As a person interested in peer support and having reached this point of the course, you are probably someone that truly wishes to help others. Sadly, not everyone might be able to see it. Perhaps you already have experiences where you’ve tried your best to help but have been misunderstood or even accidentally started a conflict.
In this chapter we discuss how to better communicate our intentions to support and assist, make sure our conversation partner does not feel judged and that we’re both on the same page when it comes to the limits and goals of the peer support relationship.
6.1 Using “I”-language
An “I” message or “I” statement is a style of communication that focuses on the feelings or beliefs of the speaker rather than thoughts and characteristics that the speaker attributes to the listener. This means speaking from your own perspective in a non-aggressive way and can be helpful for defusing conflicts and asserting yourself in a polite way.
Here are some tips for using “I”-language:
- “When…, I…” template is an easy format for explaining your reactions and associations to different situations. For example: “When you arrive late, I feel like our meetings are not important to you.”
- Avoid using absolutes such as always and never. Instead of promising someone to always be there for them (which is technically impossible since we need some time and privacy for various reasons), promise to try your best to be there when they need you.
- Avoid labels like “crazy,” “stupid” or “lazy,” when describing people.
- Speak from your own point of view. Consider the following sentences:
|That’s wrong.||I don’t think that is right.|
|You don’t care at all!||I feel like you don’t care.|
|He lied.||I think that he lied.|
|It’s easy to open up to someone.||In my opinion, it’s easy to open up to someone.|
|Exercise will help you!||I recommend exercising.|
On the left you will find claims made about someone or something that appear absolute but in fact display the talker’s attitude and ideas. On the right there are I-sentences that make it clear that the person talking is expressing their own opinions and not assuming them to be true.
In order to use I-language in more complex situations or conflicts, it may be necessary to take a moment to reflect on your feelings, why you feel that way and what you expect of the other person. Try to figure out what has happened and evaluate how that has affected you and think of what you need to do or what you would like others to do to avoid feeling this way in the future.
Example: Only a couple of minutes before you were supposed to meet a friend, they called to cancel, saying that they have too much schoolwork to hang out. You might get pissed off, demanding to know why they didn’t do their homework earlier or let you know earlier so you wouldn’t have gone to the meet-up spot for no reason. You could even accuse them of not caring about your friendship or refuse to talk to them for a while.
Instead, you could try to ask your friend if they have a lot of schoolwork to do or if something happened so they forgot to tell you. You could share that you feel disappointed and upset and discuss ways to deal with that. Your friend might apologise and perhaps you would make new plans to study together or meet at a different time.
6.2 Asking questions (open-ended vs. closed questions)
Before asking any questions, make sure the questions you’re thinking of asking are necessary and relevant, if it will clarify your understanding or help the peer to explore their own process. In some cases, you might want to explain to the peer why you need to ask certain questions, especially when they’re seeming distrustful or uncomfortable.
Questions can generally be divided into open and closed questions.
Closed questions usually give you options: yes/no questions like “are you okay?” or questions with a very specific answer like “what are you eating?”. These can be used to gather general information about someone – such as their age, place of employment, etc, or to check in with them – are they feeling comfortable? Do they feel like they need a break?
Open questions do not give options and enable you to expand on the topic as little or much as you wish. Typical open questions might start with how, what about, tell me about, etc. The proper tone of voice is important when asking any question, specifically when asking “why” questions. Starting a question with “why” can seem accusatory and cause a person to respond defensively. Using a non-judgemental tone can prevent this response.
Open questions are widely used in the mental health field, as they give the responder space to share, reminisce, even rant, but even in everyday life they’re often used to make your conversation partner feel like their options aren’t limited.
Here are some examples of different questions and how you could turn closed questions into open-ended ones:
|Closed question:||Open question:|
|Are you thinking of going back to school?||What would you like to do in the future?|
|Do you get enough sleep?||What are your sleeping habits like?|
|Do you have any hobbies?||What are your favourite hobbies?|
|Are you okay?|
How are you feeling?
Watch the video below about open and closed questions in peer support!
6.3 Empathetic listening
When it comes to peer support, empathy is more than just a key component. It is actually the fundamental principle. That’s because the basis of the working relationship between a peer and a peer supporter is grounded in shared experience—so empathy is central to the interaction. All the listening, supporting, validating, responding, summarising and sharing of resources and coping strategies is done with empathy at its core.
Empathic listening means to pay attention and respond to the other person during a conversation. Listening empathically means making an emotional connection with the other person and finding similarities between their experience and our own to give a more heartfelt response. One main quality of empathic listening is giving support and encouragement rather than advice or criticism. It also means not to get distracted, to listen with your whole body and be aware of your body language, be patient and the peer talk freely and get a sense of the emotions expressed.
Some of the good practises you can have for empathic listening:
- Mirroring back to the peer what they expressed, do this in a neutral way, use as much of their own words and not an interpretation of what they said.
- When mirroring or reflecting, it’s good to ask “am i understanding this right?” and in this way give a possibility to the peer to correct or give clarifications
- Validating what the peer is feeling, you can use “it’s understandable why you feel like this” “ I understand how you feel” “it makes sense in this situation you would feel like this”
Watch the video below about empathic listening in peer support!