Strengthening the Online Counseling Relationship: Helpful Tele-Tips By Vicki Enns, MMFT on 5/19/21 - 12:41 PM

The COVID-19 pandemic has had many impacts on our lives, including changes in how we connect with others. For myself and many of my fellow counselors, this has meant shifting to working remotely, whether through online video platforms or over-the-phone support. Since March 2020, my own counseling practice has almost completely shifted to online video conferencing.

Connecting with people using video platforms had already been a small part of my counseling role, but it has now become the main way I provide support. This no longer feels like a stopgap to get through the pandemic; it will likely continue to shape and influence how I think about counseling. This hit home at the end of a session with Jay, when they said, “I’m so glad we’ll be able to continue our regular online sessions when I move out of the city—I can’t imagine having to start over again with someone new.”

There is abundant evidence that one of the central ingredients to any successful counseling experience is the quality of the relationship and connection between counselor and client. This is one of the most robustly studied aspects of in-person counseling, and it also appears central to providing support remotely.

At first, I worried that the shift to online counseling would cause my connection with clients to suffer. I was concerned that it would be too hard to do well, and that the usefulness of counseling for people would lessen as a result. Despite my concerns, I have been pleasantly surprised to find that many of my clients enjoy it, and some even prefer connecting online rather than having to meet at my office.

Jay is a prime example. They described thinking about counseling several times over the last number of years, but always felt too anxious to risk talking to a stranger. In fact, Jay rescheduled our first session twice before we finally connected. In our first session, they were able to sit in their home with their beloved dog on their lap. Jay described this as a key step for allowing them to take the risk of opening up while struggling with the additional stressors of the pandemic.

Many clients with whom I work do express missing the opportunity to meet in person. There has been a lot of grace and acknowledgement that we are all adapting and doing the best we can. However, this comes along with a lingering sense that this way of living is temporary. Although many of my clients say that online counseling is better than not meeting me at all, what if this continues to be how some would prefer to engage with counseling in the future? How can I (and we) ensure that we’re building the strongest counseling relationships possible while working remotely?

3 Areas to Strengthen the Online Counseling Relationship

In my own clinical experience and based upon the research I’ve done, I have landed upon a few tips for providing online counseling. These have contributed to creating a foundation for supportive connection that I want to share with fellow clinicians.

Set the tone and establish boundaries.

The environment I create through my online “meeting space” has greatly supported a feeling of ease, consistency, and safety for both myself and my clients. Ways I have established this online environment include:
  • Considering the lighting and environment. I make sure my face shows up well, without too many shadows. I have pleasant colors and images in my background.
  • Being mindful of privacy, as it is of course paramount for ethical counseling work. Privacy can also ensure freedom from distraction so focus can be maintained on the interaction at hand.
  • Reducing distractions from other devices. I make sure notifications are turned off and displays are out of my sight line. This has helped me provide full attention to my clients, so they feel truly listened to. It has also improved my ability to guide difficult conversations.
  • Pacing the interaction well, to allow space between asking a next question or waiting for the client to respond. Some cues that tell me when a person is about to speak, or they need time to reflect, will be harder to read. Going a little slower than I would in person helps me and my clients to avoid speaking over each other or missing an opportunity for the client to respond.

Create conditions for trust.

At the center of a positive and successful counseling connection is the trust between client and counselor. A key way I have created the conditions needed to build trust is through the quality of my presence and attention. Here are some aspects of communicating with my online clients that have enhanced and conveyed presence to clients:
  • I consider how the client will see me and have paid attention to how much of me is visible in the video’s frame. Seeing all of my face and some of my shoulders has allowed facial and body language to be conveyed through movements, gestures, and expressions. It also ensures that I am comfortable, so that I can be grounded and steady in my presence.
  • I pay attention to how close or far I am from the camera. If I am too far, I may seem detached and unreachable; too close, and I may seem more intense and in their face.
  • I practice giving eye contact. Although it is uncomfortable and sometimes threatening to have too much direct eye contact, without some sense of being able to really see and be seen, there can be less of a connection. I toggle between looking at the image of my client on the screen and directly into the camera, so they have the experience of direct visual acknowledgment.
  • I try using earbuds or headphones. This makes me less likely to strain to hear, and the sound often feels more immediate and intimate.

Practice collaborative communication.

My counseling relationships that have the most benefit include a sense of collaboration between me and my client. This includes ensuring there is a consistent opportunity for the client I am supporting to use their voice and have choice in the course of setting goals. It has been important to feel like I am negotiating together what is focused on and to build on the client’s strengths. Some ways I have done this include:
  • Taking time to check with my client about all the areas mentioned above. For example, I discuss the lighting, my distance from the camera, how well we can hear each other, and the privacy of our environments. These extra steps have helped me to create a joint space for the counseling work.
  • Verbalizing or narrating more often what I am thinking about or how I am sensing how my client might be feeling as we interact. Following this up with curious and open questions to check my observations has not only helped me learn to read and listen to my client in this different medium, but has also assisted the client in becoming more aware of these things. It has made the unspoken more explicit.
  • Regularly asking my client what the experience of online counseling is like for them. What are they noticing? Also checking in to see how they feel before and after sessions helps us both track their experience. These transitions may be very different if they are connecting from their home, office, or car. Creating plans together for helpful ways to prepare for an online session, as well as how to shift gears afterward, can support the overall feeling of a well-contained and supportive counseling relationship.


The use of online or other remote methods for counseling has become more common and is likely here to stay. Applying practical knowledge from known methods of creating an environment, tone, and collaboration that promote a strong counseling relationship has greatly helped me adapt to and use this modality well. Regardless of how I interact with my clients, positive outcomes rest on the development and experience of a solid and positive connection.
Jay and I now regularly include updates on their pup, and together we monitor the health of my office plants in my background. We joke about guessing each other’s height and that we don’t have to worry about wearing matching socks. These unique small steps of our shared virtual “room” and connection have become a protected space and the threads of our relationship. I don’t know if I’ll ever meet Jay in person—however, their impact on my own learning continues to leave a lasting impression. I am hoping that what I have learned about online counseling and the tips I have shared in this essay will be of use to my fellow colleagues.

File under: Therapy & Technology, Online Therapy, COVID-19 Blogs