Instant Messaging

instant messaging icon
Instant messaging is a text-based conversation that generally takes place between two people on a desktop computer. Instant messaging technologies have endless possibilities for communication.  For instance, it can be used to send a quick question across the office or to a consumer 100 miles away.  Counselors might consider holding online instant messaging or chat room “office hours” (Zack, 2004), where consumers can contact the counselor during those hours with simple questions and/or concerns.

Benefits of Instant Messaging

Instant messaging has some benefits over email. Primarily, there are more opportunities to seek clarification so problems can be addressed as they arise. However, it can also be more difficult, because both parties are expected to engage in the process, read, and compose responses on the fly (Jones, 2009).  Therefore, instant communication requires a greater cognitive awareness than face-to-face or email conversations.

To be an effective chat communicator, you should be a strong typist. If you are hunting and pecking for every letter on the keyboard, the conversation will have moved on before you have a chance to respond. If you are a slow typist, email (or asynchronous methods) may be a better choice for written communication.

Engaging in Chat-Based Communication

Many of the same communication techniques that apply to asynchronous communication also apply to synchronous communication. Below are a few additional suggestions to make your chat sessions more effective.

  1. Use emoticons and abbreviation of words such as “lol”, which allows for a faster exchange of ideas (Evans, 2009).
  2. Ask for further explanations and use restatements (Mallen, Vogel & Rochelen, 2005).
  3. Previous studies indicate that transcripts from chat counseling sessions are 1/3 as long as transcripts from face-to-face conversations. This is largely because counselors are more likely to offer reassurance and approval during face-to-face meetings (see citation 8). Be conscious of this and include these types of comments in your chat session.
  4. Treat your conversation as if it were taking place in-person. It is important that unnecessary distractions such as television are avoided during instant messaging (Day & Schneider, 2000).

Choosing an Instant Messaging Service

When choosing an instant messaging service there are three things to consider:

  1. Is the chat encrypted while being transmitted to the chat server?
  2. Does the chat stay encrypted after it reaches the chat server?
  3. Can the chat operator decrypt the chat if they choose?

Many email providers also offer an instant messaging service. If you chose to use the instant messaging services provided by your email provider, they are generally easy to set up and use because you are already familiar with the interface. However, keep in mind that they may not be the most secure choice and avoid sending sensitive information over an instant message.


Day, S. & Schneider, P. (2000).  The subjective experiences of therapists in face-to-face, video, and audio sessions.  In: Bloom, J. & Walz, G. (Eds), Cybercounseling and Cyberlearning: Strategies and Resources for the New Millennium (pp. 203-218).  Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Evans, J. (2009).  Online counseling and guidance skills.  London: Sage Publications.

Jones, J. (2009).  Online counseling and guidance skills. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

 Mallen, M.J., Vogel, D.L., & Rochlen, A.B. (2005). The practical aspects of online counseling: Ethics training, technology, and competency. The Counseling Psychologist, 33,776-817.

Zack, J. (2004).  Technology of online counseling. In R. Kraus, J. Zack, & G. Stricker (Eds.), Online counseling: A handbook for mental health professionals.  San Diego: Elsevier Academic Press.