Since the COVID-19 outbreak, many counselors have discontinued in-person counseling in favor of remote methods. Thankfully, communication technology has exploded in the past few years. Some will counsel by phone, others by a means which allows “face-to-face” communication such as FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype. Each counselor is exploring the best way to minister to the needs of hurting people.
Remote counseling has both advantages and disadvantages. A brief look at these will encourage the counselor to use modern technology and will build awareness of possible pitfalls.
Advantages of Remote Counseling
A counselor who uses electronic means to communicate has immediately become more available to counselees who do not live in the vicinity. Despite the surge of biblical counseling training in many organizations, there is still a shortage of counseling in some regions. There are large sections of cities and even states with no biblical counselor. Overseas, this problem is magnified. My husband and I have frequently counseled missionaries by phone or Skype. A counseling ministry can massively expand once the door opens to not meet behind physical doors.
Sometimes the counselee (or counselor) has transportation or child-care limitations. Some counselees provide care for an elderly parent and are not able to go to an office for an appointment. Others may work during office hours and may not have the freedom to leave during the day. A phone appointment, while the husband is home to care for the children, is a wonderful solution for stay-at-home moms. Even speaking on the weekend with a counselor is necessary at times. Additionally, the counselor may find it convenient to handle appointments from the comfort of home. Having only one or two appointments a day by Skype saves a drive to the office.
Opportunity to Speak to Specialists
As biblical counseling has expanded, some counselors have become known for their expertise in particular problems. These could include helping those dealing with alcohol abuse, spousal abuse, eating disorders, wayward teens, post-abortion grief, etc. Visibility increases as these specialists speak or write about the topic. The person looking for help wants to speak with a counselor who has experience, though it is unlikely that they live near each other. A phone call or video chat can bridge the distance gap.
Every counselor will benefit from asking quality questions that draw out the other person, such as, “What do you mean by that?” and “Tell me what you were thinking when that happened.” But when counseling is not face-to-face, these open-ended questions become a requirement.
Counseling by electronic means can lead to more organized and structured sessions. This can be an advantage in some cases. Because natural give and take is a bit more awkward (“Go ahead.” “No, you can start.” “No, after you.”), the counselor may need to take the lead. This directed counseling should seek to avoid the pitfall of turning into a lecture.
The tendency to lecture introduces the need to consider the disadvantages of remote counseling.
Disadvantages of Remote Counseling
Non-Verbal Cues Can Be Missed
Unless an intake of breath is heard on the phone, it can be difficult to discern when the counselee wants to speak. This is only one example of non-verbal communication that can be lost. The counselor is looking for many signs of positive communication: leaning forward, eye contact, nodding, smiling. Negative signs can be missed as well, such as foot-tapping, looking away, grimacing, sighing. Video chat can pick up some of these but is far behind face-to-face interaction.
Even looking at the counselee’s Bible gives many clues to spiritual health. A well-worn, marked-up Bible shows the counselor that this person is familiar with Scripture. Notes written in the margins are often the result of years of exposure to good teaching. If a counselee is not sitting across from the counselor, this clue is missing.
First, those who counsel via the internet already know about distractions due to the mechanics of the process. Interruptions come because of computer glitches. Some who deal with slow and overused internet connections find themselves asking for information to be repeated because of dropped dialogue. Sometimes the frame freezes, causing facial expressions to be lost. Second, if counseling occurs at home, one or both participants may find themselves interrupted by their environment. Children may need attention, for example, causing counseling to be put on hold (sometimes literally “on hold”).
Physical Interaction Is Lost
After transitioning from face-to-face counseling to remote means, it becomes apparent how much counseling includes physical touch. Women want to hug suffering women. God made us with the natural inclination to embrace in greeting, farewell, or sympathy. When counseling a teen, a counselor may naturally want to give a “high five.” Men might even give a hearty hug as a sign of affection. These important expressions are non-existent when apart. In the book of Romans, Paul wrote, “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (1:15). To be physically present with the believers was Paul’s desire. At the end of the book, Paul even exhorted the believers to greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16)!
To summarize, when counseling is unable to take place in person, using electronic means is better than no counseling at all. The counselor should be aware of the pitfalls listed above. But the Lord can also bless through technology, especially in these troubling times. The biblical counselor can say with Paul, “But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thess. 2:17).
Questions for Reflection
- What are some additional advantages and disadvantages of remote counseling during self-quarantine? How can the obstacles be overcome?
- How can the counselor adapt to an older counselee who is not familiar with modern communication capabilities?
- What can a counselor do to pursue counselees who are isolated during this crisis?