Remote counselling via email carries many disadvantages as well as advantages in comparison to traditional, face-to-face counselling.
Communication and the Counselling Relationship
Communicating online introduces particular challenges for creating and sutaining a working relationship.
Lack of Visual and Verbal Cues
It can be difficult enough to understand exactly what someone is saying in a face-to-face setting, but stripped of the kinds of visual and auditory verbal cues which we take for granted when communicating in person, the struggle to understand takes on a whole new dimension. Part of the beauty of the English language is that the same statement can take on a whole range of subtle meanings; but without that grin or frown, that raised eyebrow, that softened voice or dead-pan delivery, figuring out which meaning a person intends can be a real challenge.
The lack of visual cues is also especially important for clients who would like to discuss a visible physical disability and would like their counsellor to be able to see exactly what they are talking about.
Lack of Physical Presence
The lack of a physical presence of another person in the same room may make some people feel less emotionally intimate and less comforted in times of distress.
Asynchronous Nature of Email
It can be frustrating to have to wait for the counsellor to reply when using email and other forms of communication that are asynchronous (meaning that two people are writing at different times, as opposed to conversing in real time).
In a similar vein, the inevitable time delay associated with email exchanges precludes the kind of urgent attention (or even emergency response) which is possible in a face-to-face setting.
No Regular Appointment Times
Just as the freedom to work without fixed appointment times can be an advantage for some clients, the absence of the structure which fixed appointments provide can be a disadvantage for others. Many clients prefer the structure of ‘having’ to attend a session at the same time every week.
Relying on computers as a communications medium can bring technology into the foreground of the counselling process as an unwelcome participant.
Equipment and Internet Service Failures
Hardware or software failure or internet service failure can impact the online availability of both counsellor and client. Ideally, the technology becomes ‘transparent’, so it simply serves as a tool for communication, without requiring attention in and of itself. In practice, however, even the best technological tools sometimes require attention, and it can be frustrating if this occurs during a counselling exchange.
Confidentiality and Privacy in Shared Environments
Using computers at work, in an internet cafe or public library, or any other environment where other people have access to the same equipment introduces particular pitfalls for confidentiality and privacy in email counselling.
Overcoming Some of These Difficulties
You may want to check the page on Hints, Tips and Caveats for a few ways of overcoming or at least minimizing the impact of some of these difficulties.
In This Section
- About Counselling and Psychotherapy
- Counselling, Psychotherapy & Mental Health Bibliography
- Mental Health News
- Online Therapy and Online Counselling
- Advantages of Email Counselling and Online Therapy in General
- Assessing Suitability of Email Counselling and Online Therapy
- Disadvantages of Email Counselling and Online Therapy in General
- Encryption and Security of Online Therapy
- Ethics, Security and Real Therapy, Online
- Hints, Tips and Caveats for Effective Emailing
- Secure Web Forms: Are They Really?
- Talk to a Counselor or Therapist Online via Secure Chat or Email
- Self-Help and Overviews
- Symptoms, Diagnostics, and Medications
- Types of Counselling and Psychotherapy
- Web Resources in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Mental Health
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by