I have spent the last week on an intensive course in Counselling Skills. As always with these types of courses there is a significant emphasis on reflection. As I always do what I am told to do (well maybe not quite) I got on with that reflecting and one of the connections that I started to make was between the skills needed for counselling and the skills so often lacking online.
For me some of the skills/requirements from Counselling that it would be good to see more of online include:
- Confidentiality. One of the most basic requirements in Counselling and wow, what a difference it could make to discussions on social media if people took this seriously. It still stuns me when I see how willing, even eager, people are to name names (or make little or no attempt to hide identities) while making accusations within Church groups on Social Media. Sadly all to often these are complaints against people who demonstrate that they respect confidentiality which leaves them attacked and with no opportunity to defend themselves.
- Empathy. A critical skill within counselling is to be able to show the client that you recognise and respect their feelings. There are a variety of ways of showing the client not just that you care but that you recognise & respect how they feel. While it is easy to recognise that it is hard to pick-up on feelings from emails, texts, messages, status updates etc there is much less recognition of the need to try and to be tentative and sensitive especially when the feelings are not explicit. So again within a wide variety of digital interaction there always seem to be some Christians who ride roughshod over the feelings of others, too often they demonstrate arrogance, intolerance and aggression both in the arguments they initiate and the things they respond to. Again it saddens me how often we see a disregard for the feelings of others displayed in online “Christian” discussion groups of all forms.
- Strength. Offering someone Counselling is tough, you need to be able to cope with a lot of emotions flying around. You need to be able to stay calm, considered, reflective and available when others are struggling or overwhelmed. The failure of Christians to demonstrate confidentiality and empathy is equally matched by the weakness of other Christians in their response. So many times you read people saying something like: “I have been a Christian for ages and have been lurking here for a while but because someone has been rude in this discussion I am leaving and not coming back and you should all learn to be Christians”. In “Christian areas” of Social Media the combination of a bunch of people who struggle to respect confidentiality and who show little or no empathy with those who are so hurt by any form of robust discussion is painful and all to often leads to acrimonious accusations and departures.
My plea therefore is to ask that when writing anything online you consider the following:
- are you being responsible (or aim to go further towards modelling best practice) in respecting confidentiality? Do you avoid attacking people who have no possibility of replying?
- do you consider the feelings of others as you write? Do you check that you have correctly understood the feelings/intentions of others before you respond?
- are you able to put on a thick skin to avoid taking offence at what others say about you or things that are important to you?
Of course one upside of this is that should we all manage to apply these few skills to our own digital world it is likely to be a lot better place for us as well as for others.
Finally, a last key feature of counselling is that it is not about giving advice but about supporting/enabling others to decide for themselves. It is about a process of exploration rather than the presentation of an expert. So if you don’t mind please assume that this post is advice to me that I should be taking, then in proper counselling style we can instead consider how you feel about this.