Updated: Mar 29
In this 4-part series of blogs on email counselling we have explored the history of email counselling (Part 1), the issues of disinhibition (Part 2) and boundaries (Part 3). To end, we will look today at misunderstandings in email counselling.
A common difference between synchronous (face-to-face, video call, instant message, phone) and asynchronous counselling (email) is the potential for clients and counsellors to misunderstand each other.
As Evans (2009) points out it is generally the time delay or lack of it that causes miscommunication.
Email counselling provides counsellors with "time out" before responding to any resulting conflict which allows the initial emotions to subside (Evans (2009), p113). However, Evans (2009) also argues that synchronous communication also has the disadvantage of not having sufficient time to reflect. If the counsellor leaves a lengthy pause in a session to consider their response, this can result in potential added tension while the client is left trying to read their counsellor's face as they wait for them to respond in the moment.
There is also the additional challenge of interpretation and tone in the text of emails, which can be misunderstood. For example, capitals, asterisks, fonts, colour and punctuation can all help and hinder clients and counsellors understanding each other (Jones and Stokes, 2009).
Through my experience of using email counselling I have learned the importance of asking clients for clarification throughout emails to clients as this offers lots of opportunities for them to correct me.
I agree with Evans (2009) that when working by email it is essential for me to 'consistently monitor how [I] present [my] online narrative and pay attention to the tone and intonation on [my] communication' (p114). However, in saying this, email counselling does offer a permanent record for both the client and counsellor, which is more accurate than memory, and it could help to refer to old emails if a misunderstanding arose from an earlier email (Dunn in Weitz (ed.) (2014).
Overall, I feel it is important that when working with email, counsellors are aware of this potential for misunderstanding and are ready to be able to manage rupture and repair as it more frequently happens in text-based asynchronous sessions.
If you are a counsellor reading this and have enjoyed learning more about email counselling and would like to train, I suggest before you do that you give it a go as a client. That’s what I did and it was amazingly helpful.