Last year, I attended and presented a workshop at a conference on Online Peer Support in Antwerp. The blog I wrote reflecting on my experiences concluded with the suggestion that we needed more collaboration and discussion around the skills and training needed to offer effective peer support online – be it in relationships, mental health, bullying or any other area for which a young person might come looking for help.
Yesterday, for the first time, I ran a training session with new volunteers called ‘Essential skills for giving online peer support at YouthNet’. Instead of running individual training sessions for each of our volunteer roles – peer advisors, chat moderators, board moderators, peer chat moderators – we’ve been developing an outline of the essential foundation skills that all these roles need. All volunteers can then take this course before moving onto more specific training related to their role. As an official education centre with OCNLR, I hope that later we can offer this to volunteers as an accredited course.
It’s worth highlighting that our discussion boards offer a moderated forum for peer support in a more informal sense – young people giving their opinions, suggestions and advice to other young people using the service. This is immensely valuable to everyone, but it’s not what I’m focussing on here. The essential skills here are for young people who have volunteered to take a more official ‘peer support’ role with us, and as such, while their experiences may improve their answers, they would be asked not to refer to them directly or to give their own personal opinions. My Antwerp blog explores different kinds of peer support in more detail.
This course, and the online version I’m creating using Moodle, is still in it’s infancy at the moment – and as such will undoubtedly change and develop. However, as part of that collaboration and discussion that could help all online peer support projects improve, here’s our initial skills round- up.
Essential skills for giving online peer support at YouthNet
A good understanding of YouthNet, TheSite.org and the services we offer.
This includes familiarity with the range of articles and services of TheSite.org, an understanding of YouthNet’s aims and what we do to meet them and an understanding of YouthNet’s approach to support
This is obviously vital if volunteers are to give consistent support – and if they are to make the most of the available services on TheSite.org. In addition, as many of our volunteers work virtually, it’s important that the feel part of a wider organisation and service.
As well as a ‘treasure hunt’ style quiz giving people a chance to explore our services, we start with three discussions. The first is identifying the advantages and disadvantages of online support, the second explores what the pressures a young person looking to use our services might be under, and what they might be thinking and feeling. The last focuses on what a young person might want from our support and what this means in terms of the skills we need.
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 yesterday 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.
An understanding of the importance of emotional support and the ability to give it effectively and appropriately.
It’s typical for young people to come to TheSite.org 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.
Our volunteers 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.
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.
Volunteers need to be able to use appropriate tone and style and to write using clear and conversational language – it’s all too easy for volunteers 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.
Volunteers 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. We ask our volunteers, particularly those working on the askTheSite service where they write one off, longer answers, 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 we 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.
The ability to provide a range of appropriate options and an understanding that users may need help to overcome initial barriers to accessing support.
Some of our volunteer role names are quite misleading in some ways. We call our relationships section volunteers ‘peer advisors’ for example. But 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!”. But, we’re 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 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 young people face personal and practical barriers to taking the next step to accessing support. I’ve written a more detailed post about the services we are developing to help volunteers and young people explore the barriers they face to accessing support in more detail.
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.
We want our volunteers to have the ability to use online tools, such as our local advice finder to find detailed information for users. We also want them to have the ability to assess websites and choose those appropriate for the user and for TheSite.org.
A good level of self awareness
Finally, given the nature of the situations volunteers can be faced with, they need good insight into their personal responses and reactions and how these can influence them or affect their impartiality. We often say to volunteers 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, volunteers don’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’ volunteer, 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, of course, we also provide ongoing coaching, training and feedback. We don’t expect our volunteers to complete their essential skills and specific skills courses and be ready to give excellent online support immediately. As well as identifying and practicing skills, our courses give volunteers a sense of best practice, which they can return to during the course of their work.
Because of the nature of the work we do, and the fact that no two situations we are faced with are ever quite the same, perhaps the final skill, for volunteers and staff is a willingness to reassess, reevaluate, take feedback and suggestions from those around us – and to endlessly learn. We’ll be doing this when we offer support ourselves, when we offer training and, of course, as we develop our essential skills courses.