Showing Up On The Page

Posted by: Dawn Schell on May 30, 2011 10:12 am

Hello [waving a hand in greeting].  Welcome back!  In my last post I said I would be talking about how to convey “presence” throughout an online counselling session.  So – let’s see [thinking out loud]. I’ll tell you about three important techniques I have learned and show you some examples.  I invite you to make yourself comfortable. Ready?  Let’s get to work [rolling up my sleeves].

When I talk about online counselling a common response is “non-verbals are such a big part of our communication. How do you deal with that? Isn’t it easy to misunderstand each other?”  One counsellor said that she thought online counselling would be “cold and clinical”, with no way to show warmth, empathy or humanness.

I understand the concerns.  Text-only can be challenging. However, there are ways to address the lack of tone of voice and non-verbals in text-based counselling work.[1] Lawrence Murphy and Dan Mitchell of Therapy Online have developed techniques such as Emotional Bracketing, Descriptive Immediacy and Descriptive Imagery (amongst others).

The point in using techniques such as these is to: bring the client into the room with you, create an immediacy of experience, assist them to understand or ‘see’ the non-verbals (i.e. thoughts, feelings, tone of voice), minimize the chance they will misinterpret what is said, and give them an opportunity to ensure they have been ‘heard’ correctly.  Most importantly, these techniques are aimed at deepening the therapeutic connection and engendering change.

[thinking that a brief description and examples will be useful here]

Emotional Bracketing – employs the use of square brackets wherein we write about inner non-observable thoughts and feelings.


[feeling impressed with how you handled this situation]

[wondering if you have felt like this for a while now]

[thinking about all that we have talked about over the past months]

[hmmm – wondering about ways to approach this and feeling curious about a number of possible explanations]

What a big step—you have come a long way from when we first met and were talking about these issues [feeling proud of you].

Descriptive Immediacy – provides the client with information about the counsellor’s observable, non-verbal behaviour toward the client. When I am writing these I try and visualize my client actually being in the room with me and how I would be responding to them.


[sitting up straighter]

Whew! [wiping hand across my brow]

[leaning forward in my chair and wanting to convey that I hear the pain in your words]

Descriptive Imagery –  The use of descriptive language to help the client create a mental picture that is relevant to the therapeutic environment.  I tend to use this technique most in ‘setting the scene’ and starting a session.


“From my office you can see a garden and I have the window open to catch the soft spring breeze.  I have a couple of comfortable chairs for us to sit in.”

In my next post I will demonstrate how to use these techniques in a client session [wanting you to have a context for how to use these techniques].

The opinions expressed in this blogpost are personal.

Dawn Schell, MA, CCC is an affiliate counsellor with Therapy Online

[1] Murphy, L.J, & Mitchell, D.L. (2009) Overcoming the absence of tone and non-verbal elements of communication in text-based cybercounselling. In J.G. McDaniel (Ed) Advances in Information Technology and Communication in Health, Vol. 143, 215-219. IOS Press BV, Amsterdam.

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

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