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Virtual Counselling at Abrigo: Creating a Safe Space

Exploring new techniques

By Martina Esteves | Published 02/09/2020


Counselling entails creating a safe space for individuals to introspectively reflect, acknowledge, and process emotions and experiences. The creation of the safe space is often through verbal and non-verbal communication, which in turn, allows rapport to build in the therapist-client relationship.

Abrigo is fortunate to be able to provide a physical environment that allows individuals to leave their day-to-day busyness to enter into a new room whereby the safe space can be housed. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the building of that safe space more challenging. At first, it was instinctual to feel like adapting to a virtual world and not having the physical room was going to be challenging. I quickly realized that the new reality was upon us and there was an importance in exploring new techniques to create a secure place for individuals to access therapy by means of telephone and video calling.

Telephone counselling

It became immediately apparent that telephone counselling required tuning more into the words and tone individuals used rather than capturing the non-verbal communication. For visual learners and communicators like myself, this required me to visualize individuals in their described world.

There was a need to adapt my therapeutic approach to build trust with new clients by being extra mindful of giving verbal validation that I was actively listening and consciously communicating warmth through my tone of voice.

Another challenging aspect of phone counselling is silence and when people become seemingly tearful. Sitting with silence when it is intuitively felt to be needed in a session is one skill, whereby tuning into an individuals’ voice and tone to feel that need is another. The conscious effort to listen for signs of a client being tearful, like sniffling, or check in with the client to allow space for individuals to express themselves through crying is crucial to building the virtual safe space. Additionally, ending sessions by inquiring what the individual took from the session became helpful to capture the individual’s response to the session and emotionally understand where they are.

Video counselling

As video counselling became available, it allowed for additional techniques for in-person counselling to be reintroduced. Furthermore, I quickly realized the increased amount of accessibility some individuals have to do video calling, which allowed clients who typically may not be able to commute or find childcare to access therapy.

I also noticed that when not having a physical therapy space, some individuals have created a space within their home. This has encouraged clients to develop and practice new strategies.

Access services in a safe environment

On the contrary, for individuals experiencing domestic violence, video chatting is a barrier because access to the Internet in a place they feel comfortable sharing may be limited. Being creative about how the client can access services in a safe environment then became crucial.

While video chatting requires Internet use, which may not always be available, providing telephone counselling while the client goes for a walk became an option. Regular check-ins to see if a person is in a space where they feel comfortable chatting has become the new normal.

Overall, virtual counselling has been able to provide opportunity for some to access therapy, where they otherwise may not have. It has also encouraged people to find spaces (i.e., walking or going to a local park) where they feel most comfortable for counselling sessions but also as space they use for self-care.

The transition to virtual counselling has allowed me to develop new therapeutic skills and serves as a reminder to consistently reflect on effective therapeutic approaches. Ultimately, COVID-19 has allowed for counselling services to expand to a greater audience and encourage creativity in how safe spaces are created.



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Martina Esteves

Martina is a counsellor at the Abrigo Centre. Martina has experience in the mental health field in public and private hospitals in Canada and Australia. She is passionate about supporting the community and promoting individual well-being.

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