Many of us do not remember a pre-Internet world and the World Wide Web is the go-to resource for addressing our needs. Whether it’s online shopping, understanding the best treatment for a sore back or connecting with a distant cousin the Internet has become a companion and guide for many of us. This has extended into online communication and relationship building where many relationships are at least in part mediated by technology. The image of a couple sitting next to each other on the couch communicating with each other via WhatsApp is for many of us a reality. Technology has entered our most intimate spaces and counseling is no exception. As such there is a normality to communicating often personal or emotional experiences via technology that is part and parcel of modern life.
Technological counseling may simply feel like a more convenient and versatile alternative to traditional counseling. We are used to relating to each other online, messaging or mediated by a screen. However while we might not notice or be used to the impact of relating via a screen, let’s take a closer look at the implications this has in relation to the counseling relationship. This article will focus more on the impact of the space of technological versus traditional counseling on the nature of the therapeutic relationship.
A lot of emphasis is placed on the counseling relationship in face-to-face counseling. The quality of the therapeutic relationship is viewed as key to the efficacy of treatment across counseling approaches, as an underpinning tool in the therapeutic endeavor (Niolon, 1999). Does the technological interface of connecting with your counselor via a webcam, screen, or through a chat format, impede or challenge the formation of a meaningful counseling relationship?
Clearly there are a range of challenges to developing a therapeutic relationship including the distance that a screen creates through the limited physical presence of the counselor. As opposed to two real people connecting we have the two dimensional experience of connecting over a screen. This absence of physical presence may make the client feel less emotionally close and limits the capacity of the counselor to contain and comfort at times of distress. This extends to the reduced availability of visual, verbal and non-verbal cues. In a traditional counseling setting the counselor and client communicate using their whole bodies with it being much easier to notice visual and verbal cues. For instance a client tapping his foot in a session provides a useful cue for the counselor which may indicate that the client is feeling anxious and this behavior can be explored with the client. This kind of non-verbal communication can be easily missed in a more technological setting. Obviously these issues are further amplified when using chat technology, where the counselor has no access to visual and verbal cues. Technological counseling also brings with it the challenges of technical issues -a poor webcam connection or poor sound quality can challenge or interrupt the development of a meaningful counselling relationship (Mulhauser,2016).
Yet despite these challenges as regards barriers to forming a meaningful counseling relationship research regarding the efficacy of technological counseling is suggesting promising outcomes. Many studies indicate that technological counseling is as effective as traditional counseling (see this article). For some, the issues with technological counseling may actually improve the willingness of the client to share information as it creates a sense of anonymity or invisibility that’s non-threatening and therefore clients may feel more open to share (Perle, Langsam and Nierenberg, 2011). In a technological counseling setting clients may be more easily inclined to speak about experiences that are stigmatizing or embarrassing (Landau, 2009). Increased client compliance and consistent attendance might also have a positive impact in the long run on the development of a meaningful counseling relationship. Perhaps it also goes back to the point made at the beginning of this article, that for many of us we have become used to forming relationships within a technological sphere. We as creative and resourceful human beings find the means to express our emotions and connect to others with the tools we have at our disposal. So if that means using CAPS LOCK to express our anger or a smiley to show we are feeling pleased, human beings find the means to connect and will apply this to technological counseling, using their relationships to grow.
Perle JG, Langsam LC and Nierenberg B. Controversy clariﬁed: An updated review of clinical psychology and tele-health. Clinical Psychology Review 2011; 31:1247–1258.
Mulhauser, G. Disadvantages of Counselling or Therapy by Email. Last reviewed online: August 13, 2016. http://counsellingresource.com/therapy/service/online-disadvantages/
Landau, E. Therapy online: Good as face to face? Published online: August 31 2009.