Distance counseling is the best place to look for tips on building relationships at a distance. As a mental health counseling student and a distance advisor, I was naturally drawn to the literature in this area. In fact, it was what led me to complete the Distance Credentialed Counselor Training offered by ReadyMinds, which educated me on best practices. Although there is a wealth of information out there on this topic, I just wanted to share a few simple tips that I use to build relationships with students at a distance.

1. Emotional Bracketing – Lawrence Murphy and Dan Mitchell of Therapy Online have written about this technique (and the next one) in their research (article here). Emotional bracketing is when you include emotional content in brackets to help enrich your words. This information can be placed in the middle of a message or just after or before it. Here is an example:

Wow! Congratulations on getting an A in your math class [so happy for you]. You should be proud of yourself [feeling very proud myself].”

2. Descriptive Immediacy – Another great technique for building relationships, descriptive immediacy is when you describe observable body language that the student cannot see. This can be placed in brackets or in the sentences themselves. It also helps to write in the simple-present and the present-continuous tenses for the full effect. Here is an example:

As I sit in my chair reading your email, I can sense how exhausted you must feel from balancing so many responsibilities. At the same time, I find myself smiling as I read about how you have found that balance and continue to move toward graduation [thinking to myself he knows what he is doing].

3. Response sequence – Now this is one technique I identified in my experience as a distance advisor and it can be used for email, chat/IM, and phone interactions. Sometimes students bypass standard greetings and jump right into their concerns. For example, a student might send an email like the one below or jump right into a conversation like this on the phone:

This instructor is horrible! No matter what I do, he takes points away. How do I drop this class before I fail?

What do you respond to first? I suggest the following order: presence, emotions, thoughts, and concerns. Presence means being mindful of the fact that a person is on the other end of the technology. Use the student’s name from time to time to emphasize this. Emotional content is also important to acknowledge as it helps people feel understood and validated. Thoughts are important because they influence our decision-making and problem-solving ability. Concerns are the problems students ask us to help them solve. Consider this response, which incorporates all of these aspects in the preferred order.

Hi (student’s name – presence). It sounds like this class has been a frustrating experience for you (emotion). (Student’s name), considering what you told me, I can see why you think you might fail (thought). Let’s explore this concern a bit more so that I understand your situation more fully (concern). Who knows (Student’s name), together we might just find a solution.

This may not be exactly how I respond over the phone because I would prefer to allow the student to vent some frustration first before proceeding to thoughts and then concerns. However, this is a typical example of an email I might send.

There are more techniques but these are my favorites because I use them in my work with online students and they seem to deepen our interactions…even without the face-to-face interaction. At first, this style of communicating seemed a bit foreign to me, but with practice, it has become a natural part of my interactions with students. Unfortunately, I find that many people are not willing to take a look at their own communication and ask themselves what can be changed to enhance the student-advisor relationship. I want to challenge you to try just one technique, just one, and see what kind of results you get.