by Stephen J Thorpe
To effectively facilitate peer support and development groups requires a combination of intentionality, structure, purpose and a supportive culture. Peer support and development support groups work best when they are relatively small and contain six or less people in size. A small group of people that you consider are your peers can come together around a shared purpose. Then developing a culture, a set of common understandings or some guiding rules to support the achievement of that purpose.
This piece explores process ideas that enable a robust and lasting peer support group. These process ideas can be described as a safe container that can “ensure the group is: purposeful; bounded in terms of membership, physical space, time, and roles and tasks; and that safety is created by managing group member behaviours, confidentiality, and psychological depth” (Thomas & Thorpe, 2019, p. 67).
Recently Zenergy’s Dr Dale Hunter was interviewed by Kāren Hunter on the important topic of peer support groups and what aspects of facilitation that can make them most effective. These include:
- Setting a clear purpose
- Creating a supportive culture
- Establishing equal time
- Ask for what will make the most of your time
- Rotating the facilitation and other roles
- Being creative about where and how you meet
The primary role of the group facilitator is to focus the group on its purpose and act as guardian of the agreed culture. Therefore, setting a clear purpose for why the group is in existence along with a living culture that can guide how people will work together is vital to the group being successful. Having an explicit group purpose gives clarity, certainty, transparency, safety and contributes to trust. The can guide the process the group towards setting and then meeting its purpose. Naming the group purpose allows the group to align. This alignment can happen on many levels including mentally, emotionally and energetically.
Guidance on setting a team purpose can be found in The Art of Facilitation (Hunter, 2007); in particular the Finding the Group Purpose process on page 240, however, some steps to cover include:
- Contact peers before the first meeting and ask them what they understand the purpose of the peer support group to be. Collate the responses and form a draft purpose
- At the first meeting of the group, have a round on the purpose — what people understand it to be. Is it clear? Try to keep the purpose statement 12 words or less and focused on one central idea. One description may stand out. If there is alignment, write the purpose up. Find the commonality and create a purpose that everyone aligns on. Look for what lights people up.
- You can also invite participants to draw or paint images which represent their individual purpose for being involved in the group. Encourage people to share their work one another’s work and notice the images and colours used. What are the commonalities and differences? A similar image may show up in several drawings. This may provide a clue to the group purpose. Ask individuals to speak the purpose they see emerging.
Setting a culture is about agreeing on how you as a group will be together. It can be naming the group contract, ground rules, understandings and desired behaviours that will enable everyone to fully participate. It’s up to the group what will be important. Deep listening is likely to be an important aspect of how people may wish to work together. Confidentiality may also be highly important to consider as an aspect that will create trust.
EQUALITY OF TIME
However long you meet in each session, it is important to set an equal amount of time for everyone. Establishing equal time means dividing the available time by the number of people in the group. This respects the right for all the members to have equal time to express themselves and it also stops the session from becoming a conversation, or a more general discussion.
MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR TIME
Having established equal time. Members may structure their time however they like. This may mean that each person may do things differently. Sometimes they may want to be listened to uninterrupted. They may ask for a particular focus of feedback from the group, or from one member of the group. They may ask for coaching from one or more of the group.
Part of making the most of the time may include setting an initial number of meetings (say six) and then reviewing to see if it is working for everyone, whether specific changes may be needed in the structure or culture, or whether the group may have achieved its purpose and may adjourn.
ROTATING THE FACILITATION ROLE
Sharing responsibility for the group helps by taking turns in various group roles or tasks, such as rotating the person who facilitates the session, finding an appropriate venue for meeting, providing food and drinks and coordinating the calendar invites or schedule.
BEING CREATIVE ABOUT WHERE AND HOW YOU MEET
The group may choose to meet at the same time and in the same venue each time, however consider the creative opportunities for how and where you may choose to meet.
For more on this topic, and others, there is a helpful chapter on Peer Development Groups in the book Co-opoeracy: A new way of being at work by Dale Hunter, Anne Bailey and Bill Taylor that also offers some further directions. This includes key things to watch out for and to avoid in your peer development group:
- Domination of the group by one or two people
- Advice that has not been requested by members
- Lack of commitment — not turning up or arriving late
- Safety issues, particularly around confidentiality
There are also processes in the book that you can use, such as, No 65 Peer development model and No 66 Peer development process – incident review.
Thomas, G. & Thorpe, S., J. (2019). Enhancing the facilitation of online groups in higher education: a review of the literature on face-to-face and online group-facilitation, Interactive Learning Environments, 27(1), 62-71. DOI: 10.1080/10494820.2018.1451897
Hunter, D. (2007) The art of facilitation: The essentials for leading great meetings and creating group synergy, Random House New Zealand.
Hunter, D., Bailey, A., and Taylor, B. (1997) Co-operacy: A new way of being at work, Tandem Press.