Peer coaching in academia: a surprisingly effective way to help each other

Peer coaching has recently become popular in academia, and for good reasons. It can be surprising how similar our issues are to our colleagues’ and how well we can help each other.

On a sunny afternoon last May, I walked into a conference room, my heart beating fast. I greeted the other five people in the room, and we exchanged slightly nervous smiles. It was the first time this group was getting together, and while we knew something cool was going to happen here, we didn’t exactly know what to expect from each other.

I began by introducing myself and then asking each person to introduce themselves. This was to be our peer coaching group. Here, we would soon share difficulties, ask questions, and brainstorm solutions together. We would meet once every one or two months and delve into all kinds of issues that come up when working as a researcher and, in our case, being a PhD candidate.

Peer coaching in a nutshell

In that first meeting, I introduced the method of peer coaching.

“Peer coaching is when a group of professionals discuss an issue brought in by a member of the group, i.e., the case provider. This person describes the issue or dilemma, i.e., the case, and the group members ask helpful questions.”

“The goal is to help the case provider gain insight into the situation and find new ways of handling the problem.”
“Each peer coaching session uses a particular method, which is a specific format of asking questions, discussing the case, and brainstorming suggestions.”

“A facilitator supervises the session and leads the group through the method. A session usually lasts 45-60 minutes, and a peer coaching group consists of five to eight people.”

This is the technical part of how we do peer coaching. It is informative and useful, and we spent some time learning about the method. We also did some exercises to learn to ask open questions, which are questions that do not immediately lead one to answer in a predetermined way but rather get the person to think more deeply and to investigate.

The importance of trust

There is also another crucial part that is a little more difficult to convey: the importance of trust. We are together in this room, soon sharing our struggles and questions, hoping that the others will understand and help us. It can be difficult to open up to strangers, even when they are well-intentioned colleagues. In our first meeting, I emphasized the importance of being open and honest in order to make each other feel safe.

In order to make this feeling of trust more concrete, we discussed what each of us considers a prerequisite for trust. I asked:

“What do you need to feel safe and be able to trust?”

It’s a big question, and people thought about it for a minute. Some of the following came up:

“I need to not feel judged.”

“I need to see that people are listening to what I’m saying.”

“I need to know that people won’t share this information outside of this room.”

“I’d like people to ask questions when they need clarification instead of assuming things.”

We agreed to provide an environment that makes each person feel that it’s safe to trust the group. And we also agreed that if a situation arose when one person did not feel safe, she or he would bring this up either in front of the group or with the facilitator.

The surprising effectiveness of peer coaching

From then onwards, we began having our regular peer coaching meetings. People started bringing in their issues and dilemmas, and we gradually began to relax in the group.

Something very interesting arose. The case provider (i.e., the person describing a problem) often described the case feeling like they’re the only person dealing with this type of issue. Very soon, however, they found out that many of the members could relate to his/her struggles. This is the striking thing: when we are dealing with an issue in our own heads, it may seem like we’re the only ones who ever faced this problem on the face of the Earth. But as soon as we say it out loud, someone says, “I’ve been there too,” and yet someone else says, “I’m dealing with that right now as well.” Immediately, we find out how often others relate to our struggles.

Another thing happens as well. Since other people can recognize our situation, they can help us see it in a different way. Crucially, it’s not just that they give us novel solutions; rather, they ask us the very questions that can lead us to come up with those solutions ourselves. This is the great value of asking insightful, open questions: trying to answer such questions shifts our mindset and expands our understanding of the situation. Where there used to be a single possibility or a single way of looking at the issue, now there are more paths, more possibilities.

It is almost strange that we can do this for each other. After all, none of us are therapists, and none of us have any special knowledge about the workings of academia. But because we’re all in this, we can recognize the problems a colleague is encountering. And when we think along with the person sharing the dilemma, we can ask the right questions that can shift his or her mindset and uncover new solutions.

You might ask: how is this any better than sharing my frustrations over coffee or at lunch? I would say that doing that is already better than nothing, but there are several added benefits of peer coaching:

  • Colleagues are giving you their undivided attention;
  • You get the input of multiple colleagues at the same time;
  • The setting is confidential, so you know what you’re sharing won’t leave the room;
  • The session follows a specific method and is guided by a facilitator to ensure that your query is explored in depth;
  • You get more than a colleague’s sympathy and suggestions; you get insightful questions that expand the way you think of the issue and help you find solutions yourself.

It’s actually quite nice that we can help each other in this way, and it doesn’t require a lot of extra resources. Who knew that we had all this expertise and potential to help our colleagues? It only requires the right format and the right commitment to bring it out of us.

Are you curious about peer coaching? Have you ever tried it and if so, what was your experience? Let us know!

Mariya Manahova

Mariya (Marisha) is a PhD candidate at the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. She researches how our experience with the environment changes the way we perceive the world and affects the way our brain processes information. Marisha likes to think and write about what makes a good life, work-life balance, and productivity.