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Experienced counsellors on new digital ground

How do you read someone’s emotions without being able to see, nor hear, the person you interact with, and how do you counsel someone digitally? What should you be particularly attentive to when chatting with an anonymous vulnerable young person, and which challenges and, especially, pitfalls exist? Centre for Digital Youth Care was able to give response to such questions, and more, when they held a chat-training day for twelve municipalities participating in the project of BRUS. Participants got a taste of what it means to be a chat counsellor, and this produced ample of reflection and debate.

By Sonya Spender, communicator, CfDP

It is morning. Outside the wind is blowing, and the trees are shaking, however, at Spanien 19, Centre for Digital Youth Care welcome attendees with coffee and baked rolls. The counsellors are from various municipalities, and they all participate in the project of BRUS, a conversational service for children and young people from families suffering from substance related problems.

See website projektbrus.dk (Danish).

We slowly start the day while the remaining participants slip inside the room, and others finish chewing. Today, employees of project BRUS are introduced to their upcoming digital counselling tool; the chat room. Digital head coordinator of Cyberhus youth counselling, Niels-Christian Bilenberg of CfDP, begins by sharing his own experiences as a chat counsellor, and challenges that may arise along the way; challenges such as the lack of body language and accentuation, misunderstandings, the time it takes to articulate something in writing, avoiding words like “these”, and users suddenly logging off. Today, employees will participate in two workshops, including exploring digital counselling for themselves in a trial chat-session.

It’s a bit like doing a puzzle

You are welcome to each come up with a problem that you would like to inquire about,” Niels-Christian says. Participants must take turns acting as a chat counsellor as well as the user, so they have a better understanding of the two different perspectives. Before this, everyone receives a versatile tour of the digital counsellor’s toolbox:

”You meet a lot of different types of children and young people, some go straight to the point while others may just want to talk a for a bit,” Niels-Christian explains, and continues: “So, you should ask about the young person, be caring and curious, but at the same time, give him or her space. As such, chatting may be slightly compared with a puzzle where you need to collect all the pieces in order to form an image of the user.”

Niels-Christian also emphasises that chatting is not for everyone. Chatting is not the same as a physical conversation, and demands a particular approach and understanding. Using chat is a conscious choice, not for a lack of better.

Here, take the wheel, now you are in control!

The presentation is followed by a short break. Participants get to exchange thoughts before the situation-training starts, and time has come to explore the trial chat. They distribute themselves at the tables, there is chatter in the air while CfDP’s consultants help everyone get started. The counsellors each open their chat room and “young people” start ticking in. The curious faces now look concentrated.

The silence ends abruptly: “Hey, I accidentally wrote “these”!”, a participant exclaims. “Remember, use spoken language, and try to read the young person’s mental age,” says Niels-Christian directed at the assembly. There is laughter at the tables, and the new counsellors express that it is not entirely easy to comply with the instructions given by Niels-Christian.

You also have to be aware of the young person’s use of smileys, block letters – and how about the use of profanity? “May I swear if it comes to me naturally? Something like, Damnm, I sure do understand where you’re coming from,” a participant asks. “This all depends on the user, this is difficult to assess in the beginning. Some young people use a more formal tone with adults, that is, they don’t talk to their friends that way,” explains Niels-Christian. A participant notices that you probably have to be careful not to conclude something too quickly based on what the user is writing, and that it is better to be more inquiring in order not to misunderstand the user.

How about exclamations marks and things like that?,” someone asks the person sitting next to them. “I believe that would be ok,” another participant replies. People are typing and sparring at the tables, and eventually there is more flow in the situation-training.

Ethics and guidelines

After lunch, participants switch roles and a new team of “young people” log on the trial chat. Afterwards, people discuss the workshop. Several people agree that one minute is a surprisingly long time when you are young and have sent a message. “You feel very vulnerable,” someone says. Also, it is frustrating, as a user, being asked about your aim of the conversation. “I didn’t know what I wanted!,” one of the other “users” says. Others believe that the trial chat lacked spoken language since some of the counsellors spoke a bit harsh, and some felt understood and appreciated to an extent that it became too much. All agree that it would be a good idea to, in advance, give the user the opportunity to say yes/no if the counsellor is sidetracking.

The situation-training shows where there is place for improvement, and with that in mind, the day continues with a new workshop. The counsellors discuss ethical dilemmas in small groups, and the subject most prevalent with the participants is the topic of what to do if you “recognise” one of the anonymous young people in the chat room. This results in a lengthy discussion: Should counsellors state their real first name in the chat room so that young people may figure out who they are chatting to, or should counsellors maintain their anonymity and only reveal their identity if the counsellor recognises the user? No final conclusion is made, however, all agree that it is an important issue to be aware of in the upcoming work of project BRUS.

The equally excited and weary participants leave with new knowledge and practical tools which they may use in their chat counselling in the future. They have taken the first important steps toward succeeding with their digital work with young people.

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