Leadership & Management

10 Tips for Facilitating a Support Group

By Karen Saperson (@KarenSaperson)
Originally Published, April 13, 2020

Editor's note: Many of us will be seeking to support our team members through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. This recent JAMA article highlights some of the issues around mental health of our clinical colleagues during these stressful times. However, regardless of the reason you are establishing a peer support group, here are some tips that might help you in your facilitation skills. For more on this topic, please check out a recent video interview that I conducted with Dr. Saperson on this topic. - Teresa Chan

1. Prepare for the meeting.

  • Having some well thought out questions, based on stakeholders’ concerns.

  • Being aware of introductory exercises such as a brief introduction from each member, a brief comment about why they chose to participate in the support group and what they are hoping to get out of it. This can also help determine concerns and issues that people may be thinking about.

  • Having items ready for discussion while demonstrating flexibility for where the discussion leads, based on “in the moment concerns.” This can be done by being current with news items or journal articles that may also speak to relevant issues.

2. Communicate clear instructions to the group at start of meeting.

Review important “housekeeping items” such as:

  • timekeeping;

  • clarity about the scope; and

  • mandate of the group (such as differentiating support from counselling, confidentiality, and group norms).

3. Be inclusive, allowing everyone to state their concerns.

  • Ensure those who are quiet have had a chance to participate

  • Use open ended invitations such as “would anyone else like to weigh in on this?”

  • Do not pressure anyone directly or put anyone “on the spot” to speak

4. Demonstrate empathy.

  • Use empathic language to demonstrate awareness of an individual’s struggle

  • Probe gently as a follow up (such as: “how was that experience for you?”)

5. Validate participants’ concerns.

  • Explicitly acknowledge the impact of the participants’ shared experiences

6. Listen actively and use facilitation skills.

  • Link participants’ comments to each other to promote a culture of support

  • Highlight emerging areas of commonality or themes

7. Aim for consensus if possible, and if not, highlight the value of respectful differences.

  • Ensure respectful communication in the midst of differing viewpoints

8. Maintain neutrality.

  • Take a “middle ground” stance, allowing for airing of differing views, is important to allow a safe forum for individuals to be willing to be comfortable sharing.

9. Highlight themes as a way of group wrap-up and use as a springboard for the next group.

  • At every session try to highlight 2-3 main points of common experience.

10. Provide a summary of any action items that emerge from the group’s discussion.

  • Leave the last few minutes of each session to sum up and garner agreement on main themes.

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If you enjoyed this post, please also check out the video interview between Dr. Karen Saperson and Dr. Teresa Chan.

Karen Saperson (@KarenSaperson) is a professor of psychiatry and Associate Chair, Education in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences. She is the academic head of the division of geriatric psychiatry at McMaster University and the current chair elect of the Royal College Geriatric Psychiatry Specialty Committee. Her research focuses on medical education, particularly in the area of assessment and education policy development. Karen specializes in geriatric psychiatry, and her most recent publication ​highlights collaborative care for older adults with psychiatric disorders. Karen has held several medical education leadership positions and received various teaching awards for her contributions to medical education in Canada.