Steps to effectively engage and communicate with women when providing online counseling include:
- Assessing readiness and safety of women and girls for use of online counseling.
- Implement assessments to ensure that online services are appropriate for the woman seeking assistance prior to engaging in counseling.
- Prior to each online counseling session and every time they log on, complete an online safety assessment with the woman to clarify her immediate circumstances and assist her to determine if it is safe to proceed with the session.
- Sending a welcoming and friendly greeting when first connecting with the woman, which is quickly followed by introducing the purpose and subject area intended for the session, along with information related to the confidentiality, safety and capacity issues related to this method of communication.
- Managing the pace of the session.
- If time is needed to formulate thoughts, send a partial message, indicating "more to come" to let the woman know to wait for another message.
- Ensure that each person has a chance to communicate in order and avoid interrupting a woman if she is in the process of sending a mesage. Once a message has been sent, wait for the woman to respond before sending another message or question. If she does not respond within the expected time, send a message to determine whether she is still engaged in the session.
- Encourage the woman to take time to consider each comment or question. Ask for input from her regarding whether the pace of the session is too fast or too slow, and adjust the pace according to her input.
- Employing specific communication strategies and drawing upon face-to-face counseling techniques throughout the session.
- Let the woman know that she is being listened to carefully by demonstrating empathy and support (e.g. express words of support that send a warm and caring message; describe images which suggest warmth and caring; and invite the woman to share a story to make sense of events or patterns in her experience, understand the effects of her experience, and the relationships, culture and other factors that influence her).
- Avoid problematic online communication issues, such as:
- Sarcasm, as it is easily misinterpreted Offering too many option or suggestions, as this can get overwhelming and confusing
- Casual conversations, as this can distract from the main purpose of the conversation and can also make it hard to maintain emotional distance between the counselor and survivor.
- "Net language" (i.e. using acronyms and shortcuts such as “FYI”, instead of spelling out “for your information”).
- Exclamation marks, which can be easily misinterpreted as condescending or disrespectful
- Use emotional bracketing, which is intended to compensate for the lack of nonverbal communication inherent in online counseling. This technique involves putting descriptions of emotions in brackets following the relevant statement. This provides more information to the other person about the emotional experience and encourages emotional awareness. For example, "I saw my daughter yesterday (I was so sad). I haven't seen her for two weeks"
- Provide descriptions of emotional responses that might have been seen if the woman and counsellor were face to face. It can be used in the introduction to or closing of a session. For example, "If you were here with me, you would have seen me fall back against my chair with a big smile and congratulating you on what you have accomplished" (Mitchell and Murphy, 1998 as cited in Shelternet, 2009).
- Maintaining the focus of the session, while addressing all issues identified by the woman. Focus the communication by asking direct questions regarding one issue at a time. Ask direct questions and respond using clear and focused statements.
- Transitioning from one subject area to another, by providing a clear statement to warn the woman when changing the topic. For example, "Okay, now let's talk about...".
- Moving gradually toward closing each session, indicating the process in advance and offering alternative options for support (e.g. telephone counseling, face-to-face services) if the process is difficult for the woman. The closing should also involve developing a clear plan regarding any actions to be completed by the woman, including scheduling of another appointment if needed, reminding the woman of alternative methods of contact in the interim.
Handbook for implementing online counselling: Setting up a child helpline via the internet (Child Helpline, 2008). Available in English.