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Are misunderstandings more common in email counselling?

person looking at laptop with a pencil through teeth to symbolise confusion

Email counselling is fab; as a counsellor I love it. It helps so many clients.

Read more about why people choose email counselling here.

But although email counselling can and does work very well it does have its downsides.

Misunderstandings are common!

Are you a counsellor or trainee?

If so, this blog is for you.

As a fellow counsellor, I thought I would take some time to reflect on email counselling and misunderstandings.

Without specialist training many counsellors can fall into the trap of thinking this is an easy option to offer clients as an occasional back-up when diaries don’t match up. If you are a counsellor and have done this you’ll probably know what I am talking about.

  • Has there been confusion and distress over when you both send your emails?

  • Have you found some clients write you screeds leaving you unsure how to respond?

Email counselling is a unique form of counselling. It is asynchronous, which means there is a time delay between communication.

And it is this time delay that is notorious for creating the potential for clients and counsellors to misunderstand each other.

blurred image of person with head in hands and confused expression on face

Email counselling provides counsellors with more time to reflect before responding to a client’s misunderstandings or conflict in relation to the counsellor’s last email (the client’s misunderstandings being evident by the client’s emailed response), and this time delay can allow the difficult emotions in clients to settle.

However, this time delay can also do the opposite by fuelling difficult emotions causing clients to spiral as they are left in the dark without an immediate clarification.

But this time delay can still be very positive in that it allows the client and the counsellor time to reflect. The counsellor can speak to their supervisor and work out what might be going on in the relationship dynamic. They can also prepare exactly how they want to respond without having to rush into saying something in the moment, as with synchronous (in-person, video and phone) counselling.

I am sure we have all experienced a time when we got the wrong end of the stick after reading an email. Sometimes they can come across as cold and blunt. When our clients are sitting there alone reading our words, we must be mindful of how our words might land.

chalk writing on road saying - WHAT DO YOU MEAN?

I think carefully about use of punctuation, capitals, fonts and colour, all of which can give very different messages and which can help – or hinder – the communication process.

For example, a while ago, I was having phone counselling as a client and in the middle of the session the phone cut off. I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I phone back or wait for her to call me? Instead, I texted to ask if I should phone back.

My counsellor replied with the stark word:


But it wasn’t the one-word answer that felt emotive. It was the exclamation mark. That one punctuation mark screamed at me.

  • Was I in trouble?

  • Was I supposed to know this already?

  • Was I to hurry up and call back and not waste time?

Yellow crumpled plastic paper with a large black exclamation mark

In fact, as it happened, it was just a quick response from her, and she is used to writing exclamation marks in her texts and emails. I don’t use exclamation marks often so the message landed with me very differently.

Because this happened in the middle of a phone session, I was able to hear straight away that my counsellor was not cross with me and I quickly felt settled and able to continue. However, had this happened in an email session, I would have had the traditional time delay to wait for the next email exchange.

Email counselling is so very different and as counsellors we need to be very careful that we are open to, and ready for, the likely possibility of misunderstanding.

Through my experience of using email counselling, I have learned the importance of asking clients for clarification of their own emails as this offers them the opportunity to demand the same from me.

When working by email I consistently monitor how I communicate and pay attention to the tone. This helps minimise misunderstandings.

What is great though, about email counselling, is that because it is all text based there is a permanent record of everything that was said between the client and me. This helps enormously if/when misunderstandings occur because we can both read back on exactly what was said and not have to rely on memory, as is the case with video, phone and in-person counselling.

Being ready to be able to manage rupture and repair is an essential skill to have as a counsellor and even more so as an email counsellor.

front cover of free email counselling guide

Are you ready to learn more about what email counselling?

Learn more with my e-book

Email Counselling an introduction for counsellors.


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