A Peek Inside My Email Counselling Office: A Role Play

Today, you get to be a fly on the wall, and peek inside my email counselling office!

Email counselling seems to inspire strong feelings. Most people I talk to are very intrigued. There are a few who have said: “that would NEVER work for me!” (If this is you, please read this.) As I say below (to my fictional client Sandra), email counselling can feel very out of the box. I have created this role play both for the curious and for the doubters.

Setting the stage: As you drop in to observe, Sandra has already written me for the first time, telling me a little bit of her situation. To find her letter, scroll down and look for the italics. You might want to start there, just reading the italics. You are dropping in at the point where I am responding to her. I start with an introduction at the top and then respond to her specific concerns below.

Dear Sandra:

Congratulations on taking the first step to look for a counsellor! For some people, especially those in a caregiver role, it can feel very out of the box. You have recognized that it is not just your mom who needs care (not to mention your grandchild). But in order to be there for them, you need to care for yourself. Counselling is a form of self-care. It’s so easy to put yourself last, and you have courageously stepped outside that.

Email counselling is also something that is very out of the box! I have responded to your concerns below. You can see I have also attached my welcome and consent forms. These forms explain more about my approach and how this whole thing works. In the meantime, keep reading to learn a little more about what to expect.

Our letters are meant to be a conversation, just as if we were meeting in person. The approaches and techniques I use have been designed to facilitate that sense of face-to-face communication.

  1. For example, when I reply to your letter, I hit return in key sections, and type my comments there. I preface my comments with my initials so that it’s clearer who is saying what. When you read it, you will see how it reads as a conversation between the two of us.
  2. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to misinterpret what is said over email or when texting? I avoid this by using square brackets [ ] to convey some of the non-verbal parts of communication (e.g., body posture, facial expressions, or tone of voice). If you want to try using square brackets yourself, please feel free! It can be therapeutic, in that it forces you to increase your own self-awareness of what you are feeling. And it will help me to better understand you.

When you want to reply to me, go ahead and continue our conversation! I invite you to click on my message at the appropriate point. Hit return, and insert your response, starting with your initials.

Then, I also ask that you also compose a new message, as you normally would respond to a regular email … with a letter at the top. In this letter please let me know any updates since the last “session”. What’s changed? Anything new you want to share?

Take your time in composing your response. This is important work. I also suggest that you don’t hit send immediately. Sleep on it. Come back the next day. Inevitably, there will be things you will want to change. In this process of writing, reflecting, revising, and writing some more, you are reflecting more deeply, and moving closer to achieving your goals.

Okay. On to your letter …!


Dear Kirsten,

I’m writing to you because I am way too busy to see a counsellor, and in the small town where I live, there’s no one really appropriate anyway. I am at my wit’s end with my 92-year-old mother. All she does is complain and criticize, and she won’t accept any help from anyone except me. She is driving me crazy! I don’t know whether this is something you can help with or not?!


KM: Welcome, Sandra. If you were coming to see me in my home office, I would be greeting you at the door [warm smile and extending my hand to shake yours]. I have a sign on my door with my business name that invites you to, “walk in”, so you know you are at the right address! (I know it can feel a little weird going to an office in someone’s home for the first time.) In my office, I have a comfortable futon for you to sit. I also have a lot of art on the walls. I’ve made a cup of herbal tea ready to offer you. Perhaps you’d like to make yourself your favourite hot drink while you read this? Don’t worry, I’ll wait! 😉

From this brief introduction, it is evident that this situation with your mother is really distressing. Refusing to accept help, and constant complaints can be a common problem I hear about from adult children. You are not alone. Although it can be common, every situation is unique [leaning forward in my chair with interest]. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the details of your family life.


I should mention that she lives in our basement suite. It’s actually a contained ground level suite, in a home that my partner and I co-own with her. This has been a long-standing arrangement, and it may be that we have all outgrown the situation. She finds it difficult now to even go out to the mailbox to get the mail on her own, let alone do anything else out of the house.


KM: [concerned expression] It sounds like she has become somewhat housebound. And if she is refusing help, that puts quite a burden on you.


I am constantly worried about her having a fall, and me not noticing until the next day. She is lucky to have a scooter, which should be helping her get out of the house. But she refuses to use it because it scares her (even though she won’t admit it).


KM: That is true – she is lucky to have a scooter. They are very expensive. Some older adults have a difficult time feeling dependent on scooters, walkers, and the like. I like to say that these are tools to facilitate independence for the people that need them. NOT to create dependence and frailty. And when you are comfortable and confident using them, then you don’t feel so scared to leave the house! [voice rising slightly with enthusiasm]

Hmmm…. As you can tell, this is something I feel strongly about!

The trick is … like most new skills – learning something new takes time and outside help. [sitting back] From what you have shared, this does sound like a situation where an assessment from your local health authority may be a good idea. They would be the appropriate party to teach her how to use her scooter, for example.


Really, she’s the one that needs the help, not me. But as I said, she refuses to accept it. I’ve talked to our local health authorities, but there is little they can do without her consent unless I am abusing or neglecting her, or she is neglecting herself!


KM: That is so frustrating isn’t it!? [feeling curious] Correct me if I’m wrong, but are you feeling a bit angry at the system? At your mom?

Actually, I’m planning to write a whole blog post on the topic of how to handle it when your parent won’t accept outside help. There is a lot of general information and ideas I could share that would be outside the scope of this letter. If you like, I can also point you towards resources to help with this.

For now, here is a quote from psychologist and author Donna Cohen. “Many older people see themselves as proud survivors. They think ‘I’ve been through good times and bad, so I’ll be fine on my own.’ Plus, they don’t believe their children understand the physical and emotional toll of age-related health declines.”

Do you think this applies to your mom? Or not? [hesitating with uncertainty.] Please let me know if I’m on the right track.

In the meantime, I would love to talk more about the details of your situation. Can you tell me more about your mom? Has there been a time when the two of you gotten along well?


More about me: I have a chronic condition that causes pain in my hip and so I walk with a cane. I am the primary caregiver to my 8-year-old grandson, who also lives with us. He is a handful. Actually, he’s the only one who can make my mom smile – she brightens up when he is around, and they are close. I work almost full time, and (as I mentioned) I have a common-law partner. My partner works full time, contributes to finances, and is busy a lot.


KM: WOW. [eyes grow big] Sandra, you have a LOT on your plate! [feeling concerned for you] Anyone would feel overloaded with all of this, but chronic pain adds an extra burden, making it difficult to cope. What do you do to take care of yourself? When do you get a break?


I’m not sure what I am hoping for in writing to you. I guess I thought this might be a way to find support and a place to vent. I can’t talk to well-meaning family or friends because I often get too emotional (and I don’t want them to worry about me). Or they try and tell me what to do to fix it, without really listening or understand how I’m doing.


KM: It sounds like you are running into some roadblocks finding support in your day-to-day life. Your comments remind me of my favourite quotes from a relationship expert named John Gottman is “understanding must precede advice”. You have echoed this in your reference to well-meaning friends.

[leaning forward] When you get “too emotional”, what does that look like? Can you give me an example? Please tell me more about what you are feeling.


I also thought you might have some insight into what was going on with my mom and our relationship. Why she is so critical and angry, for example. We weren’t always this way. We used to be close.


KM: Ahhh. [smiling with hope] Earlier I asked if you two had ever gotten along well. I see you have begun to answer it. I would love to hear more about when you used to be close!

As I won’t get the opportunity to meet your mom, what I can do is present some possible paths for you to pursue. It may be that as we talk more, you will be able to connect some of the dots in your current relationship with her. I am hopeful that together we can make some progress.


Thanks for any help you can provide.



KM: You are very welcome! [big grin] I have asked a number of questions in this initial response. My purpose is simply to highlight possible paths we might follow in working together. It is completely up to you where you want to go with this. In other words, take what is helpful, and don’t worry about the rest! If anything is confusing or doesn’t make sense to you, please send me a brief note in a new letter with the subject heading “clarification requested”.

We have not yet really discussed the frequency of our “sessions”. I would like to hear back from you within a week. In that letter, I would either like your response, or just a quick note to say that you have read my letter, and plan to respond in x time. Because of the nature of email, if I don’t hear from you, I start to wonder.

Okay, I don’t know about you, but my cup of herbal tea is empty! If we were meeting in real life, our attention would start to turn towards the rest of our day. As I walk you to the door, I notice some blue sky out there!

It has been a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to our next session. [warm smile, extending hand to shake]



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