Image by Storyset on Freepik

Talk & Listen Sessions

Support Group Guidelines


I've now run quite a few sessions of Talk & Listen, the emotional peer support group I set up around six months ago. During this time I've also attended support groups, and other similar meetings, run by others. These include non violent communication (NVC) groups, anxiety and depression peer support at the excellent charity MIND, four weeks at a Talk for Health peer counselling group, a peer support group at Tottenham Talking, the Waterloo Depression Alliance peer support group, ManKind Project Connection Group (online), and Frazzled Cafe (online), the emotional support group set up by the amazing and inspirational Ruby Wax (you may have heard their slogan "It's ok to not be ok").

Being involved in all of these groups has helped me to receive support for emotional issues that I am experiencing as well as to help others. It's also helped me to gradually build up a picture of what works well and not so well in such groups. I've tried various ways of running my Talk & Listen sessions and begun to see what works and what can be improved or should be discarded. There are some common frameworks that work well with all the groups and others that work well with some but not others. My group facilitation experience has provided me with some clues as to what works and what goes wrong through trial and error. However, it is a continual learning curve as some things still need refinement!

Core Guidelines

People that come along to a group whose role it is to offer a space to talk about personal issues and receive support need to feel safe and comfortable to do so. We all need to feel that it is safe to open up to a room predominantly full of strangers. We wouldn't want to be told what to do or for our personal situation to be talked about outside of the group in a way that individually identifies us. So here are some core guidelines:

  • Confidentiality

We do not share what people talk about outside the group in any way that links them to what they have shared. This means we do not talk to others or share on social media any information that identifies individuals and the specific issues that they have shared to the group or any other information about them. Of course, people are free, and indeed encouraged, to spread the word about the group to others who may also potentially benefit by coming along. It's also ok to talk generally about themes and issues that come up.

  • Judgement

We do not judge others in any way. Everyone needs to be able to open up freely without fear or anxiety of being judged in the room. We therefore refrain from judging anyone based on their beliefs and values, if they differ from ours, on their issues, thoughts and behaviours. In other words, we do not tell people that what they have thought, felt or done is right or wrong; we listen and then use reflection to promote self-awareness.

  • Advice 

We try and refrain from offering advice. This is for two reasons. Firstly, people generally do not want this and in fact in nearly all cases it simply does not help. When people try and give advice it feels as if they are telling us what we should do. This is not what we want to hear. When we share personal issues what we really want is for people to listen to us, understand and appreciate what we are going through. What we really need is empathic understanding. Therapeutic insight is also extremely powerful but this is a technique that takes a lot of skilled practice and more relevant to group therapy.

The second reason to refrain from giving advice is that by doing so there is an inherent implication that you are more qualified or know better than the person sharing their story! There is also an assumption that the other person has not already thought of, and considered, what you may be advising. They may even have tried what you might be suggesting and not achieved the outcomes they needed.


 Image by Freepik


 Practical Guidelines

  • Timing

The NVC and Talk for Health groups use strict time limits for everyone who speaks and provides reflection. This was not a feature in any of the other groups. I have tried this with mixed results. For the foreseeable future I will suggest a loose timing framework where everyone who speaks retains some conscious awareness of how long they have been speaking for and that, if it appears that they are speaking for too long or becoming repetitive, that I or anyone else in the group may suggest that they start to bring their talking to a conclusion.

It is only fair that everyone who comes to a support group meeting has opportunities to speak. It is also important to allow time for those that share their stories to receive reflective feedback from at least two or three others in the group. It should also be noted that nobody's issue is more "important" or significant than anyone else's, regardless of how big or small it may seem. What may seem hugely significant for one individual may appear trivial to someone else, and vice versa, but everyone's issues are relative to them. This is another reason why there should be a level playing field when it comes to the issue of timing.

  • Speaking

We need to let people speak without interrupting them. We need to observe carefully to distinguish between a long pause, where someone has not finished what they want to say but needs time to gather their thoughts to continue, and a conclusion, where it is clear that someone speaking has indeed come to the end of what they wanted to say. We should not interrupt during speaking or pauses but should feel free to speak when someone else has finished what they wanted to say. 

Personally, I encourage everyone to be be aware when someone else has finished speaking and to then speak if they want to, and to do so without putting their hand up or asking for permission. This is very much like having a conversation with others at home, at a coffee shop or in the pub! We can see when others have finished speaking and then we start to speak. We don't put our hands up when we want to do so! 


 Other Guidelines

  • Discrimination

Everyone is equally welcome and nobody should discriminate on any grounds. Although a personal peer support group is not a public body or private organisation offering services, in my group we adhere to the nine protected characteristics of the Equalities Act 2010. These means that no discrimination is tolerated on the basis of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.


It is likely that the more group sessions I run, the more guidelines I will think of. This is a work-in-progress and I will come back and update this page with refinements and new observations as they come up.

For now though, I'd like to think I've outlined some of the main guidelines that should be useful to help groups such as mine run as smoothly as possible. I've used the word guidelines rather than rules or boundaries, but some of the guidelines I've talked about can equally be seen as rules or boundaries.

No comments:

Post a Comment