Secrets to Navigating Power Dynamics in Peer Support Relationships

As peer support specialists, we can be seen as authority figures by the individuals we serve. Unfortunately, these power dynamics can lead to misunderstandings and less effective support. This simply an inconvenient truth about working in the field.

This article explores power dynamics in health care relationships, in particular peer support. We will look at the impact of power dynamics in peer support and how we can work to minimize them, maintaining a healthy balance in the helping relationship.

Table of Contents

Traditional Power Dynamics in Healthcare

In health care relationships, power dynamics have always played a role, even if they go unnoticed. They have the ability to shape interactions, communication, and ultimately, the quality of care provided.

As peer support specialists, we need to be aware of these dynamics and how they impact the relationships with those we serve.

Power dynamics in healthcare often revolve around the distribution of influence, control, and decision-making capabilities within the relationship.

These dynamics can be particularly pronounced due to the inherent power struggles in healthcare settings, where authority and expertise are often heavily weighted on the side of healthcare professionals.

Humbleness, forgiveness, clarity and love are the dynamics of freedom. They are the foundations of authentic power.

Historical Perspective: Hierarchical Structures

Historically, healthcare systems have been structured in a hierarchical manner, where physicians and other healthcare professionals often hold a significant amount of authority and control.

This hierarchy is more than just a structural organization. In reality, it permeates the relationships and power dynamics within healthcare settings. These structures often places those seeking help in a subordinate position.

Which in turn, can potentially reduce their ability to fully engage and make decisions about the care they receive.

Perception of Peer Support Specialists as Authority Figures

The perception of healthcare professionals, which by proxy includes peer support specialists, as authority figures can create a power imbalance in healthcare. This can leave individuals feeling less empowered to voice their concerns and ask questions.

Additionally, in these situations people become hesitant to share important information. They may be worried their concerns will be judged or dismissed as irrelevant.

Unhealthy power dynamics in peer support

It’s understandable considering what plays a significant role in power dynamics, such as knowledge, expertise, and the ability to influence outcomes.

These aspects may be intimidating, especially if the individual is not familiar with the concept of peer support.

In Organizations

Power dynamics are even more pronounced in organizations such as treatment facilities or hospitals. For one, the peer specialist is seen as part of the staff. For individuals seeking support, this automatically sets us aside as authority figures.

Moreover, because we often work as a team with other professionals, the collective authority can further intimidate individuals.

Addressing Power Dynamics in Peer Support

In peer support, addressing power dynamics is crucial. This is so that relationships can be built on a foundation of respect, understanding, and collaboration.

This is especially true when it comes to facilitating peer support groups. Working with different populations and personality can definitely complicate the matter. 

Trust me on that. 

Here’s the thing, many of the individuals we work with have already had bad experiences with people in positions of authority. Regardless of our life experience, our training, job positions, and professional title gives off a perception of authority similar to that of a therapist or doctor.

By no means am I trying to compare what we do as peer specialists to those roles. However, I can’t even count how many times I have been mistaken as a counselor and had to clarify my role.

The Unique Role of Peer Support Specialists

Peer support specialists stand out with a distinct role in the healthcare landscape. Because of our lived experience, we often serve as a bridge between health care professionals and individuals seeking help.

This unique position allows us to navigate these power dynamics differently.

Equality in Peer Support Relationships

Equality is a key aspect in peer support relationships, especially considering power dynamics in the helping relationships. As peer specialists, we strive to dismantle the conventional hierarchical structures found in health care.

In doing so, we help create an environment where individuals feel heard, valued, and empowered.

This equality is not merely symbolic, it’s the driving factor that ensures the support provided in genuine, relatable, and doesn’t include the traditional power struggles.

Healthy Power Dynamics In Peer Support

Unbalanced Power Dynamics in Peer Support

Although we strive to be equals with the individuals we support, confusion can still happen. Let’s look at the impact they can have in peer support.

Misunderstandings and Mistrust

Despite the equal playing field of peer support, misunderstandings and mistrust can still find there way into these relationships. In particular, when these issues are not addressed and talked about.

In other words, the remnants of traditional power dynamics in healthcare can linger if we allow them to.

As we mentioned before, many of the individuals we work with already have a mistrust of authority figures, and they might have a good reason for doing so. Taking these factors into account, shed some light on how peer support is different.

Reluctance in Sharing Personal Experiences

The power dynamics psychology notes how when individuals perceive a power imbalance, they may become hesitant to share personal experiences and vulnerabilities. Within peer support, this reluctance might come from fears of judgment, stigmatization, or a lack of confidentiality.

In turn, it makes establishing a truly supportive relationships very difficult.

Impact on the Effectiveness of Peer Support

When power dynamics start affecting the helping relationship, it can negatively affect the effectiveness of peer support as a whole. I mean think about it, if you though the person trying to help you was just another authority figure waiting for you to mess up, how helpful could they actually be?

Overall, the potential benefits of peer support, such as improved wellbeing, connection, and increased engagement in care, may end up being diminished.

A leader must have the courage to act against an expert’s advice.

Strategies for Navigating Power Dynamics

There are numerous ways we can navigate power dynamics in peer support relationships. First and foremost, we should be talking about them openly. As peer specialists, we should take the initiative to bring up the topic and clear the air.

While it may not be a quick fix, it’s a big first step towards minimizing their effects. Remember, working with power dynamics is an ongoing process. 

Understanding group dynamics can be useful in this process. Be sure to check out Group Dynamics 101: A Guide for Peer Specialists to learn more.

For now, let’s look at a few more effective strategies for navigating power dynamics in peer support relationships.

Building Trust

Along with talking about these issue openly, our stories can be powerful tools for balancing power dynamics. Obviously, the focus should be on those we support, but sharing our own recovery story and opening up about our past experiences can make us more relatable.

The flip side of that, is the willingness to listen and validate the experiences of those we work with. One thing to remember is that many of the individuals we support may not have had the best interactions with health care professionals.

By taking the time to listen, understand, and simply be present, it shows that we are not there to be an authority figure that calls all the shots.

Advocacy for Client Empowerment

Peer support specialists play a big role in advocating for the individuals they support. In part, this is done by advocating for them directly. More so, this is done by encouraging self expression, autonomy, and informed decision making.

By supporting decisions and working side by side with individuals, we allow individuals to take a central role in their own recovery.

Encouraging Self-Advocacy

We should also encourage individuals to advocate for their own needs, preferences, and rights. This is another crucial step in balancing power dynamics. Mostly, because allows individuals to have a voice, and shows that their voice is valued.

As peer support specialists , we can facilitate this by providing tools, resources, and support that develop individuals’ self-advocacy skills.

Collaborative Decision Making

Involving individuals in decision-making process, respecting their insights, and collaborating on developing care and support plans can significantly mitigate power dynamics in peer support relationships.

Shared decision making ensures that the support provided is tailored to the individual’s unique needs, preferences, and goals. In turn, this has positive effects on the efficacy and personal relevance of the support.

Autonomy leads to empowerment. We work hard to maintain a balance between collaboration and cooperation and independence.

Power Dynamics in Peer Support: Final Thoughts

Navigating the ever-changing landscape of power dynamics in healthcare requires a commitment to continuous learning and adaptation. This is especially true in peer support, where equality is a key component.

Power dynamics are shaped by each individual and context. Because of this, we should approach every interaction with an open, empathetic, and adaptive mindset. Standing at the intersection of lived experience and supportive care, peer specialists can work to change these dynamics

We can make sure that each relationship is navigated with genuine understanding, respect, and empowerment.

As we move ahead, the emphasis on recognizing, understanding, and skillfully navigating power dynamics remains front and center in our pursuit of helping others.

We hope this article was helpful and we would love to get your feedback on how we’re doing! With that in mind, leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Additional Resources

Continuous learning is a big part of peer support. The following resources can provide further insight and guidance into the topic of power dynamics.


“Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t” by Jeffrey Pfeffer

A comprehensive exploration of the mechanisms of power dynamics in various settings, providing insights into why power is distributed in the way it is and how individuals can navigate these dynamics effectively.


Navigating Power Dynamics in Peer Support Work“- LinkedIn

A collaborative article on the topic of power dynamics in peer support. This article offers additional perspectives on the topic. 


Understanding Power and Power Dynamics

While this lecture is more focused on power dynamics in general, it provides a comprehensive look at the topic. 

How Can Peer Support Specialists Navigate Power Dynamics Effectively?

Navigating power dynamics involves recognizing and understanding the inherent power imbalances in healthcare settings and employing strategies such as active listening, empathy, and collaborative decision-making to ensure that peer support relationships are egalitarian and empowering.

What Role Does Training Play in Enhancing Peer Support Specialists' Ability to Navigate Power Dynamics?

Training plays a pivotal role in equipping peer support specialists with the knowledge, skills, and strategies to recognize, understand, and navigate power dynamics effectively, ensuring that they can foster relationships that are supportive, empowering, and free from detrimental power imbalances.

What Are Some Common Challenges Related to Power Dynamics in Peer Support Relationships?

Individuals can navigate power dynamics by engaging in self-advocacy, expressing their needs, preferences, and concerns openly, and actively participating in decision-making processes. Peer support specialists can facilitate this by providing a safe, non-judgmental, and empowering environment.

Elijah Meason


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.

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