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Email can be a great tool to make counselor-consumer communication easier. However, if it isn’t managed effectively, it can be time consuming and ineffective.

In this section: Structuring an Email Relationship, Improving Email Communication, and Email Confidentiality.

Structuring an Email Relationship

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For some consumers, email might be used for meeting reminders or quick clarifications. For others, email may be more personal and involved, constituting a greater part of the counseling process. Whichever way you and the consumer decide to use email, it is important to describe your expectations up front.

Note: Although this section primarily discusses email communication, much of it can also apply to texting and other forms of telecommunication.

First steps: Explain how email will be used in the counseling process

Discuss the ways email can be used in the counseling process with the consumer.

Outline general guidelines about how often or when the consumer should email, including:

  • Establish counselor response time expectations
    • Share how often you check your email and how quickly the consumer might expect a response from you (3,8,10,11).
      • One way to do this is with an automated return message that says something like, “Thank you for contacting me. Due to the volume of emails I receive, I reserve a specific time during the week to go through them. If you do not hear from me by next Monday, please call or email again.”
  • Establish consumer response time expectations (3,8,11).
    • Discuss why timely communication is important and how delays might affect case progress.

Let the consumer know if you plan to respond to emails once their case is closed.

Ways to make sure your email relationship is secure

In emails, you should:

  • Avoid including any confidential identifying information such as Social Security numbers, birth date, or sensitive health information.
  • Secure permissions from the consumer to communicate with others (such as family members, job coach, psychological evaluator, or teacher) about aspects of the case (8).
    • Obtain signatures for release of information as needed.

Develop Backup Plans

Make sure you have an alternative way to communicate in case there are technology, access, or frustration issues (8).

Take some time to evaluate how the communication method is working. Regularly ask consumers if they have any issues or concerns with using the chosen telecommunication method (3).

Improving Email Communication

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In face-to-face communication, the tone of the message is communicated using a variety of cues including facial expressions, volume, inflection, and pauses.

Without these context cues, email messages can be misinterpreted at one or both ends of the conversation, particularly if the communicators are in different emotional states or the communication covers a sensitive topic.

When communicating online, it is important to make sure your messages are understood as intended.

Overcoming the Loss of Non-Verbal Cues

To overcome the loss of non-verbal cues, incorporate feelings and emotions into your writing. The best way to do this is to make sure you include any applicable feelings or emotions in the text of the email.

For example, “I’m so happy that your job interview went well!” or “I’m sorry you’re having health issues, do let me know if you need any extra assistance or time to complete your resume.”

Here are a few other ideas:

  • Use descriptive immediacy
    • Include some contextual details in your main messages if you are experiencing a major event to help cue the reader into your emotional state (12).
      • “I had a family issue come up and I am a little sad today.”
  • Describe nonverbal reactions within the main message (13)
    • “As I was reading your last message, my shoulders tensed up.”
    • “I have been smiling the last couple of minutes, thinking about how well the job interview went for you.”
  • Use font size, all caps, bolded text, or underlines to highlight important details of the message
    • “I will meet you at the job shadow on Feb 20th at 2:00 pm!”
    • Note: Italics may not be a good way to emphasize text for consumers who use a screen reader, have a vision impairment, or reading disability such as dyslexia.
      • Italics make the letters hard to read because of the jagged lines and slant. Using bold text is better because the letters are clearer and have better contrast.
  • Use emoticons
    • Once an email relationships is established, use emoticons to convey simple emotions.
    • “Wow, what a day you had :) (smiley face).”
    • “I am having reservations about this interview :/ (worried face)”
  • Extend the length of words or use ellipses
    • (three periods in a row “…”) to indicate a pause or delay in thinking or writing.
    • “Ooooooh…I get it now.”
    • “Ok… well, let’s think about how we can solve that problem… do you think you could meet next week?”

Written Communication Strategies

In your emails, keep these basic tips in mind:

Font choice

  • Use fonts that are easy to read
    • Sans serif fonts are best. These fonts do not have little lines, or flourishes, on the individual letters. An example of a font with serifs is Times New Roman.
    • Plain, evenly-spaced sans serif fonts recommended for people with dyslexia include:
      • Arial
      • Comic Sans
      • Verdana
      • Tahoma
      • Century Gothic
      • Trebuchet

Word choice

  • Keep language simple and conversational
    • If the consumer was sitting in your office, how would you talk to them?
      • “Hi Adam, how are you? I hope you had a good weekend. Here is the link to the materials I told you about.”
  • Avoid jargon and unfamiliar acronyms or abbreviations
    • One example is VR, which is both an abbreviation for Vocational Rehabilitation and Virtual Reality. While it should be clear which one you are talking about (since you’re a Vocational Rehabilitation counselor), even this minor confusion could hinder your initial communications with a consumer.
  • Proofread your message
    • Make sure your message is professional and clear. A clear and accurate message shows you value the consumer and took time to do your job well (11).

Writing strategies

  • Use a focused and direct communication style (14)
    • Write short email messages that focus on only one or two specific topics.
  • Make inferences, rather than statements (15)
    • Use qualifying words that give the consumer the opportunity to provide more clarification.
      • “I sense that you were frustrated during the meeting.”
      • Other examples include “it sounds as if…,” “I am hearing…,” “I have the feeling…”
    • Remember, no one likes to be told how they feel (“You’re mad.” “NO I’M NOT!”), and it can be hard to understand the tone of the message without non-verbal cues.
      • See ‘Overcoming the Loss of Non-Verbal Cues’ above.
  • Quote from the email you are responding to
    • When responding to a specific part of a message, it can be clearer if you quote the information before providing a response (12).
      • “In your last message you wrote ‘I am frustrated with my new coworker because he continues to come in and out of my workspace.’  Here are some strategies for approaching this issue.”
    • When quoting, include enough of the passage that the consumer understands you got the whole intent of the passage.
  • Reflect before moving ahead
    • Email and other asynchronous communication allow time to mull over and process what was said (12,15). If an exchange is emotionally charged, delay your response until you are calm and reasoned.
    • Ask questions to make sure of intent before responding (15).
      • “When you said you hated your new job, were you referring to the job tasks, interactions with coworkers, your supervisor, or a combination of many factors? Help me understand the situation better.”
    • Offer tentative interpretations and ask for further clarification (15). Paraphrase what you think the consumer is telling you, and ask if you understood them correctly.
      • “It sounded like you were frustrated when your spouse said you shouldn’t go back to work. Am I understanding this correctly?”
  • Help the consumer engage in the process
    • Keep the subject line to the point and clear, so the consumer knows the purpose of the message.
      • Subject: Resume
    • Provide an update about where you are in the conversation (14).
      • “When you last emailed, you told me that you had made some progress on your resume, but that you were still working on some things. How has that been going?”
    • Another option is to respond to emails in a chain, so that previous emails are attached at the bottom of your new email. Make sure to change the subject line as you discuss different topics.
    • Include assignments or specific tasks between emails to keep case progress moving forward (14).

Email Confidentiality

Security tips

Reducing computer security risks are as simple as establishing a few good habits.

  • Lock your computer
    • Every time you walk away from your computer, lock it by simultaneously pressing the ‘control,’ ‘alt,’ and ‘delete’ buttons, and then choosing the Lock Computer option. Or, simultaneously press the Windows and “L” keys to instantly lock the computer.
    • This will keep a passerby from seeing confidential information.
  • Don’t email the wrong person
    • Sending email to the wrong person may sound unlikely, but it happens. Get used to double and triple checking that you are using the correct email address, especially when sending confidential information.
  • Blind Carbon Copy (BCC)
    • When sending an email to more than one person at a time, get in the habit of using the blind carbon copy (BCC) rather than the carbon copy (CC) address option.
    • When you BCC an email, multiple people receive the same email but individual recipients only see their email address, keeping other identities confidential.
  • Signature lines
    • It is common for state agencies and businesses to attach a signature line at the end of every email. These signature lines generally include the name and contact information of the agency and the person who sent the email, followed by a short disclaimer about confidentiality.
    • To protect your own privacy, don’t list a personal cell phone number unless you are willing to receive business calls on that line.
  • Avoid public internet
    • Typically, the free public internet available at coffee shops, libraries, hotels, and other public spaces is not secure. These types of internet connections can be easily monitored by a third party.
    • Remind consumers to avoid using public internet for sending personal information. This type of information should be shared in person or using a secure internet connection.

Sending Sensitive Data

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Email makes it possible to communicate and transfer documents quickly. However, information transferred via email could be read by a third party if the email is not encrypted.

Your agency should have a policy about what types of information should be encrypted. Talk to your IT department if you are interested in sending encrypted emails. Most offices have a way of doing this.

Not all email messages need to be encrypted. For instance, it is not necessary to encrypt a simple back and forth email confirming a meeting time. On the other hand, it is important to keep certain types of information private.

The following list, while not comprehensive, is meant to get you thinking about information you may want to encrypt before sending it off into cyberspace.

  • Social Security Numbers
  • Medical records
  • Birth dates
  • Disability status
  • Veterans status
  • Consumer contact information (i.e. phone, email, and physical addresses)

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