There’s something about spring – the beginnings of growth visible in nature, the lighter mornings and evenings – that makes me hopeful and excited for new things on their way. Sometimes things must move in order to make space for the new. The soil has to be prepared and, maybe, shrubs repositioned to allow others the opportunity to flourish.
This metaphor seems especially pertinent to me at present, as the BACP Private Practice Executive is currently recruiting new volunteer committee members after several retirements. By the time this journal reaches you, we will, hopefully, be welcoming your new representatives to the fold. I have been heartened by the excellent response to our advertisements and the high calibre of applicants. I’m also conscious that this is my penultimate ‘From the Chair’ column, as my term in post comes to an end this summer. I will be staying on as Past Chair to assist my successor, but I’m beginning to look forward to having a little extra time available to focus on some new developments.
One of those is my increasing interest in working online. Like many private practitioners, I’ve offered occasional telephone and Skype sessions to clients and supervisees for some years, usually to overcome an access issue related to inclement weather or a temporary relocation, but the majority of my work has been face to face. More recently, several of the CYP services that contract me for supervision and consultancy have begun to look towards offering online counselling for their clients, including instant messaging and email exchange therapy. Clearly, there are distinct differences between working in these media and working face to face, and it became apparent to me that it would be essential to undertake training if I were going to supervise practitioners of online therapy.
Indeed, BACP is very clear in the Ethical Framework that we have a commitment to ensuring we are working within our competence, and that our skills and knowledge are up to date. Additionally, the Good Practice in Action Supplementary Guidance for Working Online states that if we change the method of communication with our clients, we should ‘have taken adequate steps to be competent in the new ways of working before offering services to clients’.1
The Association for Counselling and Therapy Online (acto-uk.org) has its own code of conduct and ethics and you can’t become a member without having a recognised qualification in the field. The training I’m currently undertaking is at diploma level, integrating counselling and supervision with therapeutic technology. Many of my personal relationships are conducted online, as several members of my family live overseas. This has certainly eased my understanding of some aspects of working therapeutically with digital communications, highlighted the benefits, and given me some foresight of the frustrations. It’s inevitable that my internet connection drops whenever I’m having the most important of conversations with someone special, not when I’m discussing the weather – which is, incidentally, always better somewhere else, it seems. Put that dynamic into a sensitive exchange with a client via video platform or instant messaging and you can start to see why it’s important to have training to know how to, among many other things, prepare for such eventualities and manage both parties’ feelings about these communication breakdowns.
At times, it’s been like living in a different culture. My range of emoji vocabulary and my typing speed have both increased markedly. I’m conscious of reflecting regularly on whether something I encounter in either my face-to-face or online work is different or the same in the other setting, reminiscent of when I lived briefly in New York; the language and culture were familiar, yet different.
It’s been very time consuming, and it would certainly have been preferable for me to begin once I had more time available, but the opportunity arose when it did. And I guess that’s one of the challenges of working in private practice; flowing with the peaks and troughs, knowing when to pick up an opportunity for new work or training, or when to let it go and hope it will come around again when we have more space.
As I near the end of my course, I’m reflecting on how much I didn’t realise I didn’t know about this field before I started. I’m excited to see my online practice building, which will bring with it greater flexibility for me in terms of my location while working. And it’s encouraging to realise that even a relative technophobe like me can get to grips with all the necessary technology to be able to work competently. This is in no small part thanks to my colleagues and tutors on the course, for teaching me so much and to whom I owe my sanity for helping me through those moments when I thought, ‘What do I do now?’ My thanks to Leah, Chrissy, Teri, Ged, Roz, Suzie, Jan and Olivia.
If you’re thinking of branching out into online work, there are some excellent training courses available in the UK and I can highly recommend signing up for one before you get started. It will prepare you for the road ahead, and if you’re as lucky as me, you’ll meet some great colleagues along the way too.
Susan Utting-Simon is a counsellor/psychotherapist, supervisor and trainer with individuals and groups in private practice in Leeds.
1. Bond T. Good practice in action 047: EFfCP supplementary guidance: working online. Lutterworth: BACP; 2015.