Online counselling: a short and sweet beginner's guide

Some scepticism around online counselling is understandable. How could counselling work well online when the very medium renders it an 'unreal' relationship?


By 'online' counselling I mean email, instant message, voice or video sessions. This article refers to one-to-one counselling. I believe that many of the principles hold for online supervision too.

Further, I'm referring to online counselling as an additional way of expressing oneself; it's not a substitute for face-to-face therapy. Or indeed vice versa: face-to-face therapy cannot offer some of the benefits of online counselling.  

Online counselling myths

People sometimes wonder about a loss of intimacy in online therapy. This belief may stem from the fact that a lot of what counsellors understand about clients is from observation; I am able to observe less or sometimes nothing when working online.

However, feedback indicates that these things are not to the detriment of counselling if both the counsellor and client are willing and committed to the process; and indeed have opted to work together online. Even if the change is not completely welcome though, web-based counselling can still work if the challenges are openly discussed and reviewed. This is based on the experiences of colleagues I have spoken with, as well as my own.

I am reminded of my counselling training in 2008; I remember a tutor reassuring my group that clients who are really ready to do the work will make good use of an imperfect therapist! The usefulness of online therapy similarly may be related to client readiness.

When online counselling isn't for you

Knowing when online therapy just isn't right for you is crucial too, and a position I respect entirely. Further, if you are feeling particularly unwell or desperate, it is better that you try to get some face-to-face support if possible; and in case of emergency, that you contact your GP or local Accident and Emergency service.

Empowering clients

Fundamentally, the medium supports convenience and inclusivity, particularly for some people with disabilities. Other ways that online counselling empowers clients are more nuanced. For example, feeling more in control of therapy by being in their own physical space (often their own homes). This has implications for more equal power relations.
Lovely. Also, having more charge about what to share (an online counsellor cannot see/sense quite as much). For clients, this could be the difference between counselling being 'do-able', and 'too much'.

Considerations for counsellors and clients starting out online

Counsellors, reflect on the below:

  • Assessment: for someone in acute distress, is online counselling suitable?

  • Is it important to me to have a supervisor experienced in online counselling?

  • How familiar am I with online counselling literature/training?

  • What does the BACP Ethical Framework say about online counselling? Am I keeping up-to-date with the proposed changes to the Framework relating to technology?

Clients, look out for your counsellor to:

  • Communicate that they are in a confidential space (alone, in a soundproof room) and check that you have found a similar space if possible.

  • Explain how security and privacy are ensured with email.

  • Check how well (or not) the online element is working for you, especially after the first session or two.

  • Discuss how a bad connection will be handled, including implications for payment.

  • Explain/negotiate how and when will payments be made.

Ongoing learning

The complexity of counselling online contrasts with the brevity of this article. Others may prioritise differently when thinking about competent and ethical online practice. I would love to hear these ideas: this is, as ever, ongoing learning for me.

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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