Peer support groups are a unique place where healing can be found through connection and shared experiences. People come together and work collectively towards better mental health and wellbeing. As peer support specialists, part of our role is facilitating this process.
This comprehensive guide aims to equip you with the knowledge and tools needed to successfully facilitate a peer support group. From understanding group dynamics to handling emotionally charged moments, this guide covers it all.
Table of Contents
The Basics of Peer Support Groups
To facilitate a peer support group, we need to have a basic understanding of what they are. In this section, we will look at some of the different types of peer support groups as well as common formats.
Additionally, we will take a brief look at the role of the facilitator before diving in further.
What Is A Peer Support Group?
To put it simply, peer support groups, whether in-person or online, allow individuals facing similar challenges to come together and find a better way forward. As the name suggests, these groups provide support, encouragement, and can be an incredible learning experience for everyone involved.
The focus in these groups is on shared experiences, collective problem-solving, and of course, mutual support.
Types of Peer Support Groups
As peer support is becoming increasingly popular, there are more and more specialized groups. In other words, I don’t think I could even begin to list every type of group out there. With that in mind, here are some of the common types.
Groups for individuals dealing with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.
Groups that support individuals in recovery from substance abuse or addiction.
Groups for people living with long-term medical conditions like diabetes or cancer.
Groups that offer support for those who have lost a loved one.
Common Formats for Groups
Peer support groups come in all different shapes and sizes. Moreover, they can have different formats as to how they are run.
Some groups are less formal and require less facilitation. In these groups, it’s common for each member to share about their experiences or thoughts about a topic one by one. Often times, the facilitator is simply there to get the meeting started.
Alternatively, groups can be a little more discussion focused or take on a psychoeducational format. In these cases, facilitators take a more active role and lead the group.
Similarly, members are encouraged to share their experiences and thoughts about a subject.
Only in these groups, feedback from the facilitator as well as other group members plays a more central role.
In psychoeducational groups, there may be an designated topic that the facilitator provides information about. Afterwards, they will engage members regarding that topic. Additionally, there may be worksheets or “homework” involved in this type of group.
The Role of a Facilitator
Unlike professional therapy sessions, these groups are usually led by individuals who have firsthand experience with the issue at hand.
While they are not therapists or counselors, peer support professionals receive specialized training to lead and facilitate these groups. The facilitator plays a key role in the overall functioning and success of the group.
The facilitator plays a pivotal role in the functioning of a peer support group. They are responsible for:
- Creating a Safe Space: Ensuring both physical and emotional safety for all members.
- Guiding Discussions: Keeping conversations focused and meaningful.
- Managing Group Dynamics: Balancing individual needs with group objectives and maintaining harmony.
Preparing For The Role
Learning to facilitate peer support groups is an ongoing learning experience. That being said, preparation is important. Having this knowledge, along with your training will set up you up with a solid foundation to work from.
Understanding Group Dynamics
The dynamics of a peer support group evolve and change over time. Being able to recognize and understand these changes allows you to be more effective in your role.
Moreover, understanding these stages of development can help you manage conflict and keep the group moving in a positive direction.
This is the initial stage where members are introduced and begin getting to know each other. It’s usually characterized by excitement, anticipation, and more often than not, a good dose of anxiety. Mostly, because individuals are unsure of what to expect.
As members become more comfortable and familiar with each other, they start expressing their thoughts and opinions. Which in turn, can lead to potential conflicts and disagreements. This stage not only tests the strength of the group, but also the facilitators skills in conflict resolution.
Over time, the group begins to settle. Members understand each other better and learn to appreciate their differences. Moreover, norms are established and individuals are in agreement about how things should be running. Overall, the group begins to work more cohesively and connections are formed.
At this stage, the group is like a well oiled machine. Members work together to solve problems and support each other. When conflict arises, members can work through these issues with minimal friction and find a healthy balance. Ultimately, the group is actively working toward goals and objectives without too much direction from the facilitator.
It should be noted, that these stages are not always linear or concrete. Sometimes groups will move back and forth between stages and that’s completely natural. Even more so if there are new members coming in and out of the group.
Because of this, it’s important to stay flexible and adaptable to group needs.
As mentioned before, there is always more to learn when it comes to facilitating peer support groups. There will be new aspects to consider and different personalities influencing the group.
That being said, being able to recognize which stage of development the group is in provides valuable information.
It can help you determine what steps to take to help move the group forward, as well as when to take a step back and return to the basics.
Setting Objectives and Goals
Every peer support group should have a clear purpose. Otherwise, it’s easy to just drift from one topic to another never really making any progress. This purpose can be broken down into specific goals and objectives.
Short-term goals for a peer support group might include several things. First, there needs to be ground rules set for the group. These should be rules and expectations that everyone can agree on.
Are there sharing limits? Are there any topics that are off limits? These ground rules lay the groundwork for how the group operates.
Moreover, ground rules need to be set for your involvement as the peer support group facilitator. How engaged will you be in the discussions? Do you provide support for members outside of the group?
Being transparent these things up front makes it easier for the group to stick to them and develop healthy norms.
Long Term Goals
Long-term goals are the overall objectives the group is working towards. This could be helping members learn coping strategies, improving quality of life, developing a support network etc. Ultimately, these goals give a sense of purpose and direction to the group.
Creating A Safe Space
The success of a peer support group really hinges on one important factor. Do the members feel safe and comfortable sharing?
This applies to both physical and emotional safety.
The physical environment is actually super important. It needs to be somewhere that is private, comfortable, and free of distractions. In other words, having the group in a local coffee shop is probably not the best idea.
You know, confidentiality and all that good stuff.
Additionally, you want all the group members to be able to see and talk to each other. In my own experience, when members sit outside of the main circle or face away from the group, it tends to be less cohesive.
Basically, members feel disconnected and are less likely to feel welcomed or accepted by the rest of the group.
When individuals are excluded from the group physically, it tends to leave them feeling excluded emotionally as well. Which in turn, means they are less likely to share.
Overall, this results in less positive outcomes for group members.
Emotional safety can be a little trickier. Mainly, because there are so many different factors that play into whether someone feels comfortable sharing.
Members should feel confident that they can express their feelings without judgment or ridicule. Moreover, they should know that whatever is talked about in a group will stay there. Again, this is why setting ground rules is so important.
Respecting others’ opinions, maintaining confidentiality, and keeping discussions constructive and positive should all be part of those rules.
Part of running a peer support group, means creating and maintaining a safe space as the group continues to grow.
The First Meeting
The first meeting sets the tone for the entire journey of the peer support group. This is the best opportunity to build a positive and welcoming atmosphere. This section will guide you through setting the agenda, building trust, and evaluating the first meeting.
Setting the Agenda
The agenda for the first meeting should be well structured but flexible at the same time. This way, you can be sure to accommodate the needs of the group. These are some key components for the first meeting.
Members should introduce themselves and if they feel comfortable, share a little bit about why they are there. Additionally, this is the facilitators opportunity to familiarize themselves with members names and faces.
Depending on the group and where you work, this is also the time to obtain informed consent and explain confidentiality.
These can be simple activities or questions to help members get to know each other. Personally, I usually start each meeting with a simple check in question. This helps get members focused and engaged with the group.
In fact, this is something you can continue even after the first group meeting.
The first meeting is the best time to establish ground rules. Plus, including members in this process helps them feel involved in the group. Each person gets to weigh in on how they feel the group should operate.
Confidentiality, being part of informed consent, will be one of the first things discussed in the group. As the facilitator of the peer support group, it’s your responsibility to inform and assure members that what is shared in the group stays in the group.
That being said, it will most likely need to be revisited as new members join.
Additionally, you need to address and explain any limits to confidentiality. Remember, this is more than just a formality, its an ethical and legal responsibility.
Modeling Good Participation
The role of a facilitator in a peer support group extends beyond merely guiding discussions or managing group dynamics. In many ways, the facilitator embodies the spirit of the group.
Members often look to the facilitator as a benchmark for how to behave, engage, and participate. This means that every action, every word, and every gesture from the facilitator can set a precedent.
For better or for worse.
Leading By Example
Being a role model in a peer support group comes with its challenges. It’s not just about what you say but how you say it.
Trust me when I say, there are plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings.
When a facilitator is open, attentive, and respectful, it sends a clear message to the group about the expected behavior.
Basically, it says “this is a space where everyone listens, everyone respects, and everyone cares.”
Moreover, the way a facilitator responds to contributions can have a huge influence the group’s dynamics. Recognizing and praising constructive contributions creates a positive environment where members feel valued and acknowledged.
These positive reinforcements can motivate members to be more engaged and active in discussions.
Encouraging Others To Open Up
There will always be quieter members in any group. Sometimes individuals, for any number of reasons, might be hesitant to voice their thoughts or feelings. A facilitator’s role here is to gently encourage and reassure.
The facilitator might try directing questions their way or asking for their opinions on specific topics. The goal is not to put them on the spot but to show them that their voice matters and is valued.
In essence, modeling good participation is about creating a balance. It’s about leading by example while also ensuring that every member feels seen, heard, and appreciated.
Understanding Your Influence
The influence of a facilitator can also swing the other way. Just as positive behaviors can set a constructive tone, negative or careless behaviors can have a detrimental effect on the group.
If a facilitator appears disinterested, dismissive, or judgmental, it can create an environment of mistrust and apprehension.
Members might become hesitant to share, fearing they will be judged or simply ignored.
Furthermore, biases or favoritism, even if unintentional, can alienate members and create divisions within the group.
Because of this, facilitators need to be continuously self-aware and reflective. This way they can make sure that their actions and responses line up with the group’s best interests and objectives.
Evaluating the First Meeting
The end of the first meeting is a great opportunity to get feedback from the group. Trust me, if you want to be successful at facilitating a peer support group, feedback is essential.
A few minutes before the end of the meeting, ask questions about how the members felt about how things went. Again, this shows that their input is valued and welcome. Afterwards, ask if they feel like any adjustments need to be made.
The more they get involved in the formation of the group, there is a better chance of participation in later groups.
Alternatively, you can use anonymous surveys or questionnaires to get feedback. Either way, this information can be used to help make their experience the most productive.
Facilitating a peer support group is a continuous commitment to learning and collaboration. It demands adaptability, empathy, and a healthy dose of patience. This section is all about day to day group facilitation and how to keep things moving in a positive direction.
Member engagement is the lifeblood of a healthy peer support group. Your role as a facilitator is to make sure it keeps flowing.
The easiest way to do this is to keep things interesting. In other words, plan a variety of activities and discussion topics. For example, you could have a meeting focused on stress management techniques and another on personal stories of resilience.
Additionally, you can invite guest speakers or experts to share new perspectives. It doesn’t have to be someone famous, just someone with knowledge valuable to the group.
This not only improves the learning experience but it breaks up the monotony of the regular day to day.
Notice How You Feel
If the group starts to feel monotonous, then you are headed in the wrong direction. Which brings up an important point, pay attention to how you feel. If you are feeling bored and disenchanted with the group, chances are, you’re not the only one.
Your personal experience in the group can provide insight and it is definitely worth listening to.
Keeping the Discussion Focused
If there is one thing you will learn facilitating peer support groups, it’s that discussions can easily veer off-topic. It might be due to boredom, avoidance of a sensitive topic, or someone feeling emotionally charged.
In these situations, effective time management is crucial.
If a discussion starts to drift, gently steer it back to the main topic. This helps keep things focused, while also respecting the time commitment of the group members. However, it may not be as easy as it sounds.
Keeping the discussion focused sometimes requires cutting someone off. Understandably, it’s not always a comfortable feeling. Still, as the facilitator, it is your responsibility to make those decisions and take action when necessary.
Moreover, allowing someone to monopolize the time of other members can lead to bigger problems. And that’s not counting the fact that it interrupts the constructive flow of the discussion.
Identifying Common Themes
Over time, you’ll probably notice recurring themes or issues that members bring up. Recognizing these patterns can help you plan future sessions to address these common concerns. For instance, if anxiety is a recurring theme, you might dedicate a session to coping mechanisms specifically for anxiety.
Alternatively, you might notice that relationships are a common concern. In this case, you could plan for one session dedicated to healthy boundaries, and another to communication skills.
The point is, by paying attention to recurring issues, the facilitator can make adjustments that better serve the group.
Handling Sensitive Issues
Sensitive or emotionally charged topics are practically a guarantee in peer support groups. Because of the strong emotional responses that can be triggered, peer specialists should be prepared for these moments.
As a facilitator, part of your role is learning to recognize and address these moments before they become a crisis. This involves recognizing the signs of emotional distress and using de-escalation techniques to calm the situation.
The trick lies in acknowledging the individual’s feelings without letting the emotional intensity derail the group’s focus.
Responding to Emotionally Charged Moments
In most cases, the support and encouragement from the group (including the facilitator) will be enough to manage these situations. Just remember to respond from a place of empathy and compassion, while staying open to the situation.
Never underestimate the power of listening.
Still, having a crisis management plan in place just in case things escalate. This could involve having emergency contact numbers readily available or knowing local resources for immediate professional help.
Moreover, be prepared to refer members to professional services for issues that are beyond the group’s scope.
Balancing the Needs of the Individual Vs. the Needs of the Group
Hands down, one of the most challenging aspects of facilitating a peer support group is balancing individual needs with those of the group.
While it is important to give space for individual issues, these should not overshadow the group’s goals. For example, if one member’s concerns start to dominate every meeting, it may be necessary to kindly suggest additional support outside of the group setting.
Learning Into Discomfort
Again, it can be extremely uncomfortable telling someone it’s time to move on to another topic. However, failing to do so sets a precedent that can be hard to break out of. Even more, it can make other members feel as though they are being ignored.
While it may be uncomfortable, stepping in serves the group in two ways.
First, it keeps the discussion balanced and makes sure each individual gets time in the group. Second, it models healthy assertiveness and shows the group that it’s ok to take risks.
Just remember, empathy and compassion are essential when handling these situations.
Member Turnover and Onboarding New Members
One thing is sure, peer support groups often experience member turnover. Sometimes people achieve their goals and move on from the group, other times members simply drop out. In any case, the group dynamics will change.
Members usually develop strong connections in the group and when someone drops out, it can be emotionally difficult. As a peer specialist, your goal is to provide support during these moments of transition.
The other side of this is welcoming new members to the group. Peer support group facilitators should have a plan for onboarding new members and helping them adjust to the group’s norms and expectations.
Maintaining Confidentiality and Ethical Standards
With all the changes that happen within peer support groups, it is important to continually emphasize confidentiality.
Confidentiality is a cornerstone of any support group. Peer specialists must continually remind members about the importance of keeping shared information within the group. This is not just about trust but also about adhering to ethical standards that protect individuals’ privacy and dignity.
Adapting to Changing Needs
As the group progresses, its needs and focus may evolve. As peer specialists, we should be flexible enough to adapt the group’s objectives and activities to meet these changing needs. This might involve revisiting and updating the group’s goals, introducing new activities, or even changing the meeting format.
More importantly, peer specialists need to accommodate different learning styles and adjust accordingly. Peer support groups are diverse and include people from a wide range of backgrounds.
Making sure that each individual is able to receive the appropriate support is a responsibility that falls to the group facilitator.
Providing Resources and Information
Peer specialists can add to the overall value of the group by providing relevant resources and information. This could be articles, contact information for professionals, or details about upcoming events or workshops that could benefit the group.
Having a resource list can make this super easy. Basically, its just a collection of available resources that can benefit the individuals you work with. To learn more about how to build one and what to include, read How To Build a Resource List: A Peer Specialists Best Friend.
Advanced Facilitation Techniques
So we have covered the basics of facilitating a peer support group. Now lets take a look at some more advanced skills that will take things to the next level. This section explores the art of asking questions, dealing with difficult personalities, and adapting to virtual settings.
The Art Of Asking Questions
Open-ended questions like “How did that experience make you feel?” draw out more thoughtful responses.
Conversely, closed-ended questions such as “Were you upset?”, usually result in short one word answers.
Another way to stimulate discussion is by using probing techniques and follow up questions. For example, after a member shares an experience, you might ask “Can you tell me more about that?”. This helps individuals explore their thoughts and feelings more deeply.
Dealing with Difficult Personalities
Every group has its challenges, and difficult personalities are almost a guarantee. This isn’t to say that these individuals are bad people, simply that they may take more skill to work with.
For example, you may encounter members who dominate discussions. Remember, facilitating a peer support group requires balancing the needs of every individual. Because of this, you may need to address instances where a certain member overshares or talks over others.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who rarely participate. While peer support is voluntary are we aren’t there to force engagement, facilitators may need to gently encourage more passive members of the group.
There are a wide range of personalities that you will encounter while facilitating peer support groups. Learning to adapt your approach to be effective with each one takes practice and commitment.
Adapting to Virtual Settings
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that virtual settings are not just an alternative but sometimes the only option. Facilitating a virtual peer support group comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities.
Platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams can be great ways to increase accessibility to peer support services. However, using this technology might require adjusting your approach.
Interactive features like polls or breakout rooms can help increase engagement and participation.
More than anything, facilitators need to ensure that everyone is comfortable with the technology. This might require additional support or helping individuals learn to use the features on the platform.
Common Challenges in Facilitating Peer Support Groups
Facilitating a peer support group is rewarding but not without its challenges. Here are some common issues you might encounter.
A Group is Unusually Quiet
Silence can be awkward and may indicate that members are not comfortable sharing. This is to be expected in the earlier meetings and typically resolves itself after members get to know each other.
Sharing your personal experiences and getting things started can be useful in these situations. Also, light hearted check in questions can help get discussions started as they don’t require as much self-disclosure.
A Group is Unusually Noisy
Over-talkative groups can make it difficult to manage time and ensure everyone gets a chance to speak. This may require the facilitator to be assertive and remind members of the agreements set at the formation of the group.
In my own experience, a simple redirection from the facilitator is enough to bring focus to the group.
When a Situation Becomes Dangerous or Violent
In these situations, immediate action is required. This might include ending the group, asking a member to leave, or contacting authorities if necessary.
While dangerous situations are rare, they do occur. Because of this, In most cases, the agency you work for will already have one in place.
When a Group is Passive
A lack of engagement can make it challenging to achieve group objectives. If you run into this situation, try changing things up and introducing new activities or group exercises. Also, get feedback from the group as to what might make things more interesting
When Someone Relapses or Passes Away
This can be emotionally taxing for the group and requires sensitive handling. It’s important to remain empathetic and have patience during these times. Moreover, you may need to refer the individual to a clinical team member if possible.
Alternatively, you can offer to help connect them with local resources.
When Several New Members Join/Quit
Sudden changes in group composition can disrupt dynamics and require adjustments. In these scenarios, collaboration is key. By this I mean, get feedback from the group as to how everyone is feeling. This way, you can work together to find the best way forward.
Lack of Consensus
Sometimes, the group may struggle to agree on goals or activities, leading to tension. Again, this is a time for clear communication and collaboration. Moreover, this is were your skills of balancing group needs comes into play.
Facilitators themselves can experience emotional fatigue, especially when dealing with heavy topics. Don’t hesitate to reach out to colleagues or supervisors for support.
In fact, if you work in an organization where you have regular supervision, this is the time to address those concerns.
Dealing with the challenges of facilitating a peer support group takes commitment and patience. That being said, you can reach out to colleagues and supervisors within your organization if you are struggling in your role.
Facilitating Peer Support Groups: A Final Note
Facilitating a peer support group is a fulfilling yet challenging role that requires a blend of empathy, leadership, and adaptability. From setting up the first meeting to navigating the complexities of group dynamics, there is a lot to take in.
Applying the knowledge in this guide will give you a solid foundation to work from. Moreover, the resources here at MHAPSS can help you continue to develop your skills as a group facilitator.
Remember, peer support is a journey and an ongoing learning experience.
And with experience, comes confidence.
We Believe In You
The ultimate goal is to create a supportive environment where individuals feel empowered to share, learn, and grow with each other. With everything you do, remember to be your authentic self. The rest of the skills and techniques in peer support can be learned as you go.
We want to thank you for the work you do and encourage you to reach out if you have any questions. Would you do us a favor and leave a comment to let us know how we are doing?
We take your feedback seriously and want to provide you with the best resources possible.
Frequently Asked Questions
What qualifications do I need to facilitate a peer support group?
While formal qualifications may not be necessary, knowledge in group dynamics, active listening, and skills such as mental health first aid and motivational interviewing can be beneficial.
How do I handle conflicts within the group?
Conflicts are natural in any group setting. The key is to address them openly but sensitively, ensuring that all parties feel heard.
Can a peer support group replace professional therapy?
No, a peer support group is not a substitute for professional medical advice or therapy. It serves as a supplementary form of support.
How do I measure the success of the group?
Success can be measured through member feedback, achievement of group goals, and the overall well-being of the members.
Continuous learning is a big part of peer support. The following resources can provide further insight and guidance into the topic of facilitating peer support groups.
What it Takes: Wisdom from Peer Support Specialists and Supervisors by National Association of Peer Supporters, Rita Cronise, et al.
Please note that these resources were instrumental in the writing of this article.
Elijah Meason is a Certified Peer Support Worker in the State of New Mexico. He is a SMART Recovery facilitator and is working toward getting his Masters degree in social work. He is currently working at a dual diagnosis treatment center helping individuals overcome mental health and addiction challenges.