Instant messaging is a text-based conversation that generally takes place between two (or more) people through a messaging program on a desktop computer or through an app. You can think of it as more responsive form of text communication than email. It can be used to send a quick question to a coworker across the office, or to a consumer 100 miles away.
Instant messaging programs such as Slack, Facebook Messenger, and Google Hangouts can often be used for both synchronous and asynchronous communication, but for this section, we focus on synchronous, or real-time, communication.
Benefits of Instant Messaging
Instant messaging has some benefits over email, the main one being that it can be a quick and informal way for counselors and consumers to ask questions and seek clarification as problems arise. Depending on your technology and what program you are using, it can be easier to send off a quick instant message with a simple question than taking time to write a short email.
Instant messaging apps can also be useful for many people with different impairments. For example, using a messaging or chat service can be a much more convenient method of communicating than making a phone call for a person with a hearing impairment. Or, for a person with anxiety issues for whom making phone calls is stressful, instant messaging can be less intimidating and encourage more frequent communication.
Virtual office hours
Counselors might consider holding instant messaging or chat room “office hours,” where consumers can contact the counselor with simple questions and/or concerns during a specific period of time.
As with any telecommunication relationship, you should go over with the consumer how you will structure any instant messaging communication, and when and how often you will be available to respond via that method.
See “Structuring an Email Relationship” on the Email page for suggestions.
When instant messaging might not be the best fit
Instant messaging requires that both parties be available and willing to communicate in this manner. Both will need to read and respond to messages in a relatively short amount of time, which may be a challenge for some. This could be due to typing ability, the time needed to compose a response using adaptive equipment, or cell service or Wi-Fi availability.
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 (20,21).
- Begin with a greeting.
- Read messages thoroughly before responding, and ask clarifying questions before forming a response. When chatting, it can be tempting to start typing a response prior to fully understanding the issue.
- Break responses into shorter sections that are easier to read.
- Focus on one chat conversation at a time, especially if you are holding “office hours” with multiple consumers.
- Stay focused and avoid distractions, such as checking emails, while waiting for a response.
- Use emoticons and abbreviations to promote a faster exchange of ideas, if both you and the consumer are comfortable with doing so.
- Offer reassurances and approvals, which are more common in face-to-face conversations.
- Have information ready in anticipation of the chat (such as a consumer’s file).
- Check the chat history of returning consumers.
- Maintain chat histories so you have a record to fall back on and refresh your memory
- As with texting, don’t send sensitive or confidential information over instant message unless you confirm this chat is encrypted.