Naturally Occurring Peer Support – Grow Great Daily Brief #123 – December 14, 2018

We talk quite a lot about being intentional and purposeful in who you surround yourself with, but today let’s fairly consider naturally occurring peer support. Professional (intentional and purposeful) peer advantage isn’t something everybody wants. And unless or until somebody wants to lean into the advantage of being surrounded by others who can help…they won’t take advantage of it. Or even accept that it could help.

A common refrain among some entrepreneurs is how they just let things happen organically. Chance encounters. Friends. Acquaintances. From the pool of people who come and go in our lives, some feel it’s a suitable pool from which organic peer support “just happens.” Every single person who has ever expressed that to me when asked, “Does that work well for you?” confesses, “No!”

For good reason. There’s no design behind it. No intention. No structure or framework. No growth purpose.

Just yesterday I encountered the phrase that serves as today’s title – “naturally occurring peer support.” It was in a Wired article titled, “Social Media Is Ruining Our Minds—It Also Might Save Them.” Researchers found that some online communities can foster genuinely nurturing environments for people suffering from mental health problems. They observed this “naturally occurring peer support” in YouTube comments, of all places.

Social media is full of trolls and ill-behaved people. Much of it innocuous, but some of it quite damaging. As a longtime member of the podcasting community and blogging community, I can tell you many people are not only distracted by trolls and haters, but some content creators can obsess about them. Engagement is what we crave, but sadly, bad behavior can ruin it. Me? I’ve never consistently allowed comments on my website. As much as I enjoy discussions, even lively ones where people disagree, I decided almost 20 years ago I wasn’t going to provide a forum for people to behave poorly. Besides, I don’t like the anonymity used by so many ill-behaving people. So I’ve been intentional to not allow it on my websites.

Sounds like I’m overly cynical, and I am…but I’m simultaneously optimistic about people. I truly think people – most people – would be good, and perhaps even better if they only knew how. I would hope that naturally occurring peer support is an indication of that. Human beings rally.

Every rally needs a leader.

Somebody in the community has a need. People come together to support that person or family. Somebody has to make it happen. Others may chime in to provide support for the leader, but these efforts don’t “just happen.”

Viral videos are often described as organic, or things that just hit. But if you reverse engineer them you’ll likely see lots of intentional efforts. No guarantees they’ll go viral, but strategies and tactics deployed to give them the best chance. Similar to community support for a cause, some hit bigger than others based largely on the intentional actions taken by people leading the parade. Even organic happenings have explanations.

I’m confident that each of us can better leverage the people who already surround us. Maybe these are naturally occurring peer support structures, but “naturally” presupposes they “just happen.” I’m not sure that’s true. Consider the YouTube comments that prove supportive of people struggling with mental health issues. Trolls and haters could lead the parade, fostering an increase in that behavior in the comments. But supporters, people with empathy and encouragement could take the lead and shut down the haters. Trolls could even become supportive as they see the shift in the comments. Most of us are attracted to join the community. Some of us are compelled to be contrarians, dead set on going against the flow. But if the crowd is vocal enough, courageous enough — they can shout down the haters and trolls.

Do things “just happen”?

Maybe, but perhaps I’m just too wired to believe we control and influence our lives. The opposing view just doesn’t appeal at all to me. That we’re victims of random chance or organic encounters.

“Control your own destiny or somebody else will.” -Jack Welch

I embrace that truth.

Let’s talk about peer support. Better yet, let’s talk about people support – from peers or anybody else who can help us.

First, I want to flip it around and talk about our ability to help others. Better yet, our opportunity to help others.

It doesn’t feel right to me to have us focus on what we can get before first talking about what we can give. Naturally occurring peer support begins with somebody bent on serving. A YouTube commenter gets the ball rolling by being supportive. Likely it’s somebody with high empathy wanting to offer some encouragement to a complete stranger. They’re probably not expecting anything in return other than the good feeling they get from helping somebody.

Do the people who surround you see you as that kind of valuable resource? 

If not, then that’s job 1. Serve others.

Stop expecting everybody to serve you. Expect more from yourself. Give more of yourself.

This is why professional (purposeful and intentional) peer advantage isn’t ideal for everybody. Some people are takers, refusing to help others. Self-centered, ego-driven and smartest-guy-in-the-room kind of people are a bad fit. They’ll wreck the ability of people to derive the benefits of the peer advantage. It’s a bit like the person who dominates a conversation circle, always bringing the conversation back to themselves. Nobody enjoys being in their company. We mostly endure them.

It’s the right thing to do – serving others. That’s all the reason we need for it. Not because we hope it’ll lead to somebody serving us. Or because we’re buttering somebody up so we can take advantage of them in the future. We do it because we can and we want to.

Is that a naturally occurring form of support? Well, it’s natural in the sense that maybe it’s befitting our personality, but we make the choice to serve. We decide who, when and how. It doesn’t “just happen.”

Naturally occurring peer support happens when people suffer a tragic event. Death is a big one.

Sadly, no matter how well intended, the peer support often falls terribly short. Grieving people know. Folks show up en masse for the funeral and the short time just before and after. Then people go back to their lives, leaving the grieving person to fend for themselves.

Good people. Great people. People who want to help. People who may feel they are helping. But it’s a moment in time where mostly people are doing what they think is best. Sadly, it’s often ineffective, providing little help to the person suffering. Sure the signs of support and the outpouring of love make people feel good that their loved one was loved so…and now is missed. But practically speaking, the deeper connection required to address deeper issues is beyond the reach of most.

Then next Thursday happens and people are left to deal alone with their grief.

There was no structure, framework or coordinated intention. No leadership. Lots of individual effort. Except for food. Somebody will lead the parade of dishes to be delivered to the home to make sure the grieving family is fed. It’s the main structure we all know and understand. So it’s what we do.

Parents, grandparents, mentors, children, co-workers, employees, suppliers, partners, church friends, neighbors…you are surrounded with lots of people who need YOU and what you can offer. You don’t need permission or any formal invitation. This is about you doing whatever you can do to make a bigger impact on these people in your life. It’s about you not waiting until you feel things “just happen.” It’s about developing a plan where you can really deliver value. My friend Leo Bottary calls it a “people plan” in his new book, What Anyone Can Do: How Surrounding Yourself with the Right People Will Drive Change, Opportunity, and Personal Growth.

Be intentional and purposeful, even in your contributions to naturally occurring peer support. Think about what you can do, not for yourself, but for them. Reframe your intentions and actions. Make it about what’s best for them, not you. Taking food to a grieving family may be helpful, but maybe asking them about their favorite restaurant is a better strategy. Then give them a gift card so they can get out of the house and enjoy a few minutes of enjoyment. Or maybe two weeks after the funeral when everybody has retreated back to their own lives you step forward to offer them something you know will serve them.

Be thoughtful. Be creative. Be intentional.

Don’t be consumed with wanting to do some big, grandiose thing. Do the simple thing nobody will do. The most thoughtful, considerate thing you’re capable of doing. The thing they most want and need.

Be well. Do good. Grow great!