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6 Text-based counselling

6 Text-based counselling

One of the biggest challenges for practitioners who start working online is to feel comfortable and develop competence in communicating through the chosen online medium. Practice makes perfect, so take advantage of the opportunity in this section to practise your skills in text-based online counselling. However, before you do that, it is useful the learn a bit more about the specifics of online counselling provided through text only.

A big part of all technology-based counselling is still provided in a text-based format – that is, without any audio or visual cues – in chat rooms or emails/messages exchanged between the counsellor and the client. Generally, it can be distinguished between synchronous (real-time) services and asynchronous (time-delayed) text-based services.

Activity 16: Synchronous and asynchronous text-based counselling

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Drag and drop these text-based online counselling forms into the correct category in the table.

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6.1 The benefits and complexities of text-based counselling

In text-based online counselling, clients can benefit from the sole focus on writing/typing about thoughts and feelings, as suggested by the research literature on the therapeutic effects of expressive or reflective writing (Stuckey and Nobel, 2010; Goss, 2013). Research shows that expressive writing has the potential to alleviate stress and anxiety, and improve wellbeing and understanding of oneself, which can be explained by emotion regulation processes (Koole, 2009).

Writing about difficult experiences seems to help clients to reflect on deep thoughts and feelings, and to articulate interior processes (Rimé, 2009), thus facilitating one’s ability to cope with challenging experiences (Gortner et al., 2006). In text-based online counselling, we can utilise these benefits of reflective, focused writing by helping a client to explore and express their feelings (Wright, 2002).

However, the restriction of text-only means that everything that evolves between a counsellor and a client – empathy, trust, concerns, support, presence and bonding, to name just a few – needs to be conveyed and expressed via text. When working online, you will need to look for subtle cues within the material to develop a keen sense of expressed (and undisclosed) feelings and the individual style of your client, in the same way as you learn to read between the lines when seeing and listening to a client face-to-face.

Activity 17 helps you to learn about some widely used expression techniques (such as acronyms or emoticons) developed in digital communication to compensate for the lack of face-to-face cues and to add emotional depth.

Activity 17: Paralanguage/netiquette for online communication

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Drag and drop each emotional expression to the right acronym/emoticons. Click the ‘Reveal answer’ button when you are done to see if you got the right answers.

Using the following two lists, match each numbered item with the correct letter.

  1. LOL

  2. IMS

  3. Using upper-case text

  4. Putting words in brackets, e.g. ‘(grin)’

  5. Adding ‘…’ between words


  • b.Internal thought processes and meaningful pauses

  • c.Laugh out loud

  • d.Highlighting the emotional content behind words

  • e.I am sorry

The correct answers are:
  • 1 = c
  • 2 = e
  • 3 = a
  • 4 = d
  • 5 = b

Clients may use these and many other abbreviations and signs in creative ways to express themselves online. There is no harm in asking your client about their meaning and emotional content, if you are unsure. Using these words and symbols can create mental representations of the individuals involved and help to build an online relationship (Suler, 2004).

6.2 Online counselling chat protocol

The following example (provided by Kate Antony from the Online Therapy Institute) gives you a taste of the specific features and challenges of text-based online counselling.

Activity 18: Online counselling chat protocol

Timing: Allow approximately 60 minutes

You can explore the synchronous one-to-one online chat session in different ways:

  • You can follow the chat between the client and the counsellor ‘as live’ in close to real time.
  • Alternatively, you may prefer to read the chat at your own speed. If you click on the ‘Next’ button, the next statement appears. You can also speed up the display of the chat by changing the speed setting from ‘×1’ to ‘×8’. You can also pause or restart the chat by pressing the appropriate buttons – this allows you to reflect on how you would respond to the client before you see the therapist’s response.
  • Click on ‘Print’ to read (or print out) the whole session transcript.
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Use the space below to answer the following questions:

  • What is the arrangement in case there is a disconnection during the session?
  • Do the client or therapist use specific techniques to express themselves, such as capital letters to symbolise shouting, or emoticons?
  • Are there any links between the times it takes the client to respond and the content of the response?
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One advantage of text-based online counselling you might have noticed during this activity is that there is a written record of the session. This allows both the client and the counsellor to go back and review the interaction to see what they have learned from the session, and what they might want to address in the next session.

  • If they are disconnected there’s an agreement to log in again, and to reschedule if no connection can be made after 10 or 15 minutes.
  • In a few places the client uses upper-case words to stress emotional content.
  • There can be many reasons for long response times, but it is useful to check if they are related to the counselling process. So for example, the long time for the response at 15:58:22 might be linked to the client’s rejection of the therapist’s interpretation – something that clients might find easier to do online.

Pause for reflection

Do you think that the counselling approach(es) you are working with is/are suited to text-based online counselling?


In practice, a variety of therapeutic orientations and integrative approaches can be adopted for working with text-based online counselling. Core conditions for building a strong therapeutic relationship online – for example, congruence, empathy or positive regard – can be expressed with the written word. CBT techniques such as thought diaries or homework sheets are suitable for online counselling.

Practitioners and clients can work with compensatory techniques, such as typing ‘PFT’ (which stands for ‘Pause for thought’) to indicate the need for the silence in the room (which has not been caused by a technological breakdown).

The next section will introduce services that are located at the ‘high-tech’ end of the continuum of technology-based counselling services – standalone mental health apps and computer programs with no human interaction.

You should now move on to Topic 7: Mental health apps and computer programs .