Are you ready to step into a therapeutic space?

If you intend to enter a relationship with a counsellor via phone, video, or face to face, you will be stepping into an unfamiliar space. Face-to-face counselling begins with the physical act of driving or walking to and entering a room used for therapy. I have been exploring with peers and clients how using Zoom or the telephone is different, but in the same way, it is the therapist’s responsibility to create a therapeutic space where deep learning can take place.


Working with different physical locations to create a space that works for you.
I experience my own fortnightly sessions with my personal therapist as some sort of an alternate reality. We are not always in the same room, but my therapist’s presence creates that therapeutic space in whichever room we are allocated. Sometimes I need to try sitting in different chairs or moving cushions. Once the acoustics were all wrong, I heard a low echo to my voice, and I had to move the chair around the room until it sounded right.

I have had clients ask me to remove the clock from the room, and later we have explored how a ticking clock, or noticing the passage of time, is a significant part of their inner world.

I often work in schools with young people, and we are put in any free space. Often it is an office that is not being used. The difficulty with this is that their issues are usually triggered in the school environment, and these offices would be seen as places where authority and control reside. I put a lot of thought into how I can work with these environments to give young clients some ownership or control. I need them to feel accepted, acknowledged and listened to. For many young people, this is not how they experience the school environment.

Notice your first impressions of the space your counsellor invites you into. If there is discomfort, it may be that the whole arrangement is not going to work for you. On the other hand, by discussing and dealing with this discomfort, you could launch yourself into a therapeutic space where you have never dared tread before.

Creating a therapeutic space with a disembodied voice

Phone counselling was not taken that seriously before COVID and all the restrictions we endured. Now that we are coming out the other side, some counsellors realise that they were able to create a therapeutic space differently and that this can be a preferable method of working for some clients.

My own experience was one of a student forced to carry out my placement 100 hours entirely over the phone. This was problematic in that my tutors had never worked in this environment, and the examining board did not really recognise phone counselling as valid.

I was forced to work it out for myself with the help of some excellent peers also going through this uncomfortable process.

On reflection, the biggest challenge was how to create a therapeutic space with the use of voice only. With several, I admit I failed. I do, however, have a handful of long-term clients where it is continuing to be effective and life-changing.

From these experiences, I have drawn two main conclusions.

  1. The client needs to be in a safe place where there is no fear of disturbance.
  2. I must be prepared to share more about myself than I would normally.

Telephone counselling is not likely to work if the client cannot feel safe and comfortable in the space they have chosen to talk to you. It is also not likely to work if the client cannot create a picture of you in their mind and feel safe and comfortable with that image.

All of my long-term telephone clients will ask about my family and me as part of our initial process of getting comfortable on the call. This never seems necessary with face-to-face clients. It feels like this is all part of the process of creating a therapeutic space with voice only. They can see my reassuring smile and relaxed body language in a counselling room. On the phone, this needs to be conveyed verbally.

One client discovered I made bread on the day of her call and always asked about the breadmaking at the start of calls. It became her way of relaxing into the therapeutic space. Another always asked about the health and well-being of my family. With a sense of my emotional state, he felt safe to launch into all the difficulties of dealing with a terminally ill partner.

If you are considering using a telephone counselling service for any reason, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Can I create a safe undisturbed space where I will feel safe to take these calls?
  2. What do I need to ask my counsellor about their circumstances to make me feel safe and comfortable with them?

Feeling comfortable creating a virtual therapeutic world

Like many people, I now have regular online video interactions. Some of these interactions create a therapeutic space, and some do not.

I like to feel I am looking into a calm and ordered world. A blank wall, a single picture, or a garden view all work for me. I am also happy with virtual backgrounds and that blurry background thing that some software does. A background of shelves with books and photographs does not work for me. It is too busy. I hide the video and treat it as an audio-only communication.

With my experience in mind, I would encourage anyone looking for online therapy to feel able to talk about the backgrounds they would feel comfortable with and consider what background you want to show to your therapist. The therapy process involves revealing yourself to your therapist when you feel ready to do that. The therapist only sees what you choose to reveal. Letting them look into your bedroom or see all the books and photos on your office shelves could interrupt that process.

With all my clients now, I put up a virtual background, a picture of waves or the sea, and I prefer it if clients do the same or blur the background. I will always discuss this as part of the setup because I feel it can make a crucial difference to the quality of the therapy. Both of us need to be free of distractions to create an effective therapeutic space.

Are you ready?

For any type of therapeutic space to be useful, you must be ready to enter it. In this space, you will be relating to someone in an unfamiliar way. You may unconsciously try to get your therapist to relate to you like everyone else does. You may distract yourself and try to distract your therapist. You may try to play all sorts of games to take the focus away from what is hurting inside.

When you start saying things you have never said to anyone else, feeling things that usually stay bottled up, that is when the therapeutic space is doing its magic.

You could view it as an alternate reality. A way of experiencing everything that has happened to you from a different perspective. You could see it as a form of time travel. You go back and see yourself in a difficult situation and whisper something in your younger self’s ear. It doesn’t change anything in the circumstances of your life, but it can change everything in how you view yourself from this point onward.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bude, Cornwall, EX23
Written by John Walter, B. Ed, Dip. Couns. MBACP
Bude, Cornwall, EX23

John Walter Counsellor. MBACP
Over 40 years I have combined life as a creative musician and writer with therapeutic work in a wide range of situations. For me, the creative process and the therapeutic process are one and the same.

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