Have you ever sat through a meeting, group discussion, or any class for that matter and thought, “I really wish ___ would stop talking and give someone else a chance?” This is one of the exact situations you want to avoid in leading group discussions within a support group (or class).
After running multiple weight management support groups and nutrition classes, I found the most effective sessions were those that had a designated topic and were gently guided. Below are 5 of the key tips that will help you run an effective support group style class!
1 – Come Prepared
Having a topic for your group discussion is absolutely key! This gives the class direction and focus. I would also suggest creating an outline with estimated time frames and talking points. I also had “extra” notes on my outline in case the class was smaller and/or a bit more quiet. Think also about 1 relevant topic handout you could provide and a recipe or two.
2 – Set Ground Rules
In the beginning of the first couple of classes, I laid out the ground rules for all of the participants. I made it a point to say that everyone is in a different place in their health journey and to be respectful of others’ viewpoints and struggles. You would be surprised how many times I had to remind adults of this. I also outlined the flow of the class (see below), noted the time constraint, and asked all phones to be put on silent or turned off.
3 – Be Aware of Group Dynamics
During the first class or two, you will start to see different personalities emerge. I usually had a small group of participants who were the most engaged (i.e. always giving feedback/input), a handful of really chatty ones (who I often needed to cut off), a few silent listeners (some of which preferred to ask questions after the session finished), and maybe one (if any) aggressive or very negative participant. While you don’t want to put anyone in a “box” necessarily, being aware of the dynamic will help you facilitate more effective discussions and know when you might need to intervene. There are a ton of resources online that can help you in managing certain group dynamics if you feel stuck.
4 – Take Charge of the Discussion
After leading quite a few group classes, I began to realize that the most positive feedback I received was in regards to how I kept “in control.” Taking control of the class means allowing meaningful discussion, yet redirecting when needed. This also means (politely) cutting someone off who is chatting too much. This also means spinning negative comments into positive and actionable ones. If you feel like the class got a bit off track, don’t be afraid to redirect the discussion. Often I would say things like, “Suzie, you make a great point about exercise being a struggle. I will make note of your comments so we can focus on them when we get to that topic.” Avoid getting too far off track during every session since many of your participants could be really looking forward to the topic originally planned and may feel upset that it didn’t receive adequate time/attention.
5 – Create Actionable Goals
At the end of every group session, I would take about 5 minutes to have all participants write down an action goal for the week. I would give everyone the opportunity to share their goals and provide encouragement and support for others. I felt like this tied the discussion topic together and gave participants something positive to work towards (other than just weight).
Sample Class Flow (1-hour)
I have run 45 and 60-minute support groups before. I always did the weigh-ins prior to the class (optional) and avoided talking about weight during the class discussion in an effort to keep things positive for all.
-Optional weigh-ins prior to class
-Introduction to myself (2 min)
-Ground rules/reminders (3 min)
-Discussion of last week’s topic/goals – what worked, what didn’t, questions (10 min)
-Topic introduction from Dietitian – why this topic is important, what I want to discuss (2 min)
-Main topic – Dietitian has talking points, ask class about struggles (8 min)
-Class input on topic – strategies that worked well for them (10 min)
-Additional questions/Dietitian recap (5 min)
-Goal setting + sharing (10 min)
Sample Support Group Topic Ideas
Be specific when choosing a support group topic. I tried to avoid broad topics (like weight-loss) and instead focus on particular habits or health attributes.
-Healthy snacks – components, samples
-Reading labels – what to look for, samples
-Eating on-the-go – can be broken into eating-on-the run and eating out
-Mindful eating – what is it and how to incorporate
-Tips for incorporating more fruits/veggies
-Incorporating exercise into a busy schedule
-What is meal balance – i.e. what should be on your plate
-Strategies for eating well: on vacation, over the holidays, at BBQs, etc