With face-to-face meetings no longer an option during the lockdown, online counselling is set to become the new normal for the coming months. Here’s a ten-point guide on how to make it work best for you.
Your internet connection needs to be fast and reliable enough to allow an uninterrupted two-way video conversation for about an hour. The best way to test this is to see how you’re already doing with existing video calls. If they typically freeze up or crash at some point into the call, then you may be better to opt for telephone counselling.
2 Which provider
Zoom and Skype are the most commonly used in counselling. Before you get started, discuss with your counsellor which platform you prefer.
3 Sound and vision
If you plan to make your video calls using a smartphone, consider using earbuds/microphone to leave your hands free, or just prop it up in front of you. Part of the appeal of a video call is that we can communicate with more than just our words, bringing in facial expressions, gestures and all the nuances of body language.
4 Eye contact
During an online video call using a laptop or desktop computer, looking directly at someone on the screen means we are looking below the level of the camera (because it is usually at the top of the screen). So when we think we look someone in the eye what they see is our gaze cast down towards the keyboard. Does this matter? Perhaps. Looking someone in the eye communicates something rather different from casting our eyes down – a ‘downcast’ look. To get around this, shift the video image of your counsellor to the top of the screen.
5 Which device
Laptop, desktop, mobile, tablet... Any of these will work. Go for the one with the best sound and picture.
6 The room set-up
As with telephone counselling, you need to find a private space where you can be sure you won’t be overheard or interrupted, with no distractions. This is crucial. Ideally, use an identical setting every week, which means you won’t need to think any more about the practical stuff, and can simply focus on your counselling session. If you can't find a suitable room, then telephone counselling may give you more options.
Bear in mind that during daytime, if you have a window behind you as you face the camera, your face will be in shadow. Similarly, your room lighting may seem to be OK, but your webcam may see it differently. It’s best to test this out first.
Think about how you want to be ‘framed’ by the camera. The most typical format for a Zoom session is ‘head and shoulders’, though in counselling, many people find it more comfortable to sit a little further back from the camera. If you’re not sure, ask your counsellor for a bit of time during the first session to get your set-up just right.
9 Alerts, messages, calls
Whether using a mobile device or a laptop or desktop, it is advisable to block out any alerts from popping up on screen during your session – and make sure that your phone won’t be ringing either.
10 Before and after
It may be a good idea to create a bit of time immediately before your session as a kind of ‘virtual commute’ – as if you were travelling to the appointment, making a space in between the counselling and the rest of the day. Similarly, when the session is over, it could be worthwhile just taking a quiet moment before resuming your day.
If face-to-face counselling is not an option, many people turn to Zoom or Skype. But let’s not underestimate the power of telephone counselling.
When face-to-face counselling is not possible (perhaps counsellor and client live in different countries), then most people think of online counselling as the obvious second-best. The idea of conducting counselling on the telephone becomes a kind of runner-up, a lowly third-placed option of last resort. But is this really fair?
Video calls are far from perfect. Those of us who remember the early days of Skype calls might remember how much of these early conversations revolved around the quality of the connection and very little else. Amazingly, the bandwidth problem still makes itself felt from time to time on most video platforms, causing a certain amount of havoc to any call, let alone a counselling discussion.
The other thing that takes a little getting used to is where to look: with a camera at the top of the screen, eye contact is a little difficult. When we try to look someone in the eye on the screen in front of us, what they see is our gaze deflected downwards. Obviously, there are ways round this, like trying to stare at the camera on the top of your screen, or even using a remote webcam mounted in front of the computer screen. But most of us don’t get into rigging up more technology in this way.
Obviously, the phone conversation has neither of these drawbacks – and provides a steady, uninterrupted and focussed means of communication, robust enough not to be prone to outages and screen freeze, and free from the distractions of the ‘almost eye contact’ outlined above. But how do we manage, in counselling, without any visuals at all?
An image as a starting point
I think that having a mental picture of who we are talking to is of real benefit, and this goes for both client and therapist. Perhaps the best form of phone counselling is one where the initial contacts are set up via a video call. (Some therapists also say that the best kind of video calls are the ones where the initial contacts are from a face-to-face meeting). So an initial video call can give both parties a kind of first impression: time, if you like, to form those initial gut-reactions about the other person. It’s not scientific of course, and they will not doubt evolve over time, but it is a vital part of what will become the on-going relationship.
Continuing with video calls is always an option, of course, and something that a therapist and client can agree together. But moving away from video and on to the phone can also bring benefits, provided we are mindful about what we might be missing from the lack of visuals, and try instead to listen a little more attentively. After all, someone living with a visual impairment remains just as capable as a fully-sighted person of ‘reading’ other people in conversation, or being attuned to someone else’s emotional state.
Visual clues are important, but they are only part of the myriad ways we communicate. As we get to know someone, we notice how the quality of their voice will change when charged with stress or emotion, just as we notice variations in the speed and patterns of speech. And then there are the moments with no speech at all: silences during a phone call may seem awkward in a conversation with a family relative, but in a therapeutic conversation can provide space to think and feel, or simply provide the time to let a stray thought bubble up to the surface.
Helplines like Samaritans have developed to a fine art the ability to get people to talk and think about their emotional states during a phone call, and the results of the Samaritans’ approach speaks for itself. Callers, many in extreme emotional distress, contact someone they have never spoken to before (and probably never will again) and in the space of a half hour, or an hour, or perhaps longer, share their darkest and most private thoughts and feelings with this unseen stranger on the other end of the line.
So let’s not underestimate what can be exchanged in a phone call, and, more specifically, the potential power of telephone counselling. For many people, it can provide a vital 50-minutes of sanctuary in a difficult week.
A Zoom call or a face-to-face meeting at the start allows you to 'put a face to a name'. Having a mental image of who we are talking with is helpful in all kinds of ways.
With your counselling taking place at the same time each week, try to keep a sense of continuity by using the same room each time. Make sure you won't be interrupted - or overheard.
Remember to turn off any alerts that may pop up on your phone screen during the call. Also, make sure your phone is charged (or on a charger) and that you have a good enough signal.
With a call lasting 50 minutes, hands-free is recommended, and will also allow you to put the phone down where you can't see it! Good headphones will block any distractions.
Take a few moments to settle before the call begins, so you can shift your mind from all the activities you have just been doing. Think of this time as if you were in a virtual waiting room.
Counselling is unlike any other kind of conversation. While a long pause during an ordinary phone conversation can feel strange, it is completely OK in counselling to allow yourself some silence: a time to think and to feel.
People who attend face-to-face counselling often report how they are thinking about the session they just had as they travel back to home or work. Try to allow some thinking time for yourself right after the session, as if you were travelling back to your daily life.
Combining counselling with an invigorating walk is becoming increasingly popular. It is very different from traditional counselling in a therapy room, but can be extremely effective.
Outdoor counselling is exactly that: a set of counselling sessions that take place outside in the open air, and most often during the course of a good walk. It is proving popular - not just among those who live on the doorstep of beautiful rural countryside, but also for city dwellers, making the most of local parks and riverside walks.
As a venue for a talking therapy, the idea of outdoor counselling prompts an immediate comparison with ‘indoor counselling’. Which is better? Well, it’s almost impossible to say if one is better or worse. But they are each very different.
While some people find the therapy room a bit constricting at first sight - a small room usually, with just the two chairs and very little else to look at - it is built like this for a reason. It helps to keep the focus is on the communications (verbal and otherwise) between counsellor and client, while the closed room provides a safe and private space for a confidential discussion. It is an unchanging background that becomes a neutral backdrop - one that is quickly ignored, but which serves its purpose, containing what goes on within its four walls.
Outdoor counselling is distinctly different, and is perhaps a more laid-back format for talking therapy, which may help explain its popularity. Walking side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, the privacy of the conversation is maintained - with the occasional pause, perhaps, for passers-by. And as the walk progresses, the surroundings change: so what we see around us may feed into the conversation, sometimes triggering unexpected thoughts, feelings, and memories. The lack of the ‘neutral backdrop’ - so essential to the indoor version of counselling - can lead instead to unlooked-for discoveries. Not to mention some healthy, beneficial exercise.
Call first to work out the practicalities (where, when) as well as to discuss what you’re hoping to achieve with your counselling.
It’s a balance between convenience (somewhere local) and privacy (not running into your neighbours every ten minutes). Talk over the options with your counsellor.
Getting the best from your outdoor counselling means being comfortably dressed, whatever the weather, and not forgetting shoes or boots suitable for walking on grass - or mud…
There is no set distance or walking pace, and if you would prefer to spend part of the time sitting on a park bench to talk, that is fine too.
Try to organise your day so that you are not rushing from your outdoor counselling session to something else right afterwards. This will help you to focus on the session.
Combining outdoor counselling with walking the dog may look like great multi-tasking, but it could just be one distraction too many - unless you use a guide dog, of course.
While online counselling, phone, and outdoor sessions are an integral part of the mix, the engine room of what we do at Talkplace is in-person counselling, working from purpose-designed therapy rooms in London.
Counselling in person is a very different experience to phone, Zoom (or Skype) and outdoor counselling. There is just that little bit of extra focus to in-person counselling, rather like the difference between watching a film in HD rather than standard definition: you tend to notice more of the details (and I am talking from the perspective of clients, not therapists) which might allow you to take a conversation, or a thought or feeling, into a new direction. The longer the counselling goes on, the more the two people get to know each other and learn to ‘read’ each others’ gestures and expressions. That’s not to say that this is not possible with Skype, telephone or outdoor counselling, for example, but with in-person (in a room) the whole effect feels just that little more concentrated.
On a practical level, Talkplace therapists work in different locations around London, so the rooms will vary depending on where you are. However, all are optimised for talking therapy work, which means small, private rooms, which are kept clean and tidy, and furnished very simply, but with comfortable chairs.
Some clients start with in-person counselling and move to Skype for logistical reasons. Similarly, Skype clients shift to telephone counselling (usually because of frustrations with bandwidth) and some outdoor counselling clients eventually choose to ‘come in from the cold’ and get counselling in a conventional therapy room.
Our aim is simply to provide options and choices, and it’s down to you to see what suits you best.
Like all counsellors, the team at talkplace offer talking therapies throughout the day and often into the evenings too. More unusually, we also offer early morning sessions.
“Counselling at 7am. You’re joking. Don’t you just fall asleep?” This is what many people think when they hear about counselling sessions starting at – gulp – seven in the morning. But those who do this will be able to tell you of some immediate benefits.
The most obvious, of course, is that 7am counselling does not take a big chunk out of your afternoon, make you late getting into work, or cause you to have to pack up work early to get to see your therapist straight after work. Many of us prefer not to share the fact we are in counselling with our work colleagues. And the act of having to leave early, or get in late, can sometimes make us feel that we are somehow letting down other people in a team. (This guilt may be totally unfounded, and counselling can actually help deal with this kind of thinking).
But as well as making minimal impact on your working day, early morning counselling (and it could be online counselling) makes use of a time when you may be at your most alert. Unless you live right next door to the therapy room, it is likely you will have made a journey, perhaps simply a walk, to get to counselling, which will have worked off the early morning grogginess or ‘sleep inertia’. Your mind will be in its normal state of cognitive functioning, but still free of the inevitable tiredness that has yet to accumulate as the day goes on.
Some people find that pre-work counselling provides a small island of calm before the working day begins. Even if the counselling work itself can be intense, it exists in a quiet space where the pace and intensity is set by you. Instead of engaging in a mad rush from the time the alarm goes off – jumping into the shower, grabbing a coffee, running for the bus – taking a counselling session in the morning is a kind of antidote to all that. Yes, you will get up an hour earlier. But think of it as a gift to yourself.
And the counselling ‘vibe’ can stay with you as you make the journey to work, perhaps mulling over some of the things that came up during your 50-minute session. What may have felt at times like an intolerable commute can even become a testing ground for your own mindfulness, or a backdrop to your musings about a part of your life that might be very far away from the noise and crowds that surround you.
If you’d like to try early morning sessions, get in touch with one of our therapists.