Do you Skype? Counseling in the Age of Technology

Topics: Technology
Published: November 29, 2010

I was decidedly against it, and I said so. I thought I had good reasons, and I laid them out. But none of them changed Alasdair’s mind. In fact, Alasdair Groves (my boss) already had three Skype counseling sessions booked when we opened our CCEF New England office this past summer. But the idea of counseling by way of a video-internet connection still really bothered me.

“Let’s Not” Reason 1: In the same way that recorded music in a worship service does not seem to contain the living, breathing essence of worship that live musicians provide, I felt that video conferencing would be substituting technology for the very personal act of loving someone through the process of counseling.

We aim to bring the love of Christ to counselees by actually embodying Christ’s nature as much as we’re able. Don’t you need to actually be in the same room to “embody”? If I’m grieving with someone, all they’ll see is a real-time video of me reaching for the tissues. It can’t be the same as actually being in the same room and witnessing the unspoken compassion of a person’s sorrow.

“Let’s Not” Reason 2: At times, part of counseling is helping someone change personal habits, or overcome fears, or communicate better. Counseling via computer screen is not conducive to practicing these skills. It’s simply not the same as interacting with a person face to face. I know of a husband who can say, “I love you” to his wife on the telephone but claims he can’t when she’s in the room. I know a woman who can speak civilly to her ex-husband on the phone, but if he’s in the room she explodes in rage. There’s a comfort, perhaps a level of protection that is afforded by distance. This may be helpful in some rare counseling situations, but we’re usually trying to help people be appropriately vulnerable and transparent in counseling so they’re able to carry that skill to other relationships. Can we really practice such skills via Skype?

“Let’s Not” Reason 3: In my five decades on the planet, I’ve witnessed a huge change in people and where their time and attention goes. As I look around and see kids playing video games alone instead of pickup sports with neighborhood friends; teens continually thumbing their phones, using the shortest number of typed characters possible and calling it communication; and adults engaged in emotionally-charged relationships with people they’ve never actually met in person — I wonder if I really want to be part of this scene. Is counseling via computer screen encouraging this shift away from human face-to-face interaction?

After passionately presenting my arguments, Alasdair gave his incredibly succinct rebuttal.

He shrugged.

Then he said, “Sometimes it’s all we have. And although it’s not optimum, I’ve been having good success with it.”

You know, it’s just not fair that a three-point argument can be so easily shot down. But after my first Skype counseling session, I knew he was right. Yes, there are very real limitations, but if you’re aware of them and thoughtfully take them into account, this is a technology that can be very helpful to us in the counseling world. If our aim is to get help to people who need it, then why dismiss the opportunities provided by a technology simply because the technology can have a negative influence if it’s used badly.

Here’s a short list of things to keep in mind if you’re going to use videoconferencing to counsel:

1) Much less information is available to the counselor. It’s amazing how much you find out simply by the way a person comes into the room and settles in. Calm and cool? Fidgety and nervous? Storming mad? Hesitant and shy? Freshly showered or sweaty from work? The counselor starts gathering information long before a word is said.

In one recent Skype session, I asked a counselee to write a list of thoughts on a particular matter. All I saw was her head looking down. If she had been in the room, I would have seen whether she was writing fast or just tapping her pen in frustration. I had to ask more questions to get the information I lacked because of the Skype environment. “Was that easy for you or frustrating?” “How long is your list?” “Would you mind holding it up to the camera for a second?” (I actually like seeing people’s handwriting when they do these types of exercises—something I didn’t realize until I wasn’t able to see it!)

2) It’s much less personal for the counselee. Yes, it’s a whole lot better than a phone call, but still, I’m looking at a computer screen and so are you. Counseling is about being a person who is willing to come alongside another person during a time of need. It’s about my ability to let you know that I, too, am a sinner and sufferer, and together by God’s grace we will walk through this struggle of yours. Who I am and how I come across is absolutely as important as anything I am able to say to a person. It’s pretty hard to convey that well in video counseling. The distance is felt, especially when you “hang up” with one click of a button and the person disappears. I am concerned that in that “poof, I’m gone” moment, a lot of the encouragement I just supplied might go “poof” as well. One of my goals is to help a person feel they are not alone. That’s not an easy task in this medium.

3) And certainly most important: in long-distance counseling it’s impossible to create a safe environment when counseling a couple or family. My physical presence in the room when a husband speaks to his wife significantly affects his choice of what he says and how he says it. In videoconferences, my power to break into their bantering is limited. I’m not a big imposing person by any means, but still, my body in the room with them gives me a lot more influence than my face on a screen does. Skype should not be used for any situation that has the possibility of becoming heated or volatile.

Anyone who has used videoconferencing to counsel can probably add to this list of concerns to remember. But that counselor would also be able to list the benefits the medium provides. Ease of access comes to mind first: no driving time for the counselee; no transportation costs; more flexibility in scheduling. But more notably, those people who have no trained biblical counselors in their area can now meet with someone for help and hope. That is definitely cool.

So, if there’s now global access through videoconferencing, why don’t we all make appointments with the biggest names in counseling? Well, they don’t have enough time for all of us, for one thing. But even if they did, we have to realize that no one counselor can be equally effective with everyone, everywhere because one key to effectiveness is knowing and understanding someone’s living environment. A friend of mine counsels inner city teens. She knows first-hand the culture in which the kids live and the stresses on their lives. She also knows the helpful resources of the surrounding area. She can speak with an “alongside” I’m-here-too authenticity that allows her counselees to really feel she knows them and their struggles. She has a local expertise that is needed to counsel them well.

As for me, I know New England very well. I have long standing roots here and many connections. I know the farming communities, the college communities, the rural and suburban areas, and I understand the very distinct culture of New England cities. This is my turf, my culture, my environment, and if it’s yours too, we have a lot in common already. Could I be helpful to people in other locations, maybe across the globe? Probably, to an extent. But God put me here, and He put you there. I’d still prefer you to find a good counselor who knows where you live. That next-door neighbor has the potential to serve you better than I can.

But if no one is available near you, and your need could be handled well through Skype – I think it should be considered as a counseling option. People throughout time have been wary of each advancement in communication technology, and we’ve been right to be wary. We’ve had to learn the characteristics of each new tool in order to use it wisely. Each one has had its own quirks and limitations while in some way it increased our access to people, knowledge, and ideas that we didn’t have before. Videoconferencing is simply the newest tool, and it presents new opportunities.

I think Alasdair is very glad I’m on board with this now. And he’s glad it only took one video-counseling session for me to be convinced. But, (shhh), if you have a counseling session with him over Skype — ask him if he’s wearing shoes.


Robyn Huck is a counselor at CCEF’s New England affiliate office in Vermont.