Peer counseling is useful in a variety of environments, including health care, substance abuse, self-help groups and education. The purpose of peer counseling is to aid the counseling process through listening, understanding, empathy and assistance by someone who has similar experiences, according to Michael Sugarman M.S.W. with the National Stuttering Project.
One of the most important techniques for a peer counselor to learn is to listen. Simply listening may allow the counseled individual an opportunity to honestly express her feelings. This can be very important when the counselee feels that family members and friends will judge, give opinions or provide advice rather than listen. When sharing feelings, the counselee has the opportunity to process the situation and to make decisions about whether a change is necessary. When the counselor listens with a non-judgmental attitude and allows the counselee to express feelings openly and honestly, trust can build and grow. The counselee may be open to receiving help once the trust is secure.
Review and Restate
Through review and restate, the counselor restates what the counselee said in his own words. This affirms to the counselee that the counselor listened and allows her to correct any errors in what the counselor understands. The other purpose of this technique is to let the counselee hear what he is really saying.
Peer counseling is helpful in teaching techniques and information on a less formal basis outside the realm of classroom education. Many WIC clinics use breastfeeding peer counselors to teach new mothers breastfeeding techniques, according to the California Department of Health. Substance abuse programs advocate peer counseling for individuals well along in recovery who can assist those who are just beginning.
Offer Assistance Appropriately
It is important that the peer counselor only offer assistance when the counselee requests it. This technique requires patience on the part of the counselor, because the counselee may not be ready to accept assistance when he first meets with the counselor. If you offer assistance too early, the counselee may refuse it because she does not yet perceive the need for assistance.
Ask the Right Questions
The counselor can ask deep, open-ended questions to help the counselee move through the counseling process. Questions that require only a yes or no answer are less effective than questions that require an explanation or a narrative. Questions that begin with why, how, what or when will elicit detailed answers.
Sit and Wait
There is no need to fill all of the counseling time with words. When you ask a question, sit and wait quietly for the counselee to consider and answer the question. Restate the question only if the counselee requests it.
Peer counselors do not direct the actions of the counselee. Through listening and only providing assistance when requested, the peer counselor empowers the counselee to make his own decisions.
Rev. Kathryn Rateliff Barr has taught birth, parenting, vaccinations and alternative medicine classes since 1994. She is a pastoral family counselor and has parented birth, step, adopted and foster children. She holds bachelor's degrees in English and history from Centenary College of Louisiana. Studies include midwifery, naturopathy and other alternative therapies.