How can I balance the various needs of support group members?
February 17, 2009 8:41 PM   Subscribe

I would like to learn to better facilitate a stress support group.

I volunteer with a women's centre and I'm currently co-facilitating a support group (with 8-10 female participants) called "Stress to Strength". I've lead one group before on a semi-related topic. The facilitator is supposed to guide the discussion, enforce the rules that the group establishes, foster an accepting atmosphere, etc. The group's main purpose is to provide emotional/social support but we also try to bring some education into the mix (e.g. the value of meditation, stretching, nutrition, exercise)

I ran into a problem last week though, when one older (60+) woman started disclosing really specific information about her personal issues. For example, we were discussing "symptoms of stress" and then she launched into talking about how she's a compulsive hoarder, how she's fearful of losing her mind, how she's isolated, etc.

Often, if someone brings up a tough question, I might flip it around and ask the group. (If someone says they feel isolated, I would ask how others have formed friendships.) With this woman though, I can't flip every question to the group because we'd end up talking about her all night long.

I think she has a lot of really intense needs that a casual support group will not likely be able to meet. It seems like her questions and issues relate to really personal, deep-seated anxieties and fears and not the kind of daily stressors we plan to discuss - and we think will benefit the most number of people.

How do I balance her need for attention and support with the needs of the other participants? How can I nip her long stories in the bud and keep the group on-topic without making her feel judged or like she can't share her feelings? How (if this is a good idea at all) could I suggest that she may want to look into other support options to supplement the group?
posted by cranberrymonger to Human Relations (3 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you're worried about her hogging the spotlight, maybe you could pick up on this really specific / personal aspect -- like, ask someone specifically to respond to her, as a way of linking it more generally to the issues of the group. Or, laying it out directly as a common problem. "This is a really extreme case of something we all feel." "XXX is wrestling with some really destructive ways of dealing with stess --- that we all, actually share" (hoarding isn't a particularly good way of dealing with stress, but neither is avoidance, chronic complaining, eating junk food, watching TV for hours, or any of the myriad smaller ways that people handle stress in their lives.)

If people get irritated -- great! The point is not to let her just bitch - but to steer the bitching toward something more productive / participatory / inclusive -- that is, a *conversation*. Whatever that entails. Having a radically different perspective seems like a really valuable thing in this regard, and something you don't necessarily want to sacrifice for "common ground."
posted by puckish at 9:38 PM on February 17, 2009

This type of derailment happens frequently in the parent education evenings required by my cooperative preschool, and the moderator is great at acknowledging the person's issue and how it relates to the discussion at hand, then noting that the particular concern can be discussed in more detail offline.

Then, she follows up with that person by providing a one-on-one session and/or by offering further resources.

As in your group, some of the parents in my group have specific issues with their children that can't necessarily be resolved in this particular atmosphere, but it's incredibly valuable to me to see them have a chance to air them out, and to have the sense that if I had such an issue, I am in a place that acts as a starting point toward resolution.
posted by padraigin at 10:29 PM on February 17, 2009

Facilitating even the most mundane topic can be stressful, so kudos to you for taking on some stress to relieve others'.

Does your group have any ground rules/group agreements? The one that I always like to seed is called the step up/step back rule. For a group like yours I would explain more or less: I would like to propose a group rule called step up/step back. The idea is that if you're the type of person who talks a lot in a group like this, you might take this chance to try on different hat and step back. If you tend to be more quiet, step up. That way, we'll have more balanced discussion and we each will have a safe place to try out a new skill. Is there anyone who can't agree to this rule?

The important part of ground rules that I'm still trying to be better at is gently revisiting the rules when they're being stretched and tested.

Good facilitators that I've observed are also really skilled at knowing when an issue needs to be discussed one-on-one (or mediated between two individuals) and approaching individuals at break times or away from the group. It's important for these conversations to be private and without blame. On the other hand, sometimes issues do affect the entire group and need to be discussed there. Either way, the facilitator's job is the usually the same: Repeat the behavior, interpret, check for possible alternative understandings, check for agreement. One-on-one: "Jane, I've noticed that you've been talking a lot more than average at our meetings. (Repeat the behavior) I'm glad to see that you're really engaged but I'm also worried that not everyone is getting time to speak. (Interpret) Does that make sense? (Check for understanding) It would really help me out a lot and help the group if you stepped back a little and encouraged others to share. (this is where the shared language of a group agreement would be handy) You could also encourage them by listening and asking about their own experiences. Is that something that you could agree to?"

Talking circles are also a tried and true way to bring more balance to a group discussion, since everyone gets a chance to talk and everyone gets a chance to be quiet. They can be very transformative and emotional, but I personally believe it can be dangerous to close a talking circle too soon. It's also really jarring for people who aren't used to that kind of structure, especially if you're trying it out midstream. Also, please don't yuk it up a la Indian Guides.
posted by Skwirl at 2:12 AM on February 18, 2009

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