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Support group leadership

Leading a support group

Support groups provide an opportunity for the paralysis community to come together to talk about and get help with the realities and challenges of living with paralysis or being the family member of a loved one living with paralysis. Being the leader of a support group and creating this important opportunity can be very rewarding. Below are guidelines to help leaders organize and facilitate their groups.

Characteristics of a support group leader

A support group leader should possess the characteristics and knowledge base needed to start and run a group:

  • Strong listening and communication skills
  • Ability to express empathy
  • Personal or professional experience related to the support group’s focus
  • Ability to locate resources and information for use by the group or its individual members
  • Ability to resolve conflict
  • Time, energy and commitment necessary to running the support group
  • Good organizational skills
  • Reliability and trustworthiness

Leader responsibilities

The leader is responsible for the logistics of creating and maintaining a support group including:

  • Determining the structure, focus and goals of the support group
  • Finding an appropriate location for meetings or securing the resources needed to hold the group virtually as well as creating a schedule of meetings
  • Recruiting members
  • Developing group rules
  • Keeping a roster of group members with their contact information and maintaining records for the group (attendance, finances, etc.)
  • Selecting a topic of discussion for each meeting and gathering any related materials or resources for distribution to members
  • Informing members of any changes to the meeting schedule
  • Asking members to assist with the tasks of running the group
  • Evaluating the group by gathering feedback from members, tracking attendance, etc.

Group facilitation

Facilitating group meetings is the most important responsibility of the support group leader.

The group leader opens the meetings:

  • The leader will welcome the members, make any announcements either about the group itself or related news such as events in the community that members may wish to attend, and introduce the topic of discussion.
  • The leader should initiate group discussion and will also manage the flow of conversation.
  • The leader should make sure the conversation stays on topic and, when necessary, ask questions, clarify points and summarize what has been said.
  • The leader should also ensure that all members who wish to speak can do so and should also create opportunities for group members who are quiet to engage in the discussion.

Providing support to group members as they share their experiences, feelings and challenges is also an important element of facilitating the group:

  • Leaders should actively listen and express empathy and support when a member is sharing with the group; by doing so, they will provide a role model for the group members.

When facilitating the group, the leader will also encourage problem-solving when a group member needs guidance in resolving a challenge:

  • The leader should guide members in suggesting solutions along with pros and cons for each as well as sharing their own relevant experiences.
  • The final decision should be made by the individual facing the challenge.

Whenever conflict arises within the group or a member of the group becomes difficult, the leader will need to address the situation in a timely and effective manner:

  • Addressing conflict among group members or difficulty with an individual member should be done in a constructive, solution-focused manner.
  • The resolution should be comfortable for the members involved as well as for the group as a whole.

The leader closes group meetings:

  • Meetings should close on time and with a wrap-up of the discussion that took place.
  • The leader should also remind members of any changes to the next meeting or other important items.
  • If the leader needs to follow-up with any members individually, he/she should check in with them to determine a time and space to do so.

For more tips on facilitating a virtual support group, please visit the Virtual Support Groups page.

Support groups as safe spaces

Ensuring that support groups are safe spaces for members to share their experiences and feelings is crucial to their functioning. The support group leader can accomplish this by:

  • Discussing the importance of confidentiality and firmly establishing within the ground rules that members cannot discuss other members or what is said in meetings outside of the group; this rule may need to be reiterated at the beginning of every meeting
  • Making sure that members understand that they are to be non-judgmental, constructive and supportive when offering insights and feedback to other members and should not tell others what to do, think or feel; leaders can reinforce these expectations through modeling these behaviors
  • Encouraging members to talk with the leader one-on-one if they become uncomfortable with any aspect of the group or a particular meeting
  • Resolving conflict and handling difficult members effectively to enable all group members to return to a healthy and secure dynamic

If you have any questions about the information on this page or support groups, please email us at [email protected].