During the transition to the virtual provision of counseling services at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I noticed a swift change in my supervisees’ concerns – a shift from clinical issues to primarily technical challenges of teletherapy and the virtual provision of services. The novel challenges experienced by my supervisees, as they adjusted to teletherapy, however, have yielded valuable opportunities for reflection and exploration in supervision. Here I discuss three issues that emerged at the onset of the virtual transition.
Feeling Less Connected to Clients
When my supervisees first learned that our clinic would be going virtual, they were open to the teletherapy process, but also, understandably, wondered what “teletherapy” would look like and how it would potentially impact their relationships with clients. While many counselors had the concern of how their relationships would be impacted by the transition to virtual counseling services, this concern was amplified for supervisees who would be having their first sessions (i.e., intakes) with clients virtually. Something that I found useful was to normalize the feeling of “disconnection,” as this is a time when all of us are more challenged than usual in feeling as connected as we would like to be. We also discussed the importance of broaching a sense of connectedness, and the possibility of the counselors disclosing their own lessened sense of connectedness during the counseling session. We discussed the value of using that feeling therapeutically – those feelings do not have to be the elephant in the room.
Losing Control of the Therapeutic Environment
It was also new for me, as supervisor, to help my supervisees navigate issues surrounding a perceived and actual lack of control over the virtual therapeutic environment, specifically the client’s environment. For example, one of my supervisees was frequently hearing a loud noise during sessions that she was not certain how to address. Something that we discussed was how, in traditional face-to-face counseling sessions, the counselor has a considerable amount of “control” over the environment (e.g., we can manipulate parts of the environment such as the layout, angle of chairs, distance between counselor and client, we have the capacity to reduce interruptions and minimize what others can hear during sessions). Although it is important to approach our work with flexibility, I think it is also important to keep in mind that sessions conducted virtually warrant the same considerations – such as minimizing interruptions and starting sessions on time – from both counselor and client – as those conducted in a face-to-face modality. This was not only an example of a normal counseling concern, but it also highlights the challenges faced by counselors, in the time of COVID-19, in confrontation and enforcing boundaries.
Wondering “Can I do this?”
When faced with something we have never done before, questions about our abilities and our skills naturally follow. The transition to virtual counseling services was no different. As expected, doubts and uncertainties were present during the first initial weeks of teletherapy. As supervisor, I found it beneficial to both leave room for those feelings to be processed and also reaffirm and validate the skills that I have watched them use with success and know that they have. As challenging as it is, it is important to realize that our foundations do not just go away when things get harder – it is important to trust our abilities and not forget what we already do successfully.