Hey Therapists! What the Hell Are You Doing off Screen?

Jeff Guenther on Aug 18, 2020

Now that we’re talking with most of our clients via Zoom or some other video platform, there are new modern issues that can affect sessions. And over these past few months of our “new normal”, I’ve heard way too many stories of therapists managing what happens off screen in the worst ways possible. So please, let me give you some tips.

But first, allow me to rant a bit.

Talking to clients online sucks. We miss out on so many things that are happening in the room. We can’t pick up on all their body language, we can’t feel what their energy is like, the audio and video goes in and out, and sessions seem to draaaaaaaag onnnnnn foreverrrrrrr. Why does time slow down so much in a virtual session? Why am I completely exhausted after a day of seeing clients instead of feeling energized like I used to when I saw them in person? I cannot wait to go back into my office. Surprisingly, and annoyingly, some of my clients prefer online counseling. Unfortunately for them there is no way I’ll be offering this when we can see people in person again. Sorry!

To make matters worse, since the client can only see me from the shoulders up, they too are missing out on what’s happening off screen, and it turns out they can be really bothered or put off by what they suspect might be happening off camera. I mean, they’re supposed to be the star of the show, so if they think I’m being distracted, they could be let down or upset. And since I’m obsessed with talking to people about their counseling experiences I’ve heard some pretty funny and slightly alarming things that clients go through when they think something is amiss off screen.

Here are five tips to make sure you don’t have an offscreen therapy disaster.

Tell them at the start if you’re fidgeting with something

This first one is something a client of mine eventually brought up after months of talking to me online, and it wasn’t something I ever thought about acknowledging. When I see clients in person, I always have a pen in my hand. I like to hold it. It’s a security blanket of sorts. I don’t know why I need it but I neeeeeeeed it. I’m not the same therapist without it.

But since moving online I have abandoned the pen and opted for a fidget spinner, which is a little plastic toy that I can twirl around in my hand that rests offscreen. I’ve been twirling my fidget spinner so much lately that it’s starting to fall apart. Sometimes the parts all come loose and fall into my lap while talking to a client, and then I sorta mindlessly and carefully put the spinner back together while keeping digital eye contact with the client. I thought I was being slick. Apparently I was not. While diligently and stealthily putting the fidget spinner back together during a session my client abruptly asked, “What are you playing with?!” Surprised, I held up my fidget spinner that had fallen into pieces so they could see what was distracting me. They went on to explain how they were annoyed every time this happened because they didn’t feel important anymore. Clients, am I right!? It’s always about them!

But seriously, it should always be about them and I shouldn’t be playing with a broken toy in the first place. Or, at the very least, I should tell them what I’m fidgeting with and communicate that I’m only doing it because it helps me concentrate on them.

Show them the notepad you use when taking notes

Did you know that writing notes during a session can make clients feel really good about all the attention and thought you’re giving them in session? I’m sure you did. Conversely, did you also know that writing notes off screen doesn’t always come across as writing notes? Oftentimes, it can look like you’re playing with your phone or filling out a Sudoku puzzle. If you have a client who has a fear of not feeling important, then they’ll gladly project all their insecurities onto your diligent offscreen note taking abilities. So, before you jot down some important details about your session, hold up your notepad and let them know you’ll be using it to write down things that come up in the session.

If something weird happens, acknowledge it

Since many of us are providing therapy from inside our homes, there are all sorts of things that can happen mid-sesh. Especially if you have kids. Kids can be loud, obnoxious, or just annoyingly bothersome when you’re trying to be a therapist in the other room. If a kid or a pet or a partner causes a ruckus in the background, acknowledge what’s going on! If you ignore the interruption your client could become really suspicious.

It’s also odd and not very human-like for something weird to happen and for us not to acknowledge it. Why are we so weird about this?! Who told us we needed to be robots when something unexpected happens? Therapists are so strange! So do everyone a favor and stop the session for just a moment to explain when something goes awry. Don’t let the client silently spin their wheels about the strange happenings off camera.

Give them a tour of your home office

Instead of just plopping yourself down in front of the computer and only allowing your client to see what’s directly behind you, pick up the computer and show them around a bit! Show them where the door is and emphasize how it’s closed. For all they know it’s wide open and everyone in your kitchen can hear what they say. Show them the windows in your office and emphasize how any old stranger, or housemate, can’t just walk by and peek through to see who you’re talking about. Ask them if they have any questions about the space you’re in so that they can feel safe divulging all the personal info they give you. Maybe even let them know if there is anyone in your house and whether or not they can hear what you’re talking about.

Never play with your phone or respond to a message during a session

Never ever think you’re slick enough to answer a text message or email while talking to a client. You’re not slick enough, I promise you. Even if you look at another window on your computer, the client will notice. If you start reading an email and your client sees your eyes darting back and forth while you read the message, they’ll notice. Our clients are crazy perceptive! And they’ll feel sad and disillusioned if you decide to divert your attention from them. You’d never do this in person. Why would you do this online? Well, maybe because you forgot to turn off your notifications and something pops up on your screen. If that happens, acknowledge it and let them know you’ll be turning off your notifications. If it’s urgent, let them know that you need to pause for a moment. They’ll probably understand

So now you know

Okay therapists, now you know how to be more human while talking to clients online. Let’s all do our best to not be such weirdos and we’ll hopefully get through this bonkers time in history with our caseloads intact.

While you’re here…

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Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.

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