The First Meeting
The first meeting sets the stage for the rest of the relationship. Here are key aspects of making this first meeting (and subsequent meetings) successful.
- Approach your first meeting in an assertive (not aggressive!) manner. Human beings respond consciously and unconsciously to individuals who appear genuine, confident and open. Assertiveness can help you encourage the client to begin the relationship without overpowering or intimidating the other person. Assertiveness includes being specific about your intentions, asking the client about his or her feelings and remaining nonjudgmental.
- Suspend expectations. Although you might be very interested in getting the relationship off the ground, the peer may not be at the same stage of readiness. Having expectations can change the dynamics between you and your peer, particularly when expectations differ. Move forward with the intention to get to know the other person.
- Create a safe and supportive environment. One of the best ways to help a peer move forward in recovery is to work side-by-side in a safe and supportive environment. Make sure the client’s confidentiality is preserved by talking in private places.
- Treat the client with respect. This may seem obvious, but from your very first contact treat the client as an important person. Return calls promptly, start sessions on time, dress professionally, have paperwork ready for them, etc. Imagine how you would like to be treated as a client, and adjust your behavior accordingly.
- Match communication styles. Watch your client and become aware of their verbal, vocal and visual communication styles. Try to match their communication rhythm and use key words to develop rapport.
- Listen actively and empathetically to enhance rapport and demonstrate interest. Use your active listening skills to understand the client and their story. Before you make any attempt at an intervention, demonstrate to the client that you understand where they are coming from. Use some of the techniques found in this course video to help you enter their world.
- Be intentional in your self-disclosure. By talking about your experiences in recovery, you can find connections with your client that help to create the relationship of trust and respect that is essential to facilitating recovery. However, too much disclosure or done too early, telling your story in an illness focused manner, or for the wrong reasons can easily backfire.
- Watch your speed of intimacy. Depending on the client’s culture, background, personality, etc., it may take longer to build the trust required to discuss more personal and sensitive issues. In order to assess the trust level, pay attention to both the content of what the client is sharing and the client’s body language, as they will be important indicators of how much the client is ready to share. It is important to be aware of these non-verbal signals because not all clients will clearly verbalize their discomfort.
- Know that trauma survivors may take more time to form essential connections. They may find it difficult to trust you or to trust that others are not out to hurt or betray them. Particularly when trauma has been a pervasive, ongoing part of his or her life, the person may feel at the mercy of others with little opportunity to say what s/he wants and to act on personal needs.
Peer Support Conversations
Peer support conversations (sometimes referred to as peer or support counseling) are often the interactions in which a trained peer support specialist gives nonjudgmental, nondirective support to an individual seeking recovery support services. Peer support relationships are non-hierarchical – that is, they are a relationship of equals, rather than a relationship of authority or control. A key indicator of this more equal relationship is the sharing of the peer support specialist’s own recovery story (covered later in this module). Such disclosure would generally be considered inappropriate in a formal counseling relationship. Self-disclosure is part of a peer support specialist’s service as a role model for the people he or she serves. Sharing one’s recovery experience, strength and hope is a way to help others as a mentor and role model.
Peer support relationships, at least in their formal, assigned context, are generally short-term. Peer counseling is based upon the concept that people are capable of solving most of their own problems of daily living if they are given the right support and resources. Peer support conversations are intended to result in consumer-generated solutions, which are more likely to be acted upon than counselor-generated action plans.
Peer support conversations encompass all of the communication skills just taught. They also include other characteristics that provide a comforting and secure environment and focus on change processes. Let’s summarize how all of these pieces fit together cohesively.
- Encouraging clarification of issues – Asking strategic and open-ended questions helps the client to identify personal goals. When there are multiple issues to be solved, these questions can help the client to set priorities.
Example: Asking, “Can you say more about that?” or “What do you want to accomplish in the next three months?”
- Brainstorming and exploring options – Exploring options without judgment or comparison helps the client to clarify their own standards for decision-making.
Example: Saying, “Let’s just make a list of all of the possibilities first. Then you can decide which possibilities best match your needs right now.”
- Encouraging clients to come up with their own solutions – letting the client lead, control and exercise choice allows for self-determination of his or her personal path to recovery. This also aids the client in developing decision-making skills.
Example: Saying, “What I did might not be what will work best for you. What do you think are your best choices?”
- Providing problem solving expertise – Employing effective problem-solving techniques such as encouraging the client to make a list of pros and cons is not only a person-centered approach but also teaches these skills.
Example: Asking, “What are the pros and cons of this choice,” to help the client see the value in making changes and the consequences of remaining in the status quo.
- Supplying information – Ensuring that the client has all relevant information about options and possibilities, including available resources, facilitates informed decision-making and goal setting.
Example: Reassuring “I want to make sure you know about all of the resources for supported housing. There are some new options. Here is an up-to-date list for you.”
- Supporting follow-through on client decisions – Offering consistent praise when a client achieves a goal or whenever a target behavior is demonstrated reinforces growth.
Example: Saying, “You did a great job in being consistent with taking your medication this month. I know you can keep this up.”