An Introduction to Listening Circles
Back in 2020 Suzanne Alderson, Founder of Parenting Mental Health, had a vision of creating Listening Circles within the Parenting Mental Health community. The aim and vision of these was to provide an added resource; a warm, friendly, safe space where parents could meet once a week on a zoom in a small group of up to 6 parents, facilitated by a trained Listening Circle Facilitator where someone would ask “how are you” and hold that space. A space where you could talk, if you wished to, be heard, supported, offer support to others and form connections with other members. Parenting Mental Health Charity generously funded all of this, so that it was an additional resource and form of support that could be offered to all members.
Mindful of the risk involved in supporting parents in crisis, the initial pilot took place with members of Parenting Mental Health and trained counsellors. The pilot produced some astonishing changes with parents’ mental health improving by 75%, feeling 69% more in control of their emotions, 60% more in control of their life and 77% more confident dealing with professionals.
What became clear was that parents benefitted hugely from this experience and wanted to connect and be heard. It was also clear from the pilot that parents with lived experience could bring the listening skills and ability to hold space, but importantly an empathy and understanding that is only gained through caring for a child with a mental health issue.
Setting this up from scratch took time – besides necessary behind the scenes paperwork, Suzanne collaborated with Tanja Sharpe, a qualified and highly experienced Counsellor and Founder of Creative Counsellors, the UK’s leading collective of counsellors who use creativity in their work, to devise a bespoke training programme for Listening Circle Facilitators.
The Facilitators were all members of Parenting Mental Health – parents who were naturally understanding, compassionate and empathetic and who wanted to bring their uniquely valuable and vast lived experience to support others in need. Members were invited to apply for the role, completing various forms and questionnaires and were then vetted before selection took place. The bespoke training package consisted of many hours of training sessions, skills practice sessions, training with a qualified Safeguarding Lead and then a DBS check. The vetting, selection process, training was all vital to ensure the Facilitators were right for the role, prepared for working with groups, and that they felt equipped and emotionally ready to do the role too.
Once the Facilitators were in place and trained, we advertised this new resource with Parenting Mental Health and worked with a qualified mental health professional to vet them to ensure everyone’s safety. We started off with 9 Circles, consisting of 6 members in each, although we received many applications and were over-subscribed. Throughout the whole process both the Facilitators and members’ wellbeing was monitored via surveys and check ins were on offer if needed. We also had access to a trained counsellor, but this was not ever required. This was a really helpful tool for the team to ensure everyone was ‘okay’ and monitor the effectiveness of the sessions to give feedback to the Charity.
Throughout the duration of the Listening Circles, Facilitators had ongoing Emotional Support and Feedback Sessions with Suzanne and Tanja and options for additional support if required. Their wellbeing, and feeling supported, was also paramount.
Members really embraced this unique opportunity. Knowing that they had 8 fixed sessions, and that it was an extra safe space within an already safe space of Parenting Mental Health, they embraced the opportunity to share and listen. The openness, honesty, trust, and vulnerability shown was humbling. It was up to members what they shared, how much or how little, but people did. There were tears and laughter, highs, and lows – all the reality of parenting a child with poor mental health, but you were amongst people who ‘got it’. Some groups used the whole time in the Circle to talk, other groups liked doing some self care exercises – the Facilitators were adaptable to meet the needs of their attendees.
The feedback received from members about their Circles was absolutely amazing. They felt heard, supported and understood, that someone cared, their thoughts, feelings and emotions were validated, it lightened the load and they formed bonds and connections. Committing that time each week to themselves, a source of self-care, was not only important but for some was the highlight of their week. People shared personal things that they don’t always feel able to share with friends and family as they don’t want to worry them, or be misunderstood. So to have such an understanding, judgement free space was priceless. Members reported feeling comfort in not feeling alone with their situation and learning about other people’s life experiences too and new ways to handle things, new tools to try by sharing information and resources.
Whilst there were many improvements for members that could be measured statistically via the weekly surveys, the biggest measure was in the members’ own feedback of what they gained. All of the Circles went on to form a Messenger/Whatsapp group to keep the connection going, and many have signed up to attend a second Listening Circle. On this mental health journey we sometimes have to, or need to, measure the wins in life differently, and the Circles were most definitely a win for our members, Facilitators and Parenting Mental Health.
We can’t thank everyone enough who was involved from the Charity, the Listening Circle Team, the Facilitators and the Members, for not only bringing this vision of Suzanne’s to life, but for making it such a huge success and additional resource to Parenting Mental Health.
If you have a question about Listening Circles, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Alison Herbert
Volunteer Listening Circle Lead