Have you ever attended a support group where members just sat around swapping horror stories about how terrible their lives had become?
Have group participants ever ”dumped” their problem onto the group, only to have additional group members unload even more complaints onto the group instead of offering ideas or solutions? Does there seem to be no good balance of people talking about their problems and others relating their own experiences in having dealt with similar problems or in offering solutions?
Have participants ever left your meeting feeling worse than they did when they arrived? If so, your group has experienced a “pity party.” While this can happen occasionally to many groups, if it occurs on a regular basis, it’s time to “accentuate the positive” and make the group a more positive and uplifting experience for all who attend.
Below are some suggestions on how group facilitators and members can turn the meeting around to focus the group more on hope and recovery than on misery.
- Ground Rules – Put a sentence in your ground rules or mission statement stating that an important purpose of your group is to help members recognize and share their strengths, successes and hopes—not just their problems. Make sure that this is read at the start of every meeting. Also, focus your group on the concepts of recovery and hope.
- Check-In – Help your members share their good experiences by reminding them to contribute their insights, quotes and information on helpful resources or literature they have used, or practical coping techniques that work for them. For example, you could build this into the structure of your meetings by regularly starting your meetings with introductions and brief “go-round” that permits each member to briefly answer a question that draws out a positive experience, e.g. “Describe one good thing that you’ve done (or has happened to you) since the last meeting?” Or a similar question could be developed that helps people to share their successes and joys for which they are thankful, etc.
- Ask Questions – When facilitating the group discussion, don’t move on to the next person’s problem until the first person’s problem has been addressed. You can ask them, “Is there anything that you have tried, or would like to try, to help solve your problem.” Then listen to their answer. You can also ask, “Would you like feedback or ideas from others?” If they say yes, ask the other members if they have any helpful experiences or suggestions that might be helpful. This reinforces the idea that a support group is a place to get ideas on how to deal with problems rather than just a place to complain. And it also encourages an exchange of experiential knowledge among members.
- Focus on Progress – Remind the participants that support groups should be positive and should focus on the progress that members are making. Sometimes people don’t want to take time away from someone who is having a tough time. But talking about progress is a very important part of a support group. Members can offer each other suggestions and strategies for improvement.
- Help Members Set Goals – Another way to help members share good experiences is to consider having members set personal goals toward the end of the meeting and then report back at the next meeting how they met that goal or (if not accomplished) what they need to meet it before the following meeting. These goals should focus on things that will help members get closer to recovery or to be better place to cope with their situation.
- Assign Homework – If many people in the group have the same specific problem, ask them to think about possible ways to deal with the problem in-between meetings, and talk about their thoughts at the next group meeting. This is a good way to get people to take positive action. Ask members which of these ideas they plan to use. This puts the emphasis on making progress and taking action.
- Share Good News – Find hopeful news related to your issue or disorder. These can include new research studies, helpful magazine articles, news from national organizations, etc. magazine articles, news from national organizations and agencies that deal with your issues, etc.
- Encourage “Old” Members to Stay – Encourage those who are now doing better or recovered to stay and give back to help others in the group. These veteran members act as good role models to those just starting the journey.
- Let Others Feel the “Helpers High” Make members more aware of the real health and emotional benefits of helping others. “One of the best ways to take your mind off your own problems is to help others with theirs” e.g., helping members to recognize how helpful it is to give other members feedback, whether it be to summarize the progress of others and the group or to give a helpful “nod of understanding” when a member is sharing.
- Meeting Not Going Well? Say Something! – As a leader or group member, you can state your reaction to the way the meeting is going without blaming or criticizing. For example, you could say, “I’m feeling that some of us are monopolizing the meeting with some pretty negative comments. Does anyone else feel the same way? A leader’s way of reacting to the meeting can provide a model for members. However, all group members need to take responsibility for how a meeting is going and should not rely solely on the designated leader to keep things on track.
- Bring a Little Exercise into the Group – No, not Jumping Jacks! Try an “ice breaker” or group exercise during the meeting to help inspire group members. Look on the internet or public library for resources on the various types of small group exercise. These exercises and ice breakers can focus on specific issues such as self-esteem, goal setting, developing a sense of community, communication, etc.
Remember, if your members feel better after they leave the meeting, then you did your job, and did it well!