Being Part of a Community of Practice

This guest entry is from Sarah Monk, a Chartered Psychologist, Positive Psychology (PP) Practitioner (MAPP), Registered Coaching Psychologist, ACT Therapist and Mindfulness and Meditation teacher. She has a background and qualifications in Clinical Psychology and works privately with adults in a coaching or therapeutic capacity to improve wellbeing. Sarah’s Clinical Psychology career in the NHS was interrupted 20 years ago when she developed ME/CFS. PP has been an important part of her recovery journey and learning to live well with an ongoing illness. Sarah is also an Associate Lecturer on the Buckinghamshire New University MAPP and PP in Coaching courses and Senior Membership Officer for The PP Guild. Her areas of interest include self-compassion, mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and helping people with long term health conditions, disabilities and other marginalised groups to thrive. Sarah endeavours to use her strengths of love, kindness, perspective and fairness to enact her values of compassion, wisdom and authenticity. This is a work in progress!

My Personal Experience

The diverse reach of Positive Psychology

One of the things I loved about studying Positive Psychology (PP) was the chance to discuss ideas with and learn from my fellow students. I relished the new perspectives brought by people from backgrounds very different from mine, in mainstream and clinical psychology, and learnt so much from them. A strength of PP, I believe, is that it draws people from such diverse backgrounds. This promotes integration in the understanding of wellbeing amongst disciplines such as education, healthcare, business, sport, art, religion, and many others. It also encourages connection between different areas of psychology from philosophical underpinnings through cognitive, personality, developmental and learning theories to practical applications in therapy, counselling, and coaching. Research suggests I am not alone in this view. In my role as Associate Lecturer on the Buckinghamshire New University MSc in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) course, I can say we value this peer learning highly and encourage it through the use of action learning sets.

Peer learning and professional development

What happens to this peer learning when courses like the MAPP end? Well, I know many groups of colleagues have continued to meet informally. I believe that peer learning continues to be vital in developing as a PP Practitioner beyond initial training. Most of us who finish a MAPP don’t really know exactly where we are headed with it. I feel that three years on from finishing my course, I am just about starting to really know who I am as a PP Practitioner. I attribute much of this progress to my Community of Practice (COP) group. Other professions such as coaching, counselling, therapy and teaching have capitalised on the benefits of peer learning and support through peer practice groups and I feel it is important for PP as an emerging profession to do so too.

In 2020 I set up an informal peer COP from amongst interested friends from my MAPP cohort. In early 2021 we brought the closed group, which had become stabilised with six consistent members, under the umbrella of the PP Guild (PPG) as a pilot programme. Our group is called The Compassionate Hope Consultancy. We meet virtually once a month for an hour and a half. All of us coach adults, but we work in a range of settings and have very different backgrounds from social work to international business groups. There are no costs (beyond our PPG membership) associated with our group. This is what I have learnt from the experience and my reading about peer learning in the literature.

What is special about peer learning?

As a coach and therapist, I have supervision to aid my professional practice and development. This is a great (if expensive) resource but a different experience from peer learning. Obviously how you set a peer practice group up and contract your aims, values, level of commitment and responsibilities to one another, makes a huge impact on the experience of its members. This is important and I have tried to distil my learning around this into suggested contracts and guidelines for other COPs for the PPG. The key processes involved in peer learning, as I see them, are summarised in this model.

What this means in practice

As I envisage it, in a peer group the relationship dynamics are equal and equitable and perhaps this makes it easier to share your doubts and vulnerabilities than in a hierarchical relationship such as supervision. That has been my experience, although it takes time when forming a new group to develop the trust necessary for this to happen. Peer relationships are also reciprocal with a clear agenda to learn from one another and provide support. We have managed to foster a high degree of psychological safety in our group which has encouraged the seeking of feedback by members, which has been given in a positive and non-evaluative manner, supporting growth. We hold the space for one another in reflecting on and reviewing our professional work and how this may be impacted by our personal lives.

We bring the things we are struggling with academically, professionally, practically and ethically in the spheres in which we work, as well as our successes. This gives a mechanism to support ethical decision making and self-care as well as celebrate progress and identify goals for ongoing development. We share our diverse knowledge, practical experience and skills and try to help keep each other up to date in new developments in PP. If one of us goes to a conference or does a training course, we give the others a heads up on the useful takeaways. We also bring our mad ideas and dreams to the group and inspire one another to try new and off the wall things. I find this keeps me fresh and creative in my thinking. The group also helps us to network. If we need access to a certain type of expertise, scale, or tool, it is usual that one of the group knows someone who can help.

Fundamentally, we have come to understand each other’s strengths, challenges, doubts and personal context. We care about one another and provide the Rogerian core conditions of empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard necessary for positive growth. We throw in challenge and new learning to facilitate flow and move us towards our goals of being better practitioners able to serve our clients more effectively. This is a monthly meeting that I look forward to which leaves me feeling energised, refreshed and motivated to move forward and stretch myself. The group has been an invaluable resource in supporting me through the professional challenges of the pandemic, personal difficulties and the ongoing development of my career identity.

Beyond personal benefits

I hope that reading about my experiences has encouraged you to think about your professional development and whether a COP might be something you could benefit from. Beyond the individual benefits of peer learning, I feel that establishing such systems is a good way of enhancing the standing of PP Practitioners as ethical, evidence-based professionals. Reflective practice is a core element of applied PP. COPs are one way to facilitate this and PPG are pleased to offer support in helping these become established. We consider the time spent in COP meetings to contribute to Continuing Professional Development (CPD) hours, which members of The Register of Practitioners are asked to keep a record of. PPG recognises that not everyone may have time to devote to a COP. We offer an alternative, less time-intensive route to peer learning through The Peer Exchange Process.

You can read more about Communities of Practice and The Peer Exchange on the website.

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