Once a week for the past eight years a group of us meet for breakfast and discuss a variety of topics. What started as a one-time breakfast meeting with former workplace colleagues to catch up on retirement progress, has evolved into a continuing peer mentoring activity that relies on an unusual structure to manage engagement.
In her article, Group Mentoring: Strategies for Success, Lois Zachary (2011) identified peer group mentoring as one of the three most commonly employed models for achieving learning goals. Our group meets all of the criteria that she identified as associated with peer mentoring, including (1) having similar interests or needs; (2) setting our own agenda; (3) engaging in self-management and self-direction; (4) managing the focus of the discussion to make sure all members’ needs are met; and (5) ensuring that each group member benefits from the knowledge, expertise, and experience of the other group members.
What’s surprising or unusual, however, about our peer mentoring group is that we have yet to discuss, consciously review, or deliberately implement any of the five criteria Dr. Zachary identified. In other words, we didn’t review options and select one that we preferred. Instead, our structure and process have evolved over time. They may continue to change, but both seem to have been achieved by what can best be called a ‘happy accident.’
Using the happy accident approach for developing a peer group meeting structure may not be suitable for everyone. It can severely test the patience of those who prefer a certain degree of structure, a set agenda, or an urge to ‘get things done.’
As an experienced group leader in other contexts, I’m (happily) surprised that this peer mentoring group has been so successful, despite violating some of the standard principles associated with effective group management. For example, a lower level of structure in most groups typically leads to low levels of participation or inconsistent engagement by various members of the group. In our group, participation is equally distributed. Each member introduces topics; some members bring materials or resources to the group to share with the others, and everyone in the group contributes to every discussion (whether they know anything about it or not).
A low structure can also make it easier for some group members to dominate discussion or process in a way the meets their needs only. While the specific interests of a particular group member may serve as a topic discussion starter, the person who initiated the topic typically asks each of the other group members for their reactions or ideas about that topic. Group members also respond with their own viewpoint, whether they are specifically asked or not. Responsibility for leadership is distributed evenly among all group members.
Another problem that can lead to difficulties in groups is the degree to which the group has established a verbalized consensus on the group’s purpose. Many groups have no way of determining the degree to which they are achieving their purpose or desired results without an overall objective. This lack of clarity typically leads to low engagement, inconsistent attendance, or dropping out completely.
Although we’ve never spoken directly about our purpose, the fact that we have been meeting consistently for eight years (with time out during certain months for holidays), indicates that the model we have developed is satisfying, effective, and successful.
The Mindfulness Process
Our current way of interacting with each other has been repeated enough times that it is possible to describe some of the elements that have contributed to the success of our peer mentoring group. If I had to come up with one term or phrase that would characterize our meetings, I would use the term ‘mindfulness.’ Our interactions seem to (1) show conscious awareness or willingness to explore our current thoughts, feelings, and opinions; (2) seek alternative views or be open and curious about the views of others; and (3) resist any tendency toward judgment and instead focus on acceptance; and (4) be willing to include a sense of presence and authenticity.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (2009) has written extensively about mindfulness and the impact it has on stress reduction, and Peer Resources Network member Doug Silsbee (2010) has centered mindfulness as a key to successful coaching interactions. While we did not purposely establish a mindfulness perspective or process in our group, it has evolved in a way to be our most consistent way of interacting with each other.
“Age does not diminish the extreme disappointment of having a scoop of ice cream fall from the cone.” ~ Jimmy Carter ~
Bring it Up
While variations occur in any meeting, here are the most consistent mindfulness elements of our peer group dialogue.
Many of our discussions have to do with the circumstances associated with aging, health, exercise, mood, and medical or alternative treatments. These topics probably have more to do with the fact that all the group members are over 65. But many discussions are initiated around ideas that come from books we’re reading, current events, things we’ve discovered online, or past experiences.
Regardless of the topic, the initiator typically takes some time to share, explain or expand on the topic, and, if appropriate, bring up any inner dialogue and feelings about it. Sometimes this can lead to catastrophizing, making it seem like disaster is imminent or immense. Typically when this happens it is also followed by what might be considered a creative awareness, where the current topic seems related to some past experience, fear or action.
Whatever path the initiator takes the topic, there is a pause where that person asks the other group members for their reaction, assessment, or comment.
Catch and Release
At this point, various group members express their understanding of or experience with the topic. This may include seeking clarity, sharing a similar experience, or drawing upon their own wisdom or learning.
The intention is to acknowledge the content, feelings, and perspective of the initiator, while at the same time releasing the initiator from having to hold on to negative or stressful feelings, particularly those that facilitate catastrophizing or feeling alone.
Not all topics feature emotional content. Some are more idea- or intellectually- centered. These are often discussed with the intention of focusing on meaning-making questions or comments such as ‘What do you make of that?’ or ‘This is what I gained from it when it happened to me.’
Sometimes group members share what action they have taken when faced with a similar circumstance. However, we are not what I would consider a ‘result/ action’ oriented group. That is, there doesn’t appear to be a drive on any group member’s part to figure out what to do about something. This doesn’t prevent members from asking for advice or ideas, and this often becomes a way to draw upon the wisdom and experience of group members.
Bring it In
More than 60 years ago I had a high school coach who at the end of each practice would say, “Okay fellas, bring it in.” That was the signal that the physical practice was over and we were to gather in a group around the coach. The coach would then provide feedback or comments to the players on what he observed that day, and he would encourage us to express our gratitude to other players for what we were experiencing that day.
This wasn’t always easy as some of the conflicts between us led to some nasty, snarky or sarcastic ways of doing what the coach asked us to do. At the same time, when another player authentically expressed gratitude or appreciation, it had a powerful and lasting impact.
That early experience had such a profound impact on me that I’ve carried the experience through into my personal and professional life. Using it as part of the peer mentoring group seemed like a natural and useful thing to do. Fortunately, it’s contagious. I only tried it a few times before it became a fairly common aspect of the interactions for all of us within our group. We often nish our meetings or topic discussions with a type of ‘bring it in’ activity. It’s not so much a formal procedure as it is a way to help each other replace negative thoughts or feelings with things we appreciate or are grateful for. These more personal comments to each other also allow us to express our compassion and support for each other.
Not all our group meetings follow the pattern of mindfulness, nor does each meeting always include the three elements described above. Sometimes our focus is on recalling a past event or experience, sharing stories about family adventures, agreeing that our former workplace was a better organization when we worked there or telling jokes or humourous anecdotes. I’m convinced that the flexibility in both agenda-setting and how we manage the discussion as well as the personal meaning, knowledge, and support we gain from and give to each other is the glue that has attracted us to continue to meet with each other on a regular basis.
The size and consistency of our group also matter. For the most part, there are four of us, sometimes five; and from time-to-time one of the members brings a guest. While we might be able to accomplish mindfulness with more members, a larger group might lead to inconsistent attendance and less opportunity for follow- up, and less likelihood or willingness to tune-in to our way of being with each other.
Peer mentoring, particularly for small groups of older members of a society, go far back in history. The Knights of the Roundtable, Tribal Councils, Elder Chiefs, and other forms of ancient governing practices were all examples of peer mentoring.
Peer mentoring for seniors can be a powerful way to stimulate brain functioning and learning, meet social connection needs, and enable seniors to continue to grow and develop. Could others use our system? Possibly, but the key would be how to develop a mindfulness approach that would work for that particular group. From our experience, we stumbled into it by happy accident. There are many paths to a mindful or fulfillling way to participate in peer mentoring. We’re grateful we found ours.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Letting everything become your teacher: 100 lessons in mindfulness. New York: Dell Publishing.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2006). Coming to our senses: Healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness. New York: Hyperion.
Silsbee, D. (2010). The mindful coach. Seven roles for facilitating leader development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Zachary, L. (2011). Group mentoring: Strategies for success. Peer Bulletin, 205, 12-14.
“Conversation was never begun at once, nor in a hurried manner. No one was quick with a question, no matter how important, and no one was pressed for an answer. A pause giving time for thought was the truly courteous way of beginning and conducting a conversation. Silence was meaningful with the Lakota, and his granting a space of silence to the speech-maker and his own moment of silence before talking was done in the practice of true politeness and regard for the rule that, “thought comes before speech.”
~ Luther Standing Bear (1868-1939) ~
Ogala Sioux Chief