Pauline has been a qualified counsellor since 1997, became a supervisor in 2001 and subsequently achieved her MA in 2006. She has worked in the NHS and private practice as well as working online. Pauline stresses her belief in gaining formal training to work online. Her presentation generated much discussion around the advantages and potential disadvantages/pitfalls around online counselling.

Pauline invited the members to contribute, ask questions and share thought and experiences. The purpose of this presentation was to encourage individuals to consider their approach, should they wish to work online. Also to consider inevitable changes in how counselling can be delivered, alongside the traditional face to face approach. Pauline went straight to the heart of counselling-‘the counselling relationship’, what this is and how a therapist can make the transition from face to face to online, whilst developing trust, understanding, shared understanding, clarity and retaining boundaries. For example, developing skills, working with texts can utilize the “power of words”, help express intensity, feelings, communicate empathy and express nuance. By checking out a client’s type and style of vocabulary, expression through words, feelings and interpretation of vocabulary, colours, fonts and emoticons-much of the therapeutic relationship can be enriched. Pauline offers ways to create a rapport online.

As with traditional face to face counselling, conveying warmth, appropriate use of humour, attention to detail, ‘being real’ and mirroring are possible on-line. The use of imagery, emoticons, colours and fonts alongside actual text the therapist is able to develop an intimacy with a client, in much the same way as traditional face to face counselling.

The presentation created a great forum for various issues to be raised and explored, with some members contributing examples of their own experiences and pool of knowledge. I found this a useful ‘brainstorming’ way of putting some shape to my own thoughts with experienced therapists and others with some online experiences. Although the benefits and potential disadvantages are not exhaustive I have included many raised in bullet point format.

Benefits

  • Accessibility increased to therapy-/flexible times availability
  • Wider audience-overseas, ex-pats, clients with mobility difficulties
  • Appeal to younger generation
  • May provide avenue for people who may fear face to face/potential to build trust/confidence
  • Records of sessions may be useful for client and therapist
  • Technology revolution/keeping up with change
  • Less overheads possible
  • Portable service

Disadvantages

  • Requires specific controlled boundaries in contract-i.e. what is on offer/when/client expectations
  • Broader demographic may pose increased safety/security/risk.
  • Confidentiality issues/Data Protection/I.T issues (providing alternative if technical issues).
  • Unclear guidelines- i.e. BACP & legal ramifications.
  • Client safety-who is on the other end of the line-client and counsellor?
  • Therapist safety-how do we know what information client gives is accurate-age/location etc.?
  • Client presents real risk harm to self/others real time…what actions/measures/risk assessments.
  • Appropriate supervision…? Requires specialised training? Mandatory or optional for client/counsellor safety.
  • Potential miscommunication/vast communication styles-interpretation
  • Requires proficient IT skills.
  • How does transference/counter-transference work with? Potentially a barrier of technology/limitations of use of self in therapy.
  • Does on-line enable client to avoid addressing any issues-i.e. attachment.
  • How does therapist know if client is under influence of substances?
  • How do we legislate to minimize risks/threats to safety
  • Consider implications if working from therapist’s own home-disadvantages and advantages.

As you can see from the many points raised by Pauline and the members of Counselling Northwest, the ripple effect leads to much thought provoking, highlighting the absolute need to be thoroughly prepared and equipped before engaging in online counselling. To work in a legal, ethical and professional way, many members expressed that greater clarity was needed from governing bodies, thus reflecting legal responsibilities for counsellors. There seemed to be uncertainty about where counsellors stood in terms of the law and the BACP. For myself, this is something I would need to explore further before offering online counselling.

Finally, Pauline tantalizes us with an image hinting at the potential future of therapy-Star Wars characters participate in a meeting with a hologram character projected into their space. Could therapists and clients really be projected into a therapeutic session? This concept blew my mind. I cannot even begin to unpack this, but it certainly reminds me of a need to be informed, keep updated and keep an open mind, however I choose to work. I found Pauline’s presentation of ‘Introduction to online counselling’ to be very informative, open to much discussion and opinion and real food for thought and professional development.

Nichole Faulkner