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Coaching: Time to talk or time to text?

Coaching can be helpful for those who want to manage their well-being and positive mental health, but does it always have to be carried out face-to-face? Not necessarily, says Smriti Joshi, Head of Coaching for Wysa, a new mental well-being app available from Aetna International.

It’s said that silence is one of the great arts of conversation. When it comes to any kind of talking therapy, there’s clearly an element of truth to this. The skill of a good practitioner lies in the ability to listen attentively, accurately, and actively, creating the kind of safe environment that allows the client ample space to reflect on their own situation. Occasionally, this also means asking searching questions that help to facilitate whatever outcome is most suited to their individual needs.

Of course, most people imagine that this happens in a room, sitting on a couch with the physical presence of another person. However, coaching has been delivered remotely, via telephone or online platforms such as skype, for quite some time. And now a new mode of delivery — texting (also known as chat) — is becoming more common, making support far more accessible for those who might not be ready to open up to a stranger in person.

But can you get the same benefits from this form of coaching as you would from a face-to-face appointment?

A new method

As a practicing psychologist for more than 20 years (who has worked in a diverse range of settings, including NGOs, hospitals, and schools), I’ve long been interested in how to best connect with clients. The benefits of coaching are so well-documented — from building personal awareness to managing emotions to gaining support for specific skills — that removing barriers to access is an important consideration as we look to the future.

While telemedicine and virtual primary care appointments were initially met with a level of suspicion from the public, they have been slowly gaining momentum in recent years. Virtual care has been catapulted further into the mainstream consciousness by COVID-19, with feedback about the ‘light-touch’ mode of delivery being consistently strong from consumers. Back in 2014, I began to wonder whether the same could be true for coaching via text.

What my colleagues and I have discovered is that when people first start coaching via text, they are open but very curious about how it will all work. Unfortunately, there remains a lot of confusion around coaching in general. Boundaries between therapy, counselling and coaching are often misunderstood, so it’s not always immediately obvious to people what to expect. Empathetic listening and a non- judgmental stance form the basis for both therapy and coaching. But whereas therapy is often treatment focused, coaching helps with self-assessing barriers to personal or professional goals and building problem solving skills to work through those barriers. It also enables people to build positive coping skills to improve their emotional well-being.

Then there is the texting element itself, which adds another layer of curiosity. Most people are comfortable communicating via text with friends and family, but coaching in this way is likely to be a new experience. However, there are those who find it easier to open up via text. The physical presence of a coach can be overwhelming for some, who then feel restricted in what they say in case they are judged. Conversely, as a format, text provides anonymous support at a time and pace that suits individuals, and can seem less intimidating, especially for those who find it hard to talk about personal or professional concerns.

Given that 97% of under 29 year olds send texts via their phones, texting also makes support much more accessible to younger Millennial/Gen Z audiences, who might not otherwise be confident in engaging in more traditional channels. In fact, the same research shows that, if needed, over 70% of young people would prefer online help over traditional face-to-face support, feeling it alleviates the perceived stigma of seeking help.

Shifting significance

Since COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown, we’ve noticed a significant change in the topics people are seeking coaching for. Previously, it was about personal growth and everyday stressors, whereas now it’s largely around issues that have been exacerbated by the virus. These include health anxieties, work-life balance, conflicts at home with partners, parents and/or children, job insecurity, the furlough process, people expecting you to be always available … the list goes on.

During such a turbulent time, it helps that potential clients don’t come to us ‘cold’. Instead, they’ve been directed via the AI technology in our app. Our conversational well-being chatbot will already have provided an atmosphere conducive to gentle self-reflection and then signposted appropriate self-help resources according to the client’s need. If someone is feeling anxious, for example, various exercises and coping techniques are suggested as the first line of defence. If these don’t go far enough, coaching is the next suggestion. And if it’s a mental health diagnosis and medical treatment is required, our coaches are trained to provide a pathway to the next steps necessary to get that.

What we’ve found is that the text-based element creates a space to have these first conversations. The opportunity for anonymity within the service, including the ability to have private conversations without the risk of being overheard, is extremely valuable. On top of this, it’s a very efficient way to bridge a spectrum of need. People may be unsure whether they actually need more intensive help, or they may feel reluctant to reach out directly to a coach for fear of stigma. This platform creates a non-judgmental space to air those first difficult conversations.

Pros and Cons

As you might imagine, there are drawbacks to coaching someone over text. It takes extra effort from the coach’s side. Formal industry recognised training is not available in text-based coaching, so it’s important a practitioner is experienced in other modalities before they start. This ensures they have a good intuitive sense of expressions and terms. Non-verbal cues can also be powerful indications when it comes to someone’s emotions. However, coaches aren’t able to pick up on these via text or use body language as a source of relationship-building or communication. This has led to developing our own set of guidelines, focusing on making special efforts to ensure a good rapport by asking clarifying questions and rephrasing what the client is saying just to ensure we are both on the same page. And we currently only operate in English — if this isn’t a client’s mother tongue, there is a risk of miscommunication. The client may try to say something, that the coach misinterprets.

On the plus side, however, texting actually helps when English is a second language, since it gives some time to frame things well – conversing in person can be tricky around sensitive personal matters for fear of being misunderstood. By text, clients can take their time in communicating without worrying about their accent or dialect. And, just as with a face-to-face session, we really encourage people to say if they are feeling unheard or misunderstood. Clarity and honesty are the cornerstone of any good coaching alliance, so feedback is essential.

While it potentially takes more effort to put together your thoughts and type them out than it would do to speak them, the very process of doing so offers therapeutic benefits of its own. By writing things down, clients start to create some distance between themselves and their feelings, which helps enormously in organising one’s thoughts. It’s for this reason that journaling can help people gain perspective, improve moods, recognise potential triggers, and learn how to control them better. It’s also an opportunity to shift to more positive self-talk. The client might write ‘I’m feeling low, I’ve had a bad day’ but they can see for themselves how the day has unfolded and come to understand that, more likely, it was a day with highs AND lows.

So, the power and the beauty of texting is that it enables less self-conscious sharing, while naturally promoting self-soothing therapeutic skills such as perspective and self-reflection. It enables private conversations when private space may be at a premium. It’s a chance to be heard, to vent and to be guided to the next stage in your own personal well-being evolution. In other words, it’s a talking therapy in which the audio silence of both client and practitioner can be extremely advantageous.

Access to Mental Well Being app, Wysa, extended for 2021

Wysa has played an instrumental role in supporting people’s mental health since the beginning of the pandemic. Employees and members will continue to benefit from over 15 digital tools available on the Wysa app, plus access to the artificial intelligence (AI) chat bot service and online coaching support.

Look out for exciting new developments in 2021, including more mental health support for adolescents and new features on sleep, stress tests and voice recognition services. Follow Wysa on LinkedIn to keep up to date with the latest developments and content changes.

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