Ask most people about online counselling and their assumption is that the work will be done using video. After all, it seems the closest to face-to-face work. Unfortunately, there are a host of practical and ethical challenges to doing video work specifically and synchronous (or real-time) work generally. A review of those challenges will have to wait for another blog, though. Today, I’d like to offer up a different perspective: the advantages of asynchronous career counselling through email.
Change your approach, broaden your reach
Imagine for a moment that you have a client who does shift work. To them, the advantages of working with you online are clear. But they need an appointment at 4 a.m. this week. Next week, it will need to be 11 p.m. The week after … well, you get the idea. Unless you’re willing to do this, you’ve lost a client and they’ve lost an opportunity to benefit from your expertise. In such situations, working asynchronously is ideal.
The same applies to clients who travel for work. If you are serious about wanting to work with executives who spend time in Tokyo, Johannesburg and Stockholm, you need alternatives to real-time engagement.
Or imagine a client who has panic attacks about her future career possibilities – at 2 in the morning. On the one hand, you could drag yourself out of bed to the sound of your iPhone notifications. On the other hand, your client could open her computer and write down her thoughts, hopes, fears and dreams. Then and there. Not only does she capture her experiences in the moment, she is working on her issues. She’s taking charge, making change.
Recall also the phenomenon of pre-treatment change that Insoo Kim Berg and Steve De Shazer discovered while developing Solution-Focused Therapy. How much more meaningful is it that the client is working on her issues instead of pacing her apartment reminding herself that you two have an appointment next Thursday? We need to consider the positive impact such activity has for the client.
Tracking progress through the written word
Another beauty of the asynchronous work is the permanent record. As a career development practitioner, you have quick and easy access to the full record of communication with the client. I have often had the experience of asking in-person clients if they realize how much they have changed or grown in our time together. And most, if they’re honest, say “not really.” With a permanent digital record, you can copy and paste comments they made about themselves from earlier sessions. Not only is this compelling, it is empowering. For it is not your words or you just being “nice” (because that’s what you’re paid to do as their counsellor, right?). It’s their words and it’s hard for them to deny progress in such situations.
And there is power in text (Consider Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp). Working in text is an iterative process. I write about my skills, then I read what I’ve written, then I revise, then read and reflect again. For clients willing to invest the time, change can be powerful and profound through this process alone. Those of us who give diary or journalling assignments know this to be true.
Email communication has another advantage which is part of clients reading your message instead of hearing your voice. Consider first you and I sitting together, and me saying to you, “you can feel proud of yourself.” Now consider you reading my written words “I think you can say to yourself ‘I am proud of my accomplishments’” (in your own voice. Inside your mind). It’s a subtle point, but think about the difference between you hearing me say it to you and you saying it to yourself. Why have people recite affirmations instead of simply listening to a recording? Why have people tell you their goals instead of you telling them? Speaking (or thinking) the words ourselves makes a difference.
Finally, the asynchronous work levels the power imbalance. This levelling isn’t always a good thing online. For example, the opinions of someone with no understanding of career counselling practices can appear as meaningful in a Twitter conversation as the words of a seasoned practitioner. But for us, it means that the environment itself supports an atmosphere of co-operation. In our work, we find clients more willing to engage with us as fellow explorers or collaborators when online.
This is admittedly the tip of the iceberg in terms of advantages, but hopefully it gets you thinking about the potential. And, indeed, where and how you might employ an email-style approach!