Online services are the way of the future. They are also highly effective when it comes to group support services. Bringing people together online and harnessing the power of group support is highly rewarding for many facilitators. Here are a few tips I’ve learned while facilitating online support groups.
Take care of the setting
As group facilitators, we know that creating a safe space in the group is crucial to creating a successful support group. A big part of creating a safe space is providing structure and routine. A consistent beginning such as checking in, asking members about their week, and following up on any tasks from the previous meeting can set the stage and help the members and facilitator connect and understand each other as the group begins. The middle portion of the group is the time to deliver the topic and discuss the content of the meeting theme. The middle section must remain flexible as it is often subject to change depending on the tone and pace of the group that day. For example, discussing an emerging topic may be of more importance and benefit to the group, rather than sticking to the planned content. The end is a great chance to highlight different themes that arose, summarize the take-aways from the meeting, and provide a closing ritual such as silently waving good-bye to the virtual group and closing the screen.
Talk with each member before the meeting
Typically, the group facilitator will speak with the members before beginning the group, this will allow the facilitator to ensure that the individual is a good fit for online group support. Someone may not be a good fit if they need a higher level of treatment, such as individual therapy or case management. Successful group members tend to have a good amount of social support and coping strategies already in place in their lives, thus rendering them capable of supporting others and managing their own mental health. If someone is unable or unwilling to be contacted by phone, text or email can also be a way to connect and obtain necessary information; although a verbal conversation is preferable to increase the connection and understanding.
It may seem that people can remember a set weekly time, but this is not the case. A text message reminder sent around an hour before the group is a great way to increase attendance. Also, sending the login instructions via email before each meeting is important as members often refer to them each time upon login. Additionally, a midweek follow-up in which the facilitator summarizes the theme and content of the previous meeting in an engaging and inspiring way will help motivate members to show up for the next meeting. Also, during this follow up email, the facilitator can introduce the next topic in order to give members some time to ponder the topic.
This rehearsal will ideally take place on the 7Chairs platform so that the facilitator can get a feel for what it is like using the prepared meeting content and responding to multiple comments. It can feel a bit foreign at first as we navigate the copying and pasting of the content while staying present and engaged with attempting to unify the group around a common theme. The balancing act of being spontaneous as well as focused and structured is learned over time. Rehearsing before will allow the mechanical parts to be easier so that our clinical attention is freed up for creating transformative group processes in the here and now.
Make sure you have a strong Internet connection
This goes without saying. This is especially important when using video, chat is a bit more forgiving of internet speeds. Check your download and upload speed immediately before a group so you know what to expect. Also, with all group members using video, it is likely that someone will have a technical difficulty at some point during the meeting. Technical difficulties can make understanding someone’s non-verbal cues particularly difficult. As facilitators, we learn to roll with the complications and continue the best we can. Of course, there are times when everything goes smoothly, which is particularly rewarding. However, this is not the norm, and sometimes ensuring our own internet is working properly is the best we can do.
Above all, have fun! Bring a positive and enthusiastic energy to the group and watch the members transform before your eyes.
If you are interested in learning more about online support groups, please apply to join our 7Chairs’ amazing Group Facilitator Team, and join us in helping people find a sense of relief!