The power of peer support

They sat there in the ring, curious, but a bit wary of what was going to come. I felt the adrenalin in me rise, that feeling of being ready for “combat”: focused, breathing the air of anticipation. Conducting interviews, especially focus group interviews, is one of the most fun things I do as a researcher. And I do it far too seldom.

Focus groups are a way to gather information on a topic using the group’s discussion and interaction as a main driver for the exchange. It is called a focus group because the interview facilitator helps the group keep its focus on a certain subject matter. The observer, in turn, helps the facilitator by focusing on the group’s interactions and non-verbal exchanges. As well as the recording devices – the ones that invariably go dead when they shouldn’t.

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Although focus groups do not have a therapeutic purpose, they do have the potential to be a source of support to their participants. Conducted well, focus groups can leave group members with a feeling that they have both given and received support through openly sharing their experiences.

The parents in this particular group all had children with severe disabilities. The burdens they carried were unimaginable to those of us who are blessed with averagely developing children. But they didn’t talk about the burdens: they talked about making everyday life work, the comic situations they sometimes ended up in, the disempowering professionals they had to deal with, and about the unique relationships their disabled children formed with their able siblings.

They laughed, exchanged anecdotes and practical solutions, got upset on each other’s behalves, and talked and talked until we were out of time. I felt elated after the session and privileged to have gained their trust. But what’s more important: they left giggling, talking to each other.

The day after I received an e-mail from the centre coordinator. She said the parents all seemed so happy and at ease, they even seemed to walk taller! Now all the other parents wanted to participate in a focus group as well…

Although conducting focus groups takes skill and an accepting attitude of unconditional positive regard is helpful in facilitating an open discussion, it is not me that worked the magic: it is the power of peer support.

To feel you are not alone in your struggles, to share experiences with people in similar situations, has enormous healing potential. It is empowering to give and take advice and support as equals – each person contributing with unique experiences. Feeling empowered, in turn, increases self-efficacy, the extent to which a person feels they can do something about their own situation.

I certainly hope it won’t take so long until the next time I can charge my combat gear of three microphones and feel the anticipation of a group around me. And if you ever get a chance to participate in a peer support group – go for it!

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