The following is an extract from a speech made by Spencer Brennan in 2007. Spencer was a friend and colleague from the Canadian Ontario Self Help Network (OSHNET). He offered to run a workshop for COSHG while in Melbourne in 2007 and again on a visit in 2010. It was while presenting at the later workshop he first noticed symptoms of the terminal disease he was eventually diagnosed with. He joined his local self help group for the disease for the support and knowledge he knew he would find there. In August 2012 Spencer passed away. His facilitation skills, wisdom, knowledge and clear understanding of what self help groups offer and how they benefit society was respected by our sister organisations across the world.                                                      

Sadly the Self-Help Resource Centre (SHRC) Ontario Canada (which was home to OSHNET) closed its doors in May 2017 due to lack of funding.  However Spencer’s contribution to the peer support movement lives on in the following:

Extract from Spencer Brennan’s Keynote Speech – COSHG Forum 2007 
In many cases, the issues that (these) groups deal with are very similar. How do we get started? Where do we find new members? How do we keep things on track? What can we do when no one wants to lead the group? Is there a better way to handle conflict? Should we have speakers come in, or just focus on each other? How do we handle burnout? When is the right time to close the group down? While the questions are similar, there is one issue that keeps occurring, over and over again – what we’ve come to call Founder’s Syndrome.

In our experience there is usually one really strong person who sparks the whole initiative for starting a group. Because they have the vision and energy, they frequently then become the prime mover and shaker, the one who leads the group and takes care of all the other details. Soon the group is seen as theirs, and more and more responsibility is placed on their shoulders, until at some point, they crash and burn. It’s at that point they call us.

In such a case, we advise them to find someone else in the group to take responsibility to facilitate, and to announce a date at which time they will be taking a break, leaving the group in the hands of a new facilitator. However, if our visionary comes to us at the very beginning, before a group is launched, we caution them about Founder’s Syndrome, and strongly recommend they do not begin a group unless there are at least 3 or 4 other people who are willing to form a planning committee and then, start the group.

We also recommend that a process of shared leadership be adopted, and that there be at least two co-facilitators in every meeting to keep the group’s process flowing. This demonstrates that leadership is a skill which can be learned, and sends the clear message that the group belongs to everyone, and everyone’s gifts and abilities are needed in order for things to work. It is sometimes a very difficult and painful process when this suggestion is not followed, but it is possible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. As our great Canadian songster Leonard Cohen suggests: “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

One of the topics for today’s conference has been how to keep your group on track. While establishing the purpose for and goals of the group certainly helps in getting things started on the right foot, it’s the next few phases that will determine whether the group sustains itself. Given what we’ve heard this morning, I’d like to highlight just a few of the suggestions we would make in how to maintain a group. 

If a good foundation has been laid by the original planning committee – with co-facilitators sharing leadership, homework will also have been done in determining what resources are already available in the community to support the new group. Consulting with those groups who have survived is a logical thing to do, as their experience might contribute to the success of the new group. Ultimately, the new group’s members will decide what works for them, but having a perspective and input from those who have already been successful in maintaining a group, can be invaluable.

Any group can only sustain itself if all the members are involved, so reaching consensus on the group’s guidelines is essential. This should also include how to fold in new members and ensure that they too have input into how the group will be run. The three words I always focus on are defining what we mean by confidentiality, respect, and support. Each of these terms, I feel, needs to be clearly understood and agreed upon if a group is to move forward.

Confidentiality is a tricky term, and something that everyone thinks they agree on until you ask: what happens if I get upset by something another person shares and we are out of time? Does that mean I have to hold onto those feelings until the next meeting? Or can I go home and talk about what’s happening for me, so I don’t have to carry it around? What I suggest is that the group clarify that indeed you can go home and talk about your feelings with your partner, so long as you don’t reveal any identifying information about the person who triggered your upset, or what they said that upset you. Usually members are ok with that specific exception, but may not always be willing to take action if and when a serious breach of confidentiality takes place. However, that is a group’s decision to make, with the understanding that failure to address a breach in confidentiality can lead to other members’ withdrawal and subsequent departure from a group they no longer feel is safe.

Respect also requires some discussion, as failure to do so can lead to some major boundaries being crossed without people realizing they have done so. Comments about members’ personality or lifestyle, or any of the “isms” need to be labelled as unacceptable, and challenged. While the purpose of the group is not to change members’ opinions about others, it must be understood that the expression of such opinions will jeopardize the safety the group and therefore undermine its’ success. Jokes and humorous asides are also a part of a group’s life, and while some tolerance is necessary, the message needs to be clear that labelling people, even in a humorous way, is not the best policy.

As for support, again, everyone thinks they know what that means and so rely on an assumption that is never discussed. Yet, if we are to honour the uniqueness of each individual in the group, we also need to understand and accept that their needs will differ and therefore, out of respect, we should ask: What does support look like to you? When you say you want our support, what would you like the group to do? I’ve had the experience of offering what I considered my best version of support, only to have it angrily rejected and me denounced for my presumption. I learned the hard way that it is better to ask how another wishes to be supported than by offering what might not be perceived as helpful. At least when I ask there’s a 50-50 chance that what I do offer will at least be useful, and not compound the situation.

After some of the group’s guidelines have been decided upon, the next task is the workload – who will do what. To engage members and send a very clear message that the group is everyone’s responsibility, not just the co-facilitators’, is vital to avoid burnout and possible death of the group. Asking people to take on required tasks spreads the work out amongst the members rather than burden the few and possibly setup the Founder’s Syndrome situation I mentioned before.

Those sharing leadership also have a responsibility to demystify their role as facilitators. By being up front about what they are doing, explaining in plain language why they may intervene, interrupt a speaker or challenge a behaviour, are all necessary for members to see and understand that facilitation is a set of skills that can be learned, and not the God-given talent of the anointed few. Many groups flounder and even collapse when longtime facilitators take a break or leave, just because members are too intimidated or overwhelmed by the task of leading, and therefore refuse to step forward. Priming people for the inevitable succession required to keep the group going is something every facilitator has to keep in mind. One is always looking for who will step into the facilitator’s role and offering support and encouragement to the new generation of leaders.

In addition, facilitators also have a responsibility to keep challenging themselves by expanding their skill set. Understanding the growth of groups and the stages they will go through can be very reassuring to members, particularly when conflict arises. Knowing that the “storming phase” of a group is part of its’ natural development can prepare members to weather that storm, particularly if they know it’s coming. And maintaining the group’s focus throughout that experience can also reassure the members that this process is normal and not necessarily something to be feared.

The two other bumps in the road to a successful group are the problems of recruitment and member satisfaction. I suggest everyone in the group pare down their group purpose into a 25-words-or-less advertisement that they can offer at any and every opportunity, which presents itself. Standing waiting for the bus or train, chatting with friends and family, having coffee after class, anywhere, anytime, members should be recruiting through word of mouth. And of course, the standard ways of spreading the word can also be employed, posting clear and straightforward announcements at libraries, community centres, or any office which might in some way be connected to your group’s purpose. Without continuous intake and ongoing recruitment, groups may wither and die, or even suffer from hardening of the categories, instead of breathing supportive life into its members.

And, one of the best ways to keep the life of a group healthy is to ask, ask, ask and evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. Providing regular opportunities to revisit the group’s purpose and satisfaction with the way things are going is the only way to make sure members’ needs are being met. As the length of membership varies, so also will those members’ needs. Asking for an open evaluation underscores the importance of member feedback – that group truly is run with, by and for its members, and the only way to ensure it remains true to the spirit of self-help is to ask: Are we still on the right track? Do you feel your needs are being met, and if not, what do we need to do to change that? However, in the process of making any necessary change, we must also be ready for the resistance that inevitably follows whenever change is required. We need to understand that it’s not so much the change that is being resisted, but what William Bridges calls “the neutral zone,” that period between the change being announced and the result of its’ impact upon us.