The mail counselling at our digital counselling platform Cyberhus is constantly developing. Primarily as a constructive and useful tool for young people who do not feel ready or confident about using our online chat counselling, or need the peace and quiet back home to express a question or describe personal experiences. Also this year we anticipate the number of questions to increase with approximately 20%, which means that by the end of year 2012 we will reach almost 2500 questions.

Our mail counselling has evolved as a method and professionalism among our pedagogical coordinators at Cyberhus. Our handbook, which is the backbone of the training of new counsellors at our mail counselling team, is being fine-tuned and in the new version you will among other things find a new visualisation of how we build up our answers in general – and I would like to focus on that in this blog post.

The structure is the backbone of a good answer

Our 5-stage model is a dynamic model in which every part can be prioritised and be given different importance according to the child’s needs. However, a clear and distinct structure in the counsellor’s answer has two very important functions. First of all, it gives the youth the impression that the person answering is a distinct adult, who knows how to handle the situation. This is something the young person can relate to and might also need. Second of all, it makes sure that you as a counsellor do not repeat yourself, ramble on or become unclear by not following a specific order. The development of the 5 stages means that we now have a good tool to ensure a constructive encounter with the youth.

This has also given us; a framework for training/mentoring the counsellors, a common starting point and a common understanding.

The 5 stages are:

1. Introduction
As with every other encounter between two people it is important to welcome each other and make the other person feel wanted. In our introduction the idea is to create safe surroundings. The surroundings are meant to motivate the youth and make them open to reflections, replies and possible actions that will be presented to them later on in the answer. This is among other things done by:

 – welcoming the youth/ asking them to come in/ shaking hands with them – by using written language.
– acknowledging the child’s feelings and thoughts: “I understand why it must be very hard for you to handle all these thoughts by yourself”. 
– focusing on the youth’s resources: “It was so strong of you that you tried to talk to your teacher about it yesterday…”
– creating a personal relation: “I think that you describe your thoughts and wishes very well and I want to help you as much as I can”. 
– focusing on the reply and how to handle it: “At first, I would like to answer your question in the best way that I can and then I have some ideas that you might find useful…”

2. Answer main questions

A question asked by a child might be wrapped up in a long story which often contains extremely worrying details. Especially, among new counsellors we experience that they focus on these worrying details early in the answer and give well-meaning advice and guidance. The adult wants to tell so many things that feelings might shade the constructive answer. What happens is that the youth’s main questions are downgraded, whereas the aspects, that we as adults believe are important, come first. That does not turn out well.

Instead, it is important that we answer the child’s main questions right after the introduction, unless it is judged that something else is more constructive. This is respectful and contributes to the creation of motivated settings for possible reflections later on.

3. Personal reflections and perspectives

Here the intention is that the adult is very clear and encourages the child to reflect on what he/she has written. At this stage the counsellor might also want to write down matters that are not directly linked to the question asked. When using online chat counselling we use an inquiring and curious conversational form in order to invite the youth to reflect on the matter, whereas when dealing with mail counselling we use a different form. With a starting point in what is written by the child our job is to differentiate and illustrate. As counsellors we often have to express our own words and experiences clearer than when using online chat counselling, to ensure these nuances.

In this part of the answer we are walking a tightrope and it is important to be at the child’s eye level and meet the child when it is in the realisation phase. Simultaneously, it is necessary to stand out as being a distinct adult who wants to help and make changes.

4. Action proposals

The closing of our answer gets nearer. Often it is necessary to present further action proposals than those we might have touch upon when answering the child’s main questions. It is important to acknowledge that the child is the expert in its own life and therefore we might suggest different action alternatives that the youth can choose from.

The action proposals must conform to the child’s level of realisation and it should often be described why the different proposals could be used. For example that it would be a good idea if the child practised putting the difficult things into words. This could happen if the child uses online chat counselling when contacting us again and then one day it might feel safe enough to talk to an adult offline.

Another aspect which is very important is that we complement our action proposals with a “how”. “I think you should tell your mother about it”… but how? It might be an idea to write it down at first, talk about it when the child is alone with its mother or perhaps the big sister should mention a couple of words at dinner about it. It all depends on the child’s resources.

5. Closing

The primary task of the closing is to end the answer in a motivating way and to make sure that the youth had a good experience, gets the last pat on the back and believes in the possibility of change.

 

It is both exciting and challenging to work with the structure and the building of an answer. In my work with the individual counsellor this 5-stage model has proved to be invaluable and it is an interesting exchange of opinions which is sent back and forth before an answer is complete and gets published. But it is all worth it.

 

Written by Erroll Marshall

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