A couple of months ago, Robyn Huck wrote a piece for this blog about Skype counseling (see "Counseling in the Age of Technology"). I thought she did a great job of highlighting some of the liabilities and subtle challenges that Skype presents to fostering honest and intimate relationships. Her cautions are well taken.
As we continue to learn how to use Skype well, I thought I would share a few reflections about how the challenges have actually been a blessing in disguise as it pushes us to creative solutions. In fact, I have found the lessons of Skype counseling beginning to influence the counseling I do without a computer screen. Here are some thoughts on how we are learning to structure Skype counseling and what that is teaching me about counseling in general.
At CCEF New England, we have decided that in order to do Skype (or even telephone) counseling, a counselee must do one, and preferably both, of the following:
- come to the office for an initial in-person meeting, and
- invite at least one other trusted person (spouse, friend, pastor, etc.) to sit in during our sessions.
Why do we ask this of people? Because the biggest thing I have learned from counseling via Skype is the importance of the physical presence of a loving, supportive friend.
I thought Ed did a great job in his blog last week of describing the simple, crucial help we receive from the people around us. We too easily under-value just being with someone, demonstrating physically to them that we were made to love and need each other.
A true friend is there for someone in a way that I as a counselor rarely, if ever, can be. What started as a response to the "poof" effect Robyn mentions (where all help and encouragement can go "poof" when the Skype window shuts off at the click of a button) has become a conviction that people need as many tangible things to cling to outside of our times together as possible. What more powerful aid than a friend who will sacrifice the time to sit with you through a session and then is able to be there for you in a more informed and more intentional way outside of official session time?
Our God is there and His great gift to us is his presence. Any chance we have to give someone a taste of that is a blessing to them.
Of course there is always danger that people will cling to their counselors or their friends rather than to God. In my experience, however, friends and counselors who sharpen each other by working together do a better job of urging someone to cling to Christ than either will do while feeling like they are the only help in a person's life. Sharing in ministry diminishes the temptation to play "messiah," (or to run away!) for both friend and counselor.
In fact, Skype counseling has taught me to bring a third (or sometimes even a fourth) party into all my counseling much more often. I rarely counseled with other helpers in the room before starting to counsel over Skype, but I have seen such value in broadening the circle of ministry, that I now find myself adding a wise, loving friend to my in-person counseling more and more. I often start by asking this helper to simply listen, but invariably find that as time goes on, I invite his or her input and wisdom on what is being discussed.
Further, I have learned that when you are not physically present with someone, you can easily miss important cues, especially non-verbal ones. Once I was speaking with a woman over Skype and noticed that she was shifting a bit in her seat. I thought nothing much of it until the friend who was sitting with her reached over and rested a gentle, comforting hand on her. She was crying! I could see her body movements, but the tears welling in her eyes and her changed breathing were too subtle to pick up on my computer screen. Since then, I have been much more aware of people fidgeting, and that has led me to stop and ask some very important questions at moments I probably would have otherwise blown by.
Skype does have genuine limits, and there are things I would not do over Skype. For example, I would not try to counsel a highly volatile couple this way, for all the reasons Robyn lays out. Ironically, the limits of this technology are forcing me to know my own limits. Few things are harder for me as a counselor than saying "I'm sorry, I cannot help you." I know that turning people away or ending a counseling relationship when Skype cannot bear the freight is going to stretch me. How I need to remember that my help is not the ultimate agent of healing, nor is my glory as a counselor the goal of counseling!
In terms of the technology itself, Skype has been pretty reliable. Recently, however, a counselee could not get her connection up and running and, after some anxious minutes of troubleshooting, we reverted to the phone. It made me desperate to get back on Skype! There is nothing like doing without to realize how much you appreciate something. I have never been a big fan of the phone because it’s harder to know what is really going on with the other person. I felt especially lost that day. I suspect my counseling goals and tone were essentially unchanged, but it felt like driving with one eye closed – doable but exhausting and requiring a lot more guess work.
So Skype has its limits, but I find that I am learning to appreciate God's gift of sight all the more as I work through this technology. I do not want to over-sell it, but I do not want to under-sell it either. And in the process, I can see that I am learning more about the redemptive importance of intentional and intimate relationships in every context.
And, alas—Robyn has spilled the beans on me. It is true; I do not wear shoes when I am using Skype.
Read Robyn Huck’s blog on this topic: Do you Skype? Counseling in the Age of Technology
Alasdair Groves is the Director of Counseling at CCEF New England.