Essential skills for giving online peer support – a course in development.

The essential skills advisors and peer supporters need for giving advice, information or support online

These are some of the basic skills that supporters and advisors find useful when working young people on keyboard onlineonline. The support offered might be one to one (email style), peer or expert support, moderating forums or moderating real time chat. Depending on the type of support being offered I’ve emphasised certain areas or added additional advanced skills to my training. This training tends to be offered to people who are taking on a specific supporter role, rather than individuals who are part of the community. With adjustments, it can also be offered to community members to help them look after themselves and get more out of their experience online.

1) A good understanding of the service

This includes familiarity with the nature and limits of the online support service , an understanding of the aims of the organisation and how they are met. It can also include an understanding of the organisations approach to support

This is vital if advisors or peer supporters are to give consistent support – and if they are to make the most of the available services. As many online advisors or peer volunteers work virtually, it’s important that the feel part of a wider organisation and service.

2) The ability to listen effectively online

Whether you are offering support on or offline, being able to listen effectively and actively is a key skill. Listening online is often harder than listening offline. In a face to face environment, we are relying on visual cues to help us listen more effectively. In addition, there is an immediacy to our responses which means the other person can see and hear that we are listening straight away.

Listening online becomes a two step process; we need to use written clues to try and understand what is going on for the user and then we need to be able to communicate effectively to the user that we are listening – again using words. We need to be aware that the fact we are reading rather than listening in the traditional sense means it’s easy to fall back into a more usual ‘skimming’ style of reading and forget that we have to ensure we ‘listen’ actively.

An activity I tried for the first time recently was one around timed reading. I gave all the volunteers a question from a user, and a minute to read it. Afterwards they answered questions on it. Some they got right, some they didn’t remember and other things they assumed. It helped to highlight the speedy assumptions we make when we read fast, and started a discussion about why reading more carefully is important.

3) An understanding of the importance of emotional support and the ability to give it effectively and appropriately.

It’s typical for people to come to online support services looking for emotional support, not just specific information or advice. By offering emotional support carefully and sensibly, we can ensure that what we offer has much more impact. I have recently written a separate post on the subtleties of emotional support online which explores its fundamental importance so I won’t go into endless detail here.

Advisors and peer supporters need to understanding of the importance of genuine emotional support and showing the young person we take their experience and emotions seriously. They also need to be able to empathise with the user and understand the emotional as well as practical impact of suggestions.

4) The ability to write well for the web and communicate effectively online

When supporting online, all we have is words. While the confidentiality offered by online support gives the user a degree of security, it can sometimes make communication with them more difficult.  As well as an ability to write clearly and in an appropriate friendly and informal tone, those offering good support will often choose their words carefully to create a sense of their understanding, compassion and perspective on the issue. I have explored language in support in more detail in my post on mental health, metaphor and online support.

Advisors and peer supporters need to be able to use appropriate tone and style and to write using clear and conversational language – it’s all too easy for people who are used to more academic style writing at school or university to replicate that in offering support. Throwing that formal style out of the window can take time.

They also need an awareness of how language can affect whether a response is viewed as judgemental. A good example of this is the use of the first person. Some services choose not to use ‘I’ – as immediately it starts to bring in overtones of opinion and judgement. In addition, saying ‘if you do this…this will happen’ starts to offer false and potentially dangerous promises.

One of the activities I do in training, which explores skills around listening online, emotional support, empathy and using language effectively is one around implicit and explicit emotions. We give all the trainees a question to read, and ask them to identify what emotions that the young person writing the question might be feeling. We usually end up with a big list on a flip chart. I then put a star by some of the emotions (those that the user explicitly mentions) and ask the trainees why. Often people get it, sometimes not. Either way, it’s a good introduction to the idea of different ‘types’ of emotions.

Explicit emotions,  those which are mentioned, are ones which we can refer to and reflect back with more definite language (‘in your question you say…..’, ‘you are clearly….’). Implicit emotions are those which we infer or think might be the case. They are often valuable for us  to mention – they can help the user get a new perspective or better understanding of their situation. However these are the ones we need to refer to more carefully (‘it sounds like you might be feeling…’, ‘might it be the case that…?’). We need to be open to the fact we might be wrong, and use language to show this. Getting these distinctions wrong can mean the support we offer would not appear to be properly understanding or accurately reflecting the users situation.

5) The ability to provide a range of appropriate options and an understanding that users may need help to overcome initial barriers to accessing support.

Often the term ‘advisors’ can be quite misleading. The word advice makes you think about the sort of thing you do in the pub, with mates –

“I think you should finish with her”

“It sounds like you’re better off without him”

“I’d go and see a doctor about that mate!”

Usually online support is not here to do that. In fact, we are not really here to give advice at all. As well as all the benefits of emotional support, our role is often to help the users understand the options available to them, the benefits of these options and how best they can take their next steps towards resolving their issue.

Volunteers need to be able to give a range of options and ensure that each option is presented without judgement. This includes an awareness of how personal judgment can affect the options you might offer. An example might be around a rape or abuse case. An advisor who was convinced that the crime had to be reported immediately might only give options which included reporting the rape or abuse. They could lose sight of the fact that the person involved might need different support at this stage, or might not even be ready to make the decision about whether they want to report it.

In addition, advisors need to understand that support is not ‘one size fits all’ and often people face personal and practical barriers to taking the next step to accessing support. I’ve written a more detailed post about services I was involved in developing on TheSite.org to help volunteers and young people explore the barriers they face in accessing support in more detail.

6) An ability to research effectively online and choose and give appropriate signposts.

Researching answers is fundamental to working in advice and guidance. Every question or situation we are presented with is different.  Often, our role can be to help someone break down their problem into manageable steps, and help them find the right support to to take each of these steps. Research is important for fact checking and thinking through the practical options and next steps that a user may have available to them.

7) A good level of self awareness and an ability to self care

Finally, given the nature of the situations advisors and peer supporters can be faced with, they need good insight into their personal responses and reactions and how these can influence them or affect their impartiality. I often say  that all kinds of responses are natural – but what you need to be able to do is put those feelings aside in order to be able to answer the question impartially.

If, in a particular case an advisor or peer supporter doesn’t feel able to do this, they need to be happy to say so, and to leave that question, post or chat to someone else. It’s easy to feel that you ‘must’ do your shift, even if you are tired, upset or emotionally affected by a question – but in fact this is doing no-one any favours, least of all the users.

Ongoing coaching and training

This sounds like a lot, and it is. Giving effective support online, whether as a peer or as someone professional, is not easy. It takes practice and ongoing coaching, training and feedback.

A willingness to reassess, reevaluate and to endlessly learn

Because of the nature of online support and the fact that no two situations advisors are faced with are ever quite the same, perhaps the final skill is a willingness to reassess, reevaluate, take feedback and suggestions from those around us – and to endlessly learn.

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Essential skills for giving online peer support – a course in development.

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