In this two-part series, psychologist Dr. Natasha Gadinsky shares her tips for how to start a peer support session to setup the group for success. We hope they help you in discovering your own rhythm for setting up a safe space for peers to gather and exchange their minds.
Starting a Session
- Start with some group guidelines.
Providing group guidelines the start of a session is very helpful for three main reasons:
- It lays the ground rules for a safe space (you can always refer to the ShareWell ground rules at a minimum, and add something on top if you like)
- It sets up expectations for everyone in the session
- It makes clear what is or isn’t acceptable, and can be helpful if you need to remind someone later that they are violating an established group guideline.
- Review your session agenda – even if the conversation is meant to be freeform.
Help everyone settle in and feel more comfortable by letting them know what to expect in the duration of your session. For example, if you want to spend some time having everyone introduce themselves, and you’ve prepared some questions for everyone to take turns reflecting on, let everyone know. Or perhaps you want to try a 10-minute writing exercise, or break into groups. Even if your agenda is just “let’s see where the conversation flows,” stating that upfront can be reassuring for participants to know that things are progressing as planned.
- Less structure can be a good thing for sharing.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a minute-by-minute agenda! Having less structure can actually be conducive to participants feeling comfortable enough to share. Many times, individuals may feel reluctant to “take up space” by giving a detailed response, because they want to be respectful of others and don’t want to “hog the mic.” Knowing there is designated time allocated to discussion can help everyone feel more at ease about taking up airtime and sharing their thoughts and experiences. It also gives naturally quieter participants more opportunities to speak up and assert themselves when it feels appropriate for them to do so.
- Ask open-ended questions to warm up.
Beginning your session with an open-ended question for all participants can get them warmed up for sharing with each other. Consider asking about people’s experience with the topic, what drew them to this session, or what they’re hoping to get out of the session (if anything specific). This not only gets people talking, it also can lead to potential segues to deeper discussions.
Responses and silences
It can be tempting to respond to each person who speaks in a group. This can serve to make the speaker feel heard, but it also can make it hard for other group members to have space to respond. Try letting a few seconds of silence pass before you jump in: this could give other participants a chance to process and speak – they might respond and keep the conversation flowing naturally! Prolonged silence might feel awkward, but it doesn’t mean the session isn’t going well or isn’t helpful to the participants. It can be healing for people to sit in silence when they feel emotionally safe in a group. Group silence creates a nice pause for people to think and process what has been discussed.
Inviting quieter participants to speak up
Sometimes there are more vocal participants and more reserved participants. If you’re looking to engage your quieter participants, you can direct the conversation towards them by inviting them to contribute, such as, “For those who haven’t shared much today, what is it like for you to be in this session today?” In smaller, more intimate conversations, you can invite someone to share their thoughts directly, if they feel comfortable doing so.
Remember that you’re not required to be the expert
You may not have the answers or even the appropriate responses to everything that comes up during your session. That’s okay! We all have different perspectives on shared lived experiences, and you are not the de facto expert just because you’ve chosen to host a session. If you don’t know how to respond to something, turn the question to the group and ask what everyone else thinks. Try to create an open dialogue so everyone can share their own experiences, and don’t feel pressured to address everything. A lot of tough issues can’t be resolved immediately!