Survivors of traumatic events, people with chronic illnesses, those struggling with addiction and many others usually do so much better when they have someone to talk to, which is always one of the everyday dilemmas of people.
“Therapists can provide a fresh perspective on a difficult problem or point you in the direction of a solution. The benefits you obtain from therapy depend on how well you use.” Chris Corbett, PsyD said. But although professional therapists may help, people often find it easier to relate to others in a similar position, making the support group one of the most inexpensive yet powerful therapeutic tools out there.
However, getting a dozen people into the same room and serving tea, by itself, is not enough to ensure success. There are both excellent and utterly lousy examples out there, including those who do more harm than good.
While a great deal depends on the people involved, there are several guidelines that anyone running or hoping to start a support group can follow to increase the chances of success.
Define the Group’s Mission Properly
Some support groups have a very narrow focus, while others allow anyone with a problem to come speak their mind. Others are explicitly faith-based or advocate a certain kind of therapeutic approach.
Any of these approaches is fine, but they should be made clear to any new visitors. If someone is surprised by the fact that they are expected to pray as part of the proceedings, or find themselves the only addict in a room full of cancer survivors, their experience will most likely not be positive.
Finding a Good Moderator
Discussion in a support group is not led, but guided. A moderator who does not understand this principle can completely wreck the group dynamic, for instance by using meetings as an opportunity to expound his own views and theories.
The moderator is the focal point of the group. This means that their behavior sets the tone for every meeting. The room’s mood can be calm and optimistic, or tense and judgmental based only on the moderator’s body language and tone of voice.
Usually, moderators are often former members of the same or a related support group, and often receive some kind of training on how to fulfill their role most effectively.
Institute Rules and Routines
One of the worst mistakes a moderator can make is to allow speakers to do no more than complain. Collective griping may make participants feel slightly better for a few minutes, but it is also very disempowering.
Ending a meeting by asking people what practical actions they intend to take to improve their situations is one way to go out on an optimistic note. Venting is fine, wallowing in self-pity is not. That is why Dr. Chantal Gagnon PhD LMHC said, “Happy people do things differently. They make their emotional wellbeing a priority and practice daily and weekly habits that help them create joy, happiness and satisfaction in their lives.”
There’s a blurry line between discussing feelings openly and monopolizing the conversation. One of the skills a good moderator possesses is to encourage people to open up without feeling forced.
Another is to end a rambling monologue without actually telling the speaker to shut up. One common approach is to specify a particular theme for each meeting to stop participants from wandering off into completely unrelated topics.
Promote an Atmosphere of Acceptance
In support groups as in life, “listen before you talk” is a principle that many people would do well to pay more attention to. A support group often tosses together people from different cultures, levels of affluence, and backgrounds, but expects all of them to interact as equals.
There is rarely a single correct way to overcome life’s difficulties, and all participants should understand this principle. If every statement is met by a response telling the speaker what they must do, or should feel, the support group is not working and should probably be disbanded.
People drawn to visiting a support group will often lack confidence and self-esteem, to begin with. Any kind of negativity in what is supposedly a safe environment can set their progress back months, even when the intention is to be kind and helpful.
Encourage the Buddy System
Although the moderator forms the core of any support group, it is impossible for him to play confessor and counselor to every single member. Instead, it is a good idea to support the formation of friendships within the group, not necessarily on a social level, but to ensure that everyone will have someone to speak to in a time of crisis.
Some boundaries have to be established here, perhaps in a formal, signed document that also emphasizes the group’s values of confidentiality and honesty. Using a support group to find romantic partners is almost always a bad idea, while few people want to be phoned at 2 a.m. for something that’s not a real emergency.
Support groups aren’t helpful to all people, and this is often because the support group itself is dysfunctional. If it is seen simply as an opportunity to talk about everything under the sun, state opinions without being asked to explain them, or as a kind of clique separate from the rest of society, it would be better to convert it into a book club and drop the pretense of being a therapeutically valuable support group.
On the other hand, when moderators and group members are committed to helping themselves and others from an altruistic motivation, meetings are kept heading in the right direction and personalities are kept in check, everyone involved can benefit greatly from being in a support group. David Klow, licensed marriage and family therapist said, “You know the ones—these are the people you know you can always call, text, or email when you need to feel a connection.”
A lot of this depends on decisions taken at the outset. Most importantly, it can be very difficult to rescue a group that’s already learned bad habits.