Therapists often complain of clients misusing modern communication technology such as texting and email. The client may send overly sensitive information. They may expect instant responses. They may even text their therapist despite the therapist’s explicit statement that they don’t do texting.
To use a nerdy metaphor: communication is a multiplayer game. We notice that these situations often arise when the therapist has not created an intentional plan for how to use digital communications with their clients and discussed that plan with each client at intake.
It doesn’t seem to require a long conversation to create effective change in how therapist and client connect between sessions. Simply asking the client how they prefer to communicate, and clearly explaining the methods used in the therapist’s practice, seems to create much better understanding from the beginning.
For this reason, we recommend drafting a Communications Policy and giving it to clients. A Communications Policy would cover the best ways to make contact with the therapist, provide contact information such as phone numbers and email addresses, and provide other useful information such as what we recommend below.
A Communications Policy may overlap with what many refer to as a Social Media Policy. Social Media Policies, however, generally have as their primary focus the support of clean and effective therapeutic boundaries. A Communications Policy, on the other hand, is generally focused on supporting effective and private communication between therapist and client. Despite these differences, they can certainly be combined into one document if you wish.
Below are our recommendations for what elements to include in your Communications Policy.
Recommended Elements of a Communications Policy
1) The best methods of contact to use with you.
Explicitly state in the policy what methods you use to communicate with clients. If you don’t use texting, say so. (Although, we do recommend having some kind of way to do texting. Clients sometimes rebel when it is not available.) If a phone call is the best way to actually get a response from you, say so.
Include the contact information for these methods. E.g. include phone numbers, email addresses, usernames, etc.
If your preferred contact method requires that the client get new software (such as for a secure texting or messaging app), describe where to get it and how to set it up.
2) How to make contact for certain needs or in certain circumstances
We recommend you describe the best method of contact for each of these client needs:
- Small administrative matters, such as schedule changes.
- Check-in, asking about homework or resources, or journaling communications that are part of clinical work.
- Crises and emergencies.
3) Your official turnaround time for responding to messages
In the modern world, many people expect near-instant responses to text messages or other methods of contact.
For therapists, this expectation is usually bad for their personal boundaries and could be bad for client care, as well. For clients who don’t know that, however, slow responses can feel like a lack of caring. Or they may worry or panic when a response takes a long time to come.
For this reason, we recommend giving an official turnaround time for messages. We also recommend that you leave yourself plenty of time to respond. E.g. a typical official turnaround time is to respond within 24 hours, except on weekends, holidays, and during vacations.
We also recommend stating that you may sometimes respond to messages quickly because you happen to be available, but that clients shouldn’t assume that will happen every time.