Counselling by email: Does it really work?

(Spoiler alert … counselling by email does work IF you can build a good relationship with your counsellor. After being challenged by a family member, here’s the journey I took to demonstrate that!)

As any parent of a teenager knows, if you want your blind spots pointed out, ask your kid. Little kids love you and don’t want you to leave; teenagers want to take you down! (Okay, that’s an oversimplification – but it sure feels that way some days!) My teens would never hesitate to tell me if I have a hair growing out of my chin, a new wrinkle on my forehead, or spinach in my teeth. Or even (gasp) that the email counselling techniques I was learning would NEVER work!

Yes, that really happened.

I felt excited about the tools I had learned and so I shared some of them with my 19 year old. Of course, as a young person, they are a “digital native” and very familiar with text based communication. So, while I felt deflated, their opinion held some weight, and I decided to investigate further.

The first thing I need to make clear is that counselling (probably) isn’t going to help you heal or create change in your life UNLESS you can form a “therapeutic alliance” with your counsellor. No matter how good that person is or how much training they have had. Sometimes we call it “fit”. You can find that fit with some counsellors, and you might not with others.

Yes,  counselling by email really works, if you and your counsellor can build a good fit.

What is required in order to find that fit? I like Carl Rogers’ (humanistic) approach. He found that three components are essential for therapeutic change to take place: unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence. I have ordered these in what I consider to be the easiest to the most difficult to achieve via email counselling.

Unconditional Positive Regard

(Defined by Wikipedia as “basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does”.)

This may almost be easier to transmit through email than in person. In person, I sometimes work with “difficult” clients. By this, I mean that they are not very likeable. Working face to face I may have micro expressions or tiny mannerisms that betray my impatience. I may feel triggered by something that they say or do. This can lead to an inability to be truly present within the session.

Via email, I can pick and choose my responses. If I feel triggered, it might stem from a personal experience that has nothing to do with that person. Over email, I can take the time to reflect on the source of my feelings. This can help me reframe my response into something helpful. Communicating warmth towards the other is one element of unconditional positive regard; it is something I find fairly easy to do in both in person and in writing.

Empathy

Empathy involves understanding, feeling, and sharing in another person’s thoughts and emotions. I have two thoughts about conveying empathy in an email.

First, as a counsellor, my ability to understand and share in another’s emotions is highly dependent on that person’s ability (whether written or verbal) to communicate those emotions. Some find it easier to explain and articulate thoughts and feelings in person. Others find it easier to write about them. Face to face, I may draw conclusions about the client’s thoughts and feelings based on their non-verbal communication. I am more dependent on non-verbal communication when the client is struggling to talk. Over email, especially when a client is struggling to write what they feel, I can mediate my response by being especially tentative my approach.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the sense that you might be feeling a bit angry at your mom?”

In some ways, communication that is not face-to-face can help to prevent me from making unspoken assumptions (based on their non-verbal communication). Checking out my impressions over email can lead to deeper understanding and empathy.

Second, I also believe communicating empathy is highly dependent on my own ability to draw on my personal experiences. This ability is not handicapped by using email. When something resonates, it is here where I may use a small amount of self-disclosure, to show the client that I understand. “I get that – I’ve felt that too – I’m right here with you”.

Congruence

I like to think of congruence as “matching” the client. The best example I have of this is a middle aged Indigenous man who came to me for addictions counselling several decades ago. I was a young white woman. Several other social service agencies had banned this fellow because of his outspoken (and apparently rude) nature. Somehow, without even realising it, I was able to match his approach. When he would tease (or insult) me, I would do the same to him. Rather than getting offended, I lucked out. He thought this was hilarious – and ultimately, matching his style of humour helped us to achieve a therapeutic alliance.

In email communication, I rely on what is called “process control techniques” and “presence techniques” in order to communicate congruence. When it’s done right, it works! But it can be easy to mess this up. Even something as simple as using too many exclamation marks can be entirely appropriate for one person, and not at all with another.

Finally

A good “fit” speaks to the relationship you form with your counsellor, and whether that relationship has the potential to help you create change in your life. Counselling by email really CAN help you heal. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I have heard it said: “try telling people a hundred years ago that you couldn’t have an intimate letter writing relationship over a long period of time, sometimes even with people that you’d never met, sharing your deepest thoughts and feelings!”

I just googled it to remind me if my memory served. Yep, Einstein and Freud’s famous correspondence was one example of this sort of relationship.

Okay. I just shared the story of Einstein and Freud with my teen. The answer I got back? “One hundred years ago? Try today!” Then I learned about a friend who is engaged to someone she met on Twitter! I know nothing about this relationship, including how healthy it may or may not be. But I am forced to conclude that somehow, the conditions necessary for communicating empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence must have been met in 140 characters. Surely, the same can happen in an email!

Check out other pages on this site to learn more, including 10 Reasons to Choose Email Counselling, and FAQ: Email Counselling.