Clifford Arnold & Thomas Franklin
Originally published 25 June 20
While we are in the midst of a pandemic, teleconferencing technology can be a source of both stability and insecurity in the therapeutic relationship; on the one hand, it confers the near-miraculous ability to remain connected at a safe distance, while on the other hand it upends the basic conditions under which therapy takes place, like simply being in the same room together.
When striving for continuity in the transition from in-person to online therapy, a possible pitfall is to conserve the verbal elements of therapy and ignore the rest. This is counterproductive since the nonverbal aspects of therapy have an arguably greater impact on patients, and without them words can be ineffectual. The set of nonverbal conditions that engender trust, confidence, and security in patients and allow the words of therapy to be effective is called the therapeutic frame. The following tips are meant to help maintain the therapeutic frame during this precarious time, specifically in the transition from the office to the screen.
1. Create some distance: One way to preserve a familiar and comfortable frame is to observe personal space online as one would in the office. It would feel awkward, intrusive, and exhausting to sit four feet away from a patient and stare directly into her face for an hour straight in the office, yet we do that regularly online. Perhaps we are compensating for feeling distant in other ways or perhaps we simply can’t see or hear very well. It’s ok to back up, and some technological modifications can help (see tip #3). The extra space might allow both parties to feel less self-conscious and more at ease, less focused on maintaining a perfect affect and more on the therapy.
2. Body language matters: Here’s another reason to back off the camera a bit: Expanding the field of vision to include not just facial expressions but also upper-body language (for example, hand gestures, posture, distance modulation) has been shown to increase empathy measures, according to David T. Nguyen and John Canny in the article “More Than Face-to-Face: Empathy Effects of Video Framing.” Experiment with this. Sit back, expand the visual frame, move, and gesture as you would in person—find what feels connective and go with it. In addition to camera distance, the angle matters too; if the lens is positioned at a height lower than your eyes it may appear to your patients that you are looking down on them. Stack some books under your monitor to avoid the impression of being overbearing or aloof.
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