4 Challenges to Expect When Leading an Illness Support Group
Posted Nov 03 2008 8:55pm
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4 Challenges to Expect When Leading an Illness Support Group
By Lisa Copen
After weeks, or even months, of planning for your support group, the time for your first meeting has finally arrived. You have prepared a proposal to start up a support group which has been approved by an organization or church. You have gathered items for a welcome package and have topic or speakers ready to go.
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So, you're meeting is sure to run perfectly, Right? Unfortunately, all the plans in the world cannot cancel out a few unforeseen situations. Below are four of the aggravations you may experience during those first few meetings. Knowing what hurdles you may encounter can help you be prepared in advance.
(1) Only a couple of people come.
How it feels: Disappointing. After all the work you put into it, not to mention the passion you feel about doing this, it seems like such a wasted to just have one or two people show up. Understand that this can be typical, especially at first, when everyone feels a bit intimidated. Try not to take it personally. To be honest, you are fighting an uphill battle in getting people to attend a chronic illness support group, because when people feel ill, they usually want to stay home, not go out and socialist. But when they are feeling well, they'd prefer to do something more fun then sit around and talk about their illness.
What to do: A good motto to remember is, "Hope for the best and prepare for the few." The founder of HopeKeepers, which is a Christian support group program for the chronically ill, agrees. "It can be such a disappointment when you feel God leading you to start a group and then only one person shows up. But from personal experience I can say that God knows what He is doing and may have planned it that way! The first time I had only one woman come to a HopeKeepers meeting, we ended up having an amazing conversation. Later she disclosed that she was extremely leery about attending and probably wouldn't have spoken at all if other people had been there."
Also, keep an outline of your lesson, and even include what kinds of topics people shared. This way you can easily "repeat" the meeting with little preparation as a follow up. You may want to call people and, without pressuring them, ask if there is anything that you can do to make it easier for them to attend. Do they need a ride? What is typically a good time of day for a meeting?
(2) Your lesson plan is completely ignored.
How it feels: As though your ideas aren't interesting or inspiring enough to keep their attention. It can also feel as though no one appreciates all of the time you spent in preparation.
What to do: Allocate more than usual flexibility in your timeline at first and then add in more structure as the group meets and you begin to see how it flows. It's most likely that people are so excited to meet one another who understand what they experience living with daily chronic pain, that they just want to talk. You've provided a forum where the floodgates of pent up emotions are sure to spill over as soon as they realize they are allowed to be honest and vulnerable. It's impossible to hold up a book and point people back toward your lesson plan when one of the members is sobbing over her daughter who has told her mom her illness is "all in your head" and until she gets over it they are done. This type of situation can occur at any meeting, but it may be more frequent during the first month.
Talk to your group about your desire to allow people to share, but also that you want everyone to leave feeling refreshed. So regardless of what happens during the meeting, you will plan to end with an uplifting article, scripture, poem, prayer, devotional, etc.
(3) Everyone complains about relationships, the medical professionals, their illness-everything.
How it feels: Sometimes, like you are surviving a small mutiny. You will find many emotions that have not been expressed until now. People have deep wounds about things people have said to them or how they've treated them; unjust consequences due to their illness; perhaps even medical errors. It may feel like they want you to fix the chaos or else they will talk incessantly about it until you do.
What to do: Write up some guidelines, before your first meeting if possible, and include the "venting guidelines." Read "10 Ways to Make Your Illness Support Group Uplifting." One practical tool is to set a timer and allow everyone to have 60 seconds to share their most frustrating experience of the week. Brainstorm about a contest your group could have that would bring some humor to the venting. For example, the person who handled their irksome situation the best or most creatively could win the "Aggravated the Alligator (a rubber alligator) Award" to take home for the week.
Group members should have a sense of freedom in sharing their concerns and annoyances, but be sure to include others in the conversation. If Jane can't seem to let go of a situation, add, "Jane, I know some of us can identify with what you are sharing. Can someone else tell us how she or he has dealt with the emotions that accompany a situation that was similar?" If you are doing a study you can say, "Since we want to have plenty of time at the end to share something uplifting, let's move on to question five. Jane, would it be okay if people could offer their encouragement after the meeting or maybe later this week with a phone call or email?"
(4) One person continually dominates the conversation; she takes over the meetings and completely disregards your plans or people who are trying to talk.
How it feels: Infuriating! After all your preparation it can be annoying to have someone override your entire meeting and take the group down a path that lacks the encouragement you want to provide. You justifiably could be concerned about her impact on the group and how many people she could scare away.
What to do: Set boundaries at the beginning. It's important that people in the group are allowed to share their frustrations, but they also need to respect the others in the group. They must watch their language, the amount of time they dominate a conversation, and how they talk about other people's treatments or decisions.
One of the best ways to approach this is to include guidelines about how the group will function that are given to all new members. If the person who dominates the conversations doesn't understand your simple comments of "Let's see how other people feel" then talk to her one-on-one. Politely go over the guidelines. You may want to put her in charge of a part of the meeting where she can have a leadership role. Having the guidelines to refer to will make it feel less of a personal attack than if you are simply correcting her behavior.
Lastly, don't be too hard on yourself. You will learn as you go. Facilitating a support group is often assumed to be a simple undertaking. It's a myth that all one does is announce a meeting, lots of people attend, everyone shares and supports one another, and not personality conflicts arrive. That is impossible.
It takes a special person who can effectively communicate with people to lead a support group. A facilitator must be able to gently guide people in the path you wish them to go, so that the group makes a positive emotional impact, rather than becoming a complaint forum. A leader be compassionate, but also able to set boundaries or diffuse anger. As circumstances arise, ask other leaders for ideas and support. And most of all, remember that no leader ever feels one-hundred percent capable. Having a willingness to learn and listen are some of the top leadership qualities in which to invest.
Instant download of 200 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend from "Beyond Casseroles" by Lisa Copen when you subscribe to HopeNotes invisible illness ezine at Rest Ministries. Lisa is the founder of Invisible Illness Awareness Week.