The risk of metacommunication to manage interactional trouble in online chat counseling
The main handbook on online counseling used in the Netherlands recommends counselors to use metacommunication, i. e. to state what happens during the interaction, in case of interactional trouble. The aim of this study was to explore this interactional strategy by describing how counselors may use metacommunication to respond to interactional problems in online counseling of the “helpline” type (single chat sessions). Data were derived from a corpus of 197 sessions of the Dutch information chat service on alcohol and drugs and 348 sessions from a Dutch general chat help service. The theoretical and analytical framework of (digital) conversation analysis (CA) was used to analyze the data. The analyses show that metacommunication is used, but only rarely. Clients tend to log out from problematic sessions, often even before the counselor is able to identify interactional trouble at all. This means online counselors operate under the constant risk of clients’ disengagement. Second, we identified and described three metacommunicative practices counselors use to respond to problematic interaction: 1) Self-criticizing; the counselor is regretting (s)he was not able to help due to a lack of useful advice or to the boundaries of the institutional context. This strategy seems to elicit client acknowledgement followed by an aligned closing; 2) Accusing: the counselor is questioning the client’s advice recipiency. This strategy seems to elicit even more client resistance. 3) Explaining: the counselor explains the institutional tasks and responsibilities and/or suggests the client has unrealistic expectations. We conclude that although metacommunication can be useful to restore the relationship with the client when it is apologetic, it can also be counterproductive to deal with problematic interaction when the counselor questions the client’s willingness or ability to accept the advice. For this reason, our analysis warrants the advice to avoid metacommunication as a strategy in single session counseling.