The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us to adapt to the new normal. For psychologists, this “new normal” has included bringing the in-office counselling experience to the virtual world. For all of its conveniences, it is not without challenges. After fourteen years of practicing face-to-face, I am deeply attached to what is known as the therapeutic frame. The therapeutic frame includes things like a regular appointment time, the chair the client sits in, and the privacy of the office. The frame provides a set of implicit rules, boundaries, and expectations. It creates a sense of continuity and safety for the client, from which they can explore difficult topics. This frame, and the security it provides, is fundamental to the counselling process.
In virtual counselling, many elements of the traditional therapeutic frame are absent. The counsellor and client are not sharing the same space. The client may not feel as safe speaking about difficult issues from their own home. The visual cues that are obvious in-person may be invisible over the internet. As a psychologist, I consider these obstacles that need to be overcome. To have successful virtual counselling, I believe that we need to recreate the therapeutic frame as much as possible.
In order to give online sessions a frame, I have set up my virtual office to mimic the in-person experience. I angle my camera so that clients can see me from the waist up, much as they would in the counselling office. If clients are able to do the same on their end, this helps me a great deal. To make the most of a virtual session, I suggest the following to my clients:
- Do everything possible to ensure that you are in a private, quiet space during your counselling session. You should feel safe enough to share very personal information. If you worry about being overheard, it will negatively impact your counselling experience. If a private space is unavailable to you, in-person counselling may be necessary. Remote sessions are not for everyone and can potentially be risky, such as for those experiencing domestic violence. To maintain privacy and COVID-19 safety, a counsellor may be able to direct you to a secure space to conduct remote sessions.
- Although I do not wear headphones during virtual sessions, I encourage clients to do so if it helps them to feel a sense of privacy on their end. If possible, please use a larger device for virtual sessions (such as a laptop).
- During face-to-face meetings, people regularly take ‘micro-breaks’ by averting their gaze. On video, however, many people feel compelled to maintain eye contact by staring into the web camera. This is very unnatural and, thus, very tiring. I encourage my clients to focus on the content that they are sharing and not to worry about maintaining eye contact.
- If possible, please test your microphone and camera prior to the session starting. As well, please be comfortable with the position of the camera so that you do not feel self-conscious during the session. Some clients opt to remove the image of themselves at the bottom of the screen.
- Prior to the session, consider writing a list of your key concerns and goals. If there is a technical issue or some other interruption, it will be easier for the session to get back on track.