Reading Between the Lines

Posted by: Dawn Schell on August 12, 2011 12:00 pm

An important component of online counselling is learning how to read between the lines. Same as in face-to-face (f2f) counselling it’s about paying attention.  In f2f counselling we pay attention to the verbal and nonverbal cues (amongst other things).  In online counselling we pay attention to: what people say, what they don’t say, word choices, phrasing, name substitutions, pacing, inconsistent spelling errors, understatements, grammar, punctuation (or lack of same), capitalization, use of metaphors, misquotes.  I could go on but I assume you all know what I am talking about!

Let me give you a few examples of the kinds of statements clients might make and some of my “reading between the lines”. 

Client – I have one living child.

There’s a story there [wondering if this was a deliberate choice of words].

Client – I tried really hard to help John.

Which implies that John rejected the “help” or it wasn’t sufficient or ?

Client – I know it’s not his fault he got this disease.

Angry? Feels trapped?  Wants someone to blame?

Client – In my job I have control and balance.

Implying they don’t have control and balance in other areas of their life?

Client – I’ve always told him that would never come before him and I? 

Ending with a question – did they tell him?  Or are they rethinking their priorities?

Client – I took a lot of psychology and meth in university.

So did a lot of people…but I think the client means Math.  Worth checking out?

A client talks for an entire session about their relationship but never tells me their partner’s name. 

Hmmm, curious isn’t it?

A client session – 17 pages long, single-spaced, with no grammar or punctuation.

I’ve had this type of client session in person too – a breathless rush of words.  Have they been holding this in for a while?  Are they afraid someone will cut them off?  Or, in their experience, no one listens?

The examples I have given here may seem obvious.  Though I suspect they are obvious only when we are tuned in and present.

In reading between the lines I am careful not to assume anything.  And equally careful not to make the client “wrong” if I am asking about a spelling error.

I share my observations or curiosity, ask questions and seek feedback that I have an accurate understanding about what they are saying. Sometimes clients say “Oh, I didn’t mean that at all.  It was autocorrect or … [fill in the blank]”.  Other times reading between the lines opens up a richer, deeper discussion of emotions or motivations or self-awareness. 

I wanted to end this post with a clever statement so you would have to read between the lines to fully grasp my meaning.  Sadly, I am fresh out of clever statements today….read into that what you will!

The views expressed in this blog post are personal.

Dawn Schell, MA, CCC is an affiliate of

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

1 comment on “Reading Between the Lines”

  1. I’ve been developing an interest in online counselling, but never really understood how to get around the lack of non-verbal cues. I understand and highly rely on paying attention to what is not being said. Thanks for that brief glimps. Is you online counselling all through email? What about skype or other real time online conversation venues?

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