Now that you know what peer support is, what its principles are and how to share your story, it’s time to learn something about the structure of a peer support conversation. As said in chapter 2.5 about trauma informed peer support, being predictable and trustful is important. For that end, we offer you a four phase model to structure your conversation in this chapter.
This structure should not be used too strictly (as in, working on phase one at the first meeting, phase two at the second, etc), this is rather an explanation and a guideline for the processes taking place in forming a peer connection. The phases are flexible and can be used simultaneously in some occasions, or in a different order in others. Feel free to customise this structural layout to best suit your and your peer’s unique needs. If it happens that your peer needs something different from a meeting than what you have planned, then be as adaptable as possible (for example, you have planned to discuss your peer’s recovery process but their pet died and they need comforting instead). Human beings tend to behave and react in unpredictable ways. Because of this, we need to be prepared for changes while also trying to maintain a more or less definite framework for the peer relationship.
5.1 Structure of the conversation
Before the conversation
Try to get the practical stuff out of the way. This means deciding on the time and place, the frequency of your sessions and if or how to stay in touch in the meanwhile. Ask about what would make them feel more comfortable, but also what bothers them; talk about your own boundaries (you can read more about healthy boundaries in chapter 2.1) and find out what their limits are. A dialogue about both of your needs and hopes is paramount in preventing conflicts and having productive discussions going forward. Having these agreements in the very beginning of your peer support relationship also gives you both something to fall back on in case any misunderstandings or disagreements take place. For example, the person you are supporting wants to have more of your time and attention or you forget that your peer is extremely uncomfortable with background music. We cannot be considerate about something we do not know we should be considerate about.
Before any sort of peer support connection is created, it is also necessary to get some information on what the person seeking help is struggling with. If you feel unsure, in any sense, about acting as a peer supporter, it’s better to take a step back and discuss the situation with your supervisor, a fellow peer supporter or a mental health specialist. It may happen that the person seeking your support has issues that you cannot help them with or that they have expectations that cannot be met with peer support. For example, someone might expect specialist help or everyday support). In such cases, it’s best to be honest, offer information about what you, as a peer supporter, can do to assist them and what services and programs are available in your area.
Phase one consists of getting to know your peer and it takes place normally during the first meeting, although you naturally keep learning about the person you’re supporting during the entire period of your peer support relationship. Topics to discuss during your first meeting can be:
- What would you want to share about yourself?
- What would you want the peer supporter to help you with and how do you imagine it happening?
- What would I (or others when you are in a group) need to know about you?
- What do you do in your free time?
The next step in peer support is to set a goal for your contact/process (specifically during the first meetings). What do you expect? What does your peer expect? What do they or you want to achieve during your meeting? Do they wish to vent or does the peer want to talk about specific memories, experiences or topics?
Talking about expectations and fears gives you essential information on how to best conduct the meetings going forward, which topics to avoid completely and what kind of external support they are receiving.
Questions you can discuss are:
- What would you want to talk about? What’s going on in your life?
- What would you want to achieve with the conversation?
- How would you like to communicate about setting appointments?
- How long would you like the peer support relationship to last?
Once you have set the expectations and goals of the meetings, you can start having more in-depth conversations. Here are some tips and reminders on how to make sure your peer feels supported and heard:
- Listen. Try your best to set aside your own worries and be in the moment with your peer. You can let your conversation partner know that they have your full attention by asking relevant questions or for confirmations that you understood them correctly. Avoid interrupting unless you really need to (like letting your peer know that your time is almost up).
- Ask questions (you can find more info on forming questions in chapter 6.2) and encourage others to ask questions from you, since it is your shared experience that makes peer support so incredibly special and valuable.
- Give advice when asked but accept that it may not be followed. In most cases the person seeking help is actually capable of finding a solution most suitable for their situation themselves, but would benefit from discussing it with a peer and getting reassurance that the decisions they are making are right for them.
While it’s best to refrain from constantly glancing at the clock (as this may make your peer feel like you do not have time for them or even do not want to be there), do try to be aware of the time. You can also let your conversation partner know 10-15 minutes ahead of time that your meeting will end soon and that it’s time to start wrapping up the discussion. In cases where the thoughts and feelings shared are very painful for your peer, this will give you the chance to end that part of your talk calmly and lead them towards lighter topics so that the person will not get stuck in those difficult emotions and keep ruminating long after your conversation has ended.
Having little “opening” (starting the meeting) and “closing” (ending the meeting) rituals are useful in order to create a framework for a peer-to-peer or a group meeting and take away some of the stress of devising new questions and topics to talk about each session. A tradition may be something small – offering your peer a cup of tea, talking a little about your day or starting with a set of questions (“How has your day been? What have you been up to since we last talked?”). At the end of the meeting you might reflect on the topics you discussed, ensure that your peer knows how to contact you or arrange a follow-up meeting. To end on a more cheerful note, you might ask your conversation partner what they will do with the rest of their day or what fun activities they have planned for the week. As with many aspects of peer support, here, too, we cannot give you clear instructions on how to start and end a session, as it is dependent on the space you use, the boundaries set and the needs of the people you support.
Here are some questions to help you create your own peer support traditions:
- What would make you feel comfortable when being asked about emotionally difficult topics?
- How do you best calm down after sharing a painful experience?
A peer support relationship can end for many reasons: you agreed on a number of meetings and have run out of them; the person you’ve been supporting feels like they no longer need it; they are moving away; one of the participants feels like the peer support relationship is not working.
It’s easiest to manage endings that are planned, that give you plenty of time to ensure that whatever concerns your peer came to you with have been addressed and that they leave with all the resources possible to advance on their recovery journey. In such cases, it is good to mention that your peer support relationship is ending a couple of meetings before you actually part ways to give the peer you’re supporting time to adjust to the idea and prepare for it. You can encourage them to ask any questions they haven’t yet and to imagine what might happen after your meetings so that you can brainstorm possible solutions, self-care methods and other support options (financial support, specialist help, local programs and projects). The goal here is to end the peer support relationship in a way that the person you’ve helped feels as prepared for future challenges as possible.
If the ending is very sudden, leaving discussions unfinished and problems unsolved, the best you can do is to share any information and resources that may be useful for your peer and end the meeting on a hopeful note, wishing them well.
Sometimes the communication between you and your supported peer is unexpectedly cut off completely and you do not even have the chance to say goodbye. Then, it’s important to let go.
In the context of ending peer support relationships, letting go means that the peer supporter no longer dedicates time and energy on worrying about, preparing for and relating to the person they had been assisting. Fleeting thoughts about someone’s wellbeing and particular quirks or lessons learned from them are absolutely normal, but asides from that, you should move on.
5.2 If or how to offer advice
There are times when you are asked for advice, but most of the time you are not expected to give counsel, solve others’ problems or lecture others on how they should live. In certain situations, it may be terribly tempting to speak up about how you think someone should act or think. As people that want to help others, it’s natural to want to guide your peers through painful experiences that you have already lived through. Especially since, looking back, you can probably point out the mistakes you made that you want others to avoid and help them make better choices.
As we have mentioned before in this online course, however, we cannot in any circumstances fully know someone’s feelings, thoughts, values or goals; we only know what we have been told and that is often just a tiny sliver of information about a wonderfully complex human being. For that reason, giving advice is something that should be well thought through.
How to offer advice?
- If possible, don’t.
- If you are asked for advice, ask questions first. Find out if your peer has any possible solutions to their problems they’ve already figured out and discuss the pros and cons together. Encourage them to talk to the people in their lives that know them well and are perhaps already aware of what your peer struggles with. Sometimes it’s the friends and family members that can provide the most valuable insights into what might work and also help their loved one make the more difficult decisions.
- If the peer claims to have no ideas of their own, you can give them some suggestions to help them narrow down what they might want to do. Make sure that they are well aware that these are theoretical solutions for you to discuss and not something they should rush to follow.
- If you are not asked for advice but would still like to give some, ask if the peer is open to receiving it.
Some ways of wording giving advice that you could try are:
- Have you considered…?
- When I was struggling … helped me.
- What do you think about…?