academy – the longest and largest Implementation Academy of the year, and I was asked to facilitate! In this role, I was asked to guide three state delegations, each composed of seven to nine delegates, through the implementation process to create a comprehensive and coordinated suicide prevention implementation plan. I don’t think there are words in the English language to describe the anxiety I had.

I’ve had some experience facilitating groups of 16-year-olds through my volunteer work, but I’m typically more of a “behind the scenes” person. I have never liked the spotlight, unless I knew absolutely everything that was going on. What if I told someone the wrong information? What if my delegations weren’t interested in what I had to say? But I knew that I had to take the opportunity presented to me and develop my professional skills. So I did it, and I even think my groups liked me (one group even brought me a cupcake on the last day!)!

I came away from my facilitation experience with two main takeaways:

1. The facilitator is not necessarily the most knowledgeable person in the room

Being a facilitator does not mean that you are an expert in the subject – and this was especially true in my case. Each delegation was composed of stakeholders working in the suicide prevention field in their state, and we were fortunate to have a faculty of nationally recognized subject matter experts at the event; I was very clearly not the expert in this group. My role as a facilitator was to connect the subject matter experts with the delegations, find individuals who could answer the delegations’ topical questions, and guide the delegations through the implementation process to develop their deliverables. Realizing this distinction early on helped me define my role and comfortably steer the work of the delegations.

2. Each group has a different dynamic, and will take its own route to the meeting’s goals

My three delegations could have not been more different from one another – one group was very collaborative, one group was very directive, and the third group seemed to be composed of three mini-groups that had limited interaction with one another. I could not have changed any of their dynamics even if I had wanted to. Instead, I had to be flexible, and adapt to each group’s working style to help them produce an implementation plan. Recognizing and respecting their working styles helped me gain credibility with each the groups, which made it easier to help them achieve their goals.

Of course, I learned so many other lessons, but they ultimately boiled down to these overarching ideas. Learning these two takeaways helped me feel more confident in my capabilities as a facilitator at the Implementation Academy and for future events!