Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

Counselling by text – does it work?

NM, listening

A therapeutic counsellor, Julie, contacted me and asked:

“I wonder about your perspective on text based counselling for young people. I have personally benefited a great deal from reading for my own personal therapy and development. Knowing that we are socially engaging animals … I have been pondering the trend in text only digitisedised counselling for young people.
“Whilst I can see the benefits I am concerned that this method has its significant limitations as it is a deeply disembodied process… as is social media.
“So text based counselling does seem to be a trend. It has some evidence of efficacy. But does it cleave an even bigger divide amongst us?  Separation can cause so much harm and doesn’t necessarily build resilience in our young people.”
She also talked about the importance of body language, eye contact, tuning in and the power of “being in each other’s presence”.
Before I answer, there are a few things you need to know about me, as they might well sway what I say. (Spoiler alert: Of course they will sway what I say – all of us develop our opinions and thoughts based on who we are and what we’ve experienced or what we know.)
  • I am a qualified counsellor. I have a certificate in counselling and a diploma in youth counselling.
  • But I do not formally work as a counsellor. My qualifications were gained purely to increase my knowledge and understanding.
  • I am a strong, high-functioning introvert. Being an introvert means that I do not usually do my best work or thinking in the presence of others. Being high-functioning means I’m very capable of being in the presence of others without looking uncomfortable and very capable of taking the best that the presence of others can offer. (Thanks, a lifetime of practice and determination.) And I can stand in front of an audience and give a talk without any sign of discomfort. (Because I’m passionate about the things I talk about and introverted people can be great at talking about their passions.)
  • I write books designed to improve the mindsets, mental health, resilience and emotional skills of young people. The books consist entirely of text! Who knew?!

Therefore, I am likely to feel somewhat positive about potential advantages of receiving counselling via the medium of text. (I don’t literally mean text messages but conversations using the written word.) But I also tend to see things from both perspectives so I think there are advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of text-based counselling

  • Time to choose the right words. For both the counsellor and the client. To explain what we mean sometimes takes time and effort and requires the playing with the words to get exactly the right meaning.
  • Time to listen and process. Face-to-face counselling can suffer because the client has a lot to take in. They may be thinking ahead – or thinking back – while the counsellor is talking and therefore not take it in fully. And afterwards they don’t have the written transcript to remind them of what was actually said, rather than what they believe was said.
  • Opportunity to show a trusted friend/adult what was said, to get their view and their support.
  • Ability to receive counselling without the distress or brain bandwidth burden of eye contact. Of course, the ability to make eye contact is a very important social skill but practising a social skill is not the goal of counselling, usually. (If your counselling is specifically about developing social skills, then at some point in the process you will want to practise them, but the counselling itself, which seeks to help you change something about your thinking/feeling, is not the specific time to practise external skills.
  • Opportunity to provide links for further reading and development.
  • Reading and thinking are inextricably linked. When you read, you think and you can think at your own speed, revisiting, pausing. Reading can also be a meditative process, whereas listening to a human voice talking to you usually isn’t.

Disadvantages of text-based counselling

    • Because of a) the extra time the client has to choose words and b) the absence of eye contact and body language, it might be easier for the client to be less than honest and harder for the counsellor to practise the advanced empathy required for best counselling. So it could, theoretically, take longer for the counsellor to get a deep insight into what is really going on. However, most clients are trying to be honest, most clients will reveal their true thoughts in their language and good counsellors should be able to listen just as accurately and empathetically to the written word as to the heard word.
  • Some clients will need that face-to-face person in the room, for all the reasons that the questioner offers. Humans are social creatures, and that goes for introverts and extroverts. We can all gain something from that personal presence. Sometimes we might not even get the opportunity to discover that if all we are offered is text-based, physically absent counselling.
  • If the client cannot see the counselling, how do they know the counsellor is fully listening? Even in a Zoom call, we all know we can be looking at or reading something else.
  • If the counsellor falls back on pre-written text, there’s a severe risk that the conversation becomes off the shelf, rather than bespoke. This would be a major risk of any AI-based counselling, which I absolutely would not recommend other than for the most surface-level or minor situations, or for a starting point and direction towards person-to-person counselling, whether text-based or face-to-face.
  • This puts books at a disadvantage when it comes to using them as counselling tools… So, please read on for how books – my books!  – CAN be used as good tools. Otherwise why would I spend all my time writing books and blog posts?!

The power of books

You will find yourself

When I write my books for you, I do not know who you are. Except that I do. I know you are human and I know how humans work. I know the myriad similarities and the myriad differences. And I write in order to include all of you. Every one of you. You will find yourselves in my books. You just need to notice where something I say resonates with you. And it will. I do not believe there’s a person out there who would not find a few lightbulb moments, moments of connection, of being heard and seen, of personal truth, in one or more or all of my books.

Even reading about other people, people unlike you, develops your understanding of yourself

“That is how that person thinks but it is not how I think. This is how I think.” If you don’t know how other people think or feel or behave or react, you don’t really understand yourself. And if you don’t understand yourself, you can’t either celebrate or improve yourself.

Some of my absolute favourite comments about my books from teenagers themselves have been along the lines of them understanding more about their friends. What they might not notice quite yet is that this also gave them more understanding of themselves and of people they have never met. They have started to look outside. They have jumped to a new stage of Theory of Mind.

Books give knowledge and knowledge is a big step towards understanding

Understanding (specifically referred to as Accurate Empathic Understanding) is one of the three “core conditions” of person-centred counselling. (The other two are “unconditional positive regard” or acceptance and “congruence”, or genuineness.) Books, when they reveal so much about a topic and how many people in many contexts are affected, increase that empathetic understanding because they give us knowledge and evidence about things that are us and are not us. They help us build a comprehension of the human world in which as much is true as possible.

Books are mind-opening

They can also be mind-closing when they only tell one side of a story. That’s why it’s important to read more than one book on a topic and, if it’s a topic with “sides”, read about both sides. Read writers you trust. Assess their authority.

My non-fiction books cover the following topics:

So, with all those advantages and disadvantages, what’s the answer? Text-based or face-based?

What works for you?

When you’ve read (*cough* … it’s text) all my advantages and disadvantages above, which do you think inform your current situation and needs? Which choices of support will get you the best outcome?

Do both!

Talk to someone AND read stuff that speaks to you.

When you talk to someone, it might be a trusted friend, adult who cares about you or, if you have that opportunity, a professional. Any can help. It depends on you, your situation and the person you talk to. (And you might get it wrong first time. Try another one.)

Exactly the same applies when you read something, whether that’s a book or article written for many people or something written for you by a trusted adult or a professional counsellor.

In short, listen to yourself

The first action in your healing and strength comes from YOU, in the moment when you choose the help you will accept, the words you will read or the person you will talk and listen to. The great thing about all this is that you do not have just one path in front of you, a choice you will make that excludes all the other possible paths. You can have it all.

Yes, you can have it all. The more you read and listen and talk, the better your life will be. Just keep your eyes and ears wide open and listen to how your mind and body respond.

Thank you for your question, Julie.

And thank you to all of you who have asked questions, sent me messages, read my books or contributed your comments to this blog.

I’m getting to the point when I feel I’ve said it all, often in several ways and many times. I’m thinking of a change in direction which would see this blog and all its free advice come to an end. What do you think? Let me know, either privately or below!

But maybe none of you read this far… You’re busy and have better things to do. Or maybe if you did you didn’t hear what I’m really saying. Which would be interesting after a post which is about whether written words are more powerful than spoken words.


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