Managing the Online Counselling Relationship

Vicki Enns

The COVID-19 pandemic has had many impacts on our lives, including changes in how we connect with others. For many counsellors, this has meant shifting to working remotely, whether through online video platforms or over-the-phone support. Since March 2020, my own counselling practice has almost completely shifted to online video conferencing.

Connecting with people using video platforms had already been a small part of my counselling role, but it has now become the main way I provide support. This no longer feels like a stopgap to get through the pandemic; it will likely continue to shape and influence how I think about counselling.

There is abundant evidence that one of the central ingredients in any successful counselling experience is the quality of the relationship and connection between counsellor and client. This is one of the most robustly studied aspects of in-person counselling, and it is also central to providing support remotely.

At first, I worried that the shift to online counselling would cause my connection with clients to suffer. I was concerned that it would be too hard to do well, and that the usefulness of counselling for people would lessen as a result. Despite my concerns, I have been pleasantly surprised to find that many people enjoy it, and some even prefer connecting online rather than having to meet at my office.

Regardless of how counsellors are interacting with those we support, positive outcomes rest on the development and experience of a solid and positive connection.

There has also been a lot of grace and acknowledgement that we are all adapting and doing the best we can. However, this comes along with a lingering sense that this way of living is temporary. Although many people say online counselling is better than not meeting at all, what if this continues to be how some would prefer to engage with counselling in the future? How can we ensure we’re building the strongest counselling relationships possible while working remotely?

3 Areas to Strengthen the Online Counselling Relationship

With the abundance of research on online counselling, there are some key findings to that will enhance our online counselling relationships:

Set the tone and establish boundaries.

The environment you create through your online “meeting space” can greatly support a feeling of ease, consistency, and safety. The following will provide a foundation to create a supportive connection:

  • Consider the lighting and environment you are in. Make sure your face shows up well, without too many shadows. Have pleasant colours and images in your background.
  • Be mindful of privacy as it is of course paramount for ethical counselling work. Privacy can also ensure you are free from distraction so you can focus on the interaction at hand.
  • Don’t get distracted by your devices. Make sure notifications are turned off and displays are out of your sight line. This will help you give your full attention to your client so they feel truly listened to. It will also improve your ability to guide difficult conversations.
  • Pace the interaction well. Allow space between asking a next question or waiting for the client to respond. Some cues that tell us when a person is about to speak or they need time to reflect will be harder to read. Going a little slower than you would in person helps avoid speaking over each other or missing an opportunity for the client to respond.
Create conditions for trust.

At the centre of a positive and successful counselling connection is the trust between client and counsellor. A key way we can create the conditions needed to build trust is through the quality of our presence and attention. Here are some key aspects for enhancing and conveying your presence for clients:

  • Consider how the client will see you and pay attention to how much of you is visible in the video’s frame. Seeing all of your face and some of your shoulders allows facial and body language to be conveyed through movements, gestures, and expressions. It also ensures you are comfortable so that you can be grounded and steady in your presence.
  • Pay attention to how close or far you are from the camera. If you’re too far, you’ll seem detached and unreachable; too close and you’ll seem more intense and in their face. 
  • Practice giving eye contact. Although it is uncomfortable and sometimes threatening to have too much direct eye contact, without some sense of being able to really see and be seen, there can be less of a connection. You may need to toggle looking at the image of your client on your screen and directly into the camera so they have the experience of direct visual acknowledgment.
  • Try using earbuds or headphones. This will make you less likely to strain to hear, and the sound will feel more immediate and intimate.
Practice collaborative communication.

Counselling relationships that have the most benefit include a sense of collaboration between client and counsellor. This includes ensuring there is consistent opportunity for the person you are supporting to use their voice and have choice in the course of setting goals. It’s important to feel like you are negotiating together what is focused on and to build on the client’s strengths. Some ways you can do this are:

  • Take time to check with your client about all of the areas mentioned above. For example, discuss the lighting, your distance from the camera, how well you can hear each other, and the privacy of your environments. These extra steps will help you creating a joint space for your counselling work together.
  • Verbalize or narrate more often what you are thinking about or how you are sensing your client might be feeling as you interact. Following this up with curious and open questions to check your observations not only helps you learn to read and listen to your client in this different medium, but it also helps the other person become more aware of these things. It is making the unspoken more explicit.
  • Regularly ask your client what the experience of online counselling is like for them. What are they noticing? Also check in to see how they feel before and after sessions. These transitions may be very different if they are connecting from their home, office, or car. Creating plans together for helpful ways to prepare for an online session, as well as how to shift gears afterward, can support the overall feeling of a well-contained and supportive counselling relationship.

Using online or remote methods for counselling is becoming more common and is likely here to stay. Applying practical knowledge from known methods of creating an environment, tone, and collaboration that promotes a strong counselling relationship can help us all adapt and use this modality well. Regardless of how counsellors are interacting with those we support, positive outcomes rest on the development and experience of a solid and positive connection.


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Author: Vicki Enns (MMFT, RMFT)
Clinical Director, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Vicki is a co-author of CTRI’s latest book, Counselling in Relationships –  Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The book is available on our website.

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