I love counseling. It’s like walking in your shoes, living out your experience. Not only do I learn about you and your challenges, I also feel some of what you feel. I get to see some of your worst moments. I vicariously feel your fear, loneliness, and confusion.
Forgive me for this comparison. I use it only to give you a clearer picture of what can happen in a counseling session. … Have you been to Disney World, ridden on a roller coaster, walked through the Haunted House? When I hear your story I am taking a ride in your experience, your life, your trauma and pain. I am not doing this in order to entertain myself. This ride, your ride, is sometimes scary, dark, and completely disorganized. I take this seriously.
Counseling is about sharing experience, and about understanding it on an emotional level. It is not just the story; it’s what you feel. In our profession, we call that empathy. …Empathy requires the ability to communicate, to see and hear what you feel. I don’t want you to feel alone in your emotional experience. Good counseling requires the ability to communicate on this intimate level, for you to be understood on the deepest level possible, and for me to communicate that understanding.
In the counseling office we create a setting that is conducive to this kind of communication. It is quiet, private, comfortable, uninterrupted. We use soft voice tones, subdued lighting. We make eye contact and sometimes we lean in, focusing on what you are saying and feeling. Do we lose these elements when we go to online counseling?
When Covid began, in the winter of 2020, I stopped seeing clients in the office. I am old and fat, with heart disease, etc. I am not sitting in a room breathing someone else’s air. Just sayin’. … So, I went to online counseling only, and I am still using this method – online streaming communication. There were some surprises for me when I did this.
I had clients I had seen for months and for years in the office. Within three weeks of going online, three clients had good breakthroughs I was astonished when I realized that I was reading their emotions more accurately. In the office the lighting was dim and we sat eight to twelve feet apart. Online there was standard room lighting, and the visual distance between us is about two to three feet. Visually we were closer. Empathy was better, not worse.
There are other considerations. Neither the client, nor the counselor have to hassle traffic on the way to the office. No one waits in a waiting room. We are both comfortable in our home environment. We are more relaxed, and relaxation leads to more authenticity. You get to be yourself, in your own home.
There are a few precautions for online counseling. Please, do not use a telephone screen on your end. You need a larger visual presence of your counselor. Like watching a movie, a bigger screen and better sound help you to focus and to feel present in the scene. Make sure you have good bandwidth and up to date software. Make sure that you will not be interrupted in the session. Having the kids in the other room will not do – someone else should be watching them. They will interrupt if they are able. Minimize distractions. You need to focus on a deeper emotional level.
Online counseling is very effective, and can be as good or even better than counseling in the office. The key elements are privacy, your ability to focus (screen size helps here), and the caring attitude that you share with your counselor.
-Written by David Hall, LMHC