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OCTIA 2016 - Relational Depth and Emotional Connection in Online Therapy - Experiences in attending the conference both by webinar and in-person

01 June 2016    Carole Francis-Smith & Kate Dunn

Adventures Through The Looking Glass?

OCTIA stands for Online Counselling and Therapy in Action and is an organisation that aims to promote knowledge of online counselling in the UK. They hold a conference once a year in Bristol that, in collaboration with the BACP, is also streamed live to include online delegates. Next years conference will be held on April 8th 2017.

OCTIA is a place where you meet up with a group of dedicated practitioners working together to promote online therapy in thoughtful, professional and ethical ways.  Everyone is made to feel welcome, challenges can be identified, training needs can be explored and pioneers of online approaches share their amazing expertise with an audience ranging from those who are already deeply involved and passionate about embracing the technology to those who may simply be curious and want to ‘dip their toes in the water’.

The following are accounts from Kate and Carole who attended the conference in different ways. They demonstrate some of the similarities and differences apparent from both ends of the ′looking glass’ screen.


written by Kate Dunn

I have been attending OCTIA conferences for several years and was privileged to be invited to speak about different elements of my research into and interest in the online therapeutic relationship at the 2012 and 2013 conferences.   Having worked as a counsellor online since 2008, first in an HE setting and now independently, I have seen many developments and changes in the philosophy and delivery of online counselling. 

For the past couple of years, I have attended the OCTIA conference from my office at home, via the webinar and cyberspace.   Attending conferences and meetings online is a fascinating experience in itself, and is rapidly growing in popularity.  (For example, when I first ventured into private practice, I was surprised and relieved to discover that I could attend very helpful webinars run by HMRC, to guide me through the mysteries of being self-employed and completing my online self-assessment tax forms.)

The conference presentations were wide-ranging and we heard from practitioners who use technology to make innovative and exciting connections with their clients in a number  of different contexts.  Jules Prentice informed us about working online as a relationship and psychosexual therapist.  This struck a real chord for me when I think about the many online clients I have worked with who bring issues that they tell me they would not be able to state ‘out loud’ in the same room as their therapist.  The relative anonymity of the online meeting is a key factor for them.  Dawn Williams introduced us to her work with clients experiencing problems in pregnancy, who may often be struggling at home with many other family pressures, feeling overwhelmed but unable to access support through traditional approaches for a wide variety of practical and emotional reasons.  Cathy Watts described how she uses Mindfulness techniques online with her clients, integrating traditional ideas with new approaches in gentle and sensitive ways. 

Catherine Simpson presented a researcher’s perspective on the use of text-based therapy (a special area of interest that I share with her and was fascinated to hear more about).  John Ryder encouraged us to think about the value of even a single stand-alone online session for clients who approach the organisation for which he works, the Tasha Foundation.  He described the uniqueness and immediacy that an online connection can bring - perhaps taking both client and counsellor by surprise (something I’ve experienced myself many times). 

Helen Rutherford’s presentation raised the technological bar another notch as she delivered her presentation via webcam from her own home.  She gave some powerful insights into her work as a counsellor who was inspired to set up an online service that could reach others finding themselves in similar situations to herself, where physical constraints make it difficult or impossible to access traditional services. For me, Helen most fully represented and personified the theme of the conference, “Relational Depth and Emotional Connection in Online Therapy”.  She communicated clearly and movingly and captured everyone’s attention. 

Between presentations we had the more intimate studio conversations to enjoy, which supplemented the programme and these were ably facilitated by Anne Stokes and Alan Dunnett.   They provided informal opportunities for online delegates to become more directly involved and to bring ideas and questions. 

So… here I have presented a traditional perspective of the conference - one side of the looking glass.  However….


Whilst watching the live streaming of the presentations, I found myself becoming increasingly fascinated by the constant activity and buzz in the chat room.  This reminded me of a kind of collective stream of consciousness, where issues on people’s minds were shared astonishingly openly and freely.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

The chatter was non-stop, sometimes intrusive and sometimes irritating but in its own way, strangely compelling.  Frequently it bore little relation to anything that the speakers were saying.  It felt as though the chat room, although situated within the context of the conference, bore no directl link to the content.  Within this hubbub valuable searching questions from online delegates engaged with the speakers became buried or overwhelmed by the ‘chatter’.  (I found myself wondering whether the contributors to the chat room actually realised that their comments were projected large onto a screen in the conference hall.  Disinhibition running amok!) Someone commented wryly that it felt like the pupils were all talking in class.  At times, I decided to switch off the chat screen in order to better focus on the speaker - but curiously found myself wondering what I might be missing! 

What a fascinating insight this gave into the unexpected psychological and social phenomena that may arise when we bring new technology into traditional arenas.  My imagination repeatedly took me, like Alice, through the looking glass into another dimension! 

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we′ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter′s spread too thick!"

I repeatedly wondered about whether there is a need to develop some kind of prescribed ‘netiquette’ for online conference and webinar attendees and their chat room behaviour.  Would this add something to both the individual and the communal experience, or would it take something away?  (Maybe both might be true, depending on one’s perspective!)

I look forward to next year’s conference knowing I will be faced with an interesting choice: will I attend as a webinar delegate or in person?  I recognise a dilemma that mirrors one confronting many clients as well as well as counsellors considering online therapeutic engagement.  Which experience will best fulfil my needs?  Will I want to travel to the venue with the additional practical complexities of a long journey and the need for an overnight stay?  Would I prefer to be with my colleagues ‘in person’, engaging in all the prescribed and ‘accepted’ rules of social behaviour at such an occasion, or behind a screen, ‘free’ to ‘behave in a different way’, perhaps to disclose feelings I might otherwise repress?  If I attend online, will my experience by any less ‘real’ than if I attend in person?  Which side of the looking glass will I choose?

‘Speak when you’re spoken to!’ The Queen sharply interrupted her.

‘But if everybody obeyed that rule,’ said Alice, who was always ready for a little argument, ‘and if you only spoke when you were spoken to, and the other person always waited for YOU to begin, you see nobody would ever say anything…’

Reference: “Through the Looking Glass” With apologies to Lewis Carroll!


written by Carole Francis-Smith

I have attended the OCTIA conference several times in person (2013 & 2014) and sat on the same table as Kate (J). We subsequently met ‘officially’ recently (online), as our interest in online communications collided. I have been counselling since 2007 in different settings and further trained in online therapy in 2012, and this is where things get a bit curious. In order to maintain a hybrid position when conducting my doctoral research (Email counselling and the therapeutic relationship) I chose not to practice online until its completion - so you could consider this makes me quite well versed in the area, but a relatively new online therapist.

In all honesty I have only every contemplated attending the conference in person, which is perhaps not surprising because I live locally. Although in the years I was unable to make the journey I did not take advantage of the webinar format. I wonder about this….. I suspect I am concerned that alone in front of my computer without the in-person social cues present I might be tempted to wander off, both physically and mentally. Of course mental wandering off can happen In-person also, albeit not so obviously.

There was no wandering of any sort this year, as the presentations were interesting and varied (and the coffee bar always open). Jules P guided us through her work as a relationship and psychosexual therapist, using instant message communications. Dawn W works with clients struggling with problems in pregnancy who have found strength in an online support group. It struck me that for many reasons both of these issues can be difficult to bring in face-to-face situations giving strength to offering them online. Cathy W demonstrated some Mindfulness techniques and how she adapts them to online working – this was interesting for me as I was actually in the room when the presentation was aimed at online participants and I wondered how many online delegates were taking part away from prying eyes. Catherine S shared her research findings on text-based therapy (also my and Kate’s research areas), which was very interesting. John R from the Tasha Foundation had the tricky afternoon slot, and described how the foundation works with anonymous clients. This brings up many issues in traditional counselling terms (informed consent, contracting etc.) but I was thinking perhaps reaches more people who are looking for help?

From my perspective Helen R was the only presenter not physically in the room but that somehow that made her presentation all the more powerful! She spoke with such passion, integrity and conviction about creating an accessible online service -  curiously delivering the information online seemed to demonstrably encompass the issue. Helen joined the conference panel via instant message to answer questions at the end, and I remember being a bit perturbed when she was accidentally overlooked as a question was put to everyone on the panel – reminding me of what can happen when we are ‘present’ in different ways.

Between presentations I had the opportunity to meet and ask further questions of the present presenters, as well as other attenders. Incidentally I was sat next to Philippa who I met in person for the first time at the conference – in effect the whole team were present. We all mingled at the watering hole and many interesting conversations were had – swapping cards and intimating at future alliances.



I was aware that in our breaks those attending online were being treated to the studio interviews and lived with a feeling of missing out (although I’m pretty sure I could have watched it on my device. I chose biscuits). It was a strange phenomenon to have the cameras turned off during the break, as even though the audience wasn’t being filmed it was like we needed to be on our best behaviour (Kate and I had shared a conversation beforehand where she said she would ‘look’ for me online….so I wore something tidy, just in case J).

Kate and I share a belief that the topsy turvy world described by Lewis Carrol in his ‘Through the Looking Glass’ story is similar to some of the phenomena that occur when working online by text - the world would seem to get distorted through time and space (the white rabbit and his obsession with time comes to mind).  One case in point is the Online Disinhibition effect whereby without the social cues and norms of having someone in front of us we can act differently and in a more uninhibited way.

To complement the online streaming of OCTIA there is a live chat facility, which is up on a large screen in the conference room. Attendees were encouraged to log in to their devices and join in with the chat but I found that idea difficult, as interestingly I was struck by a wave of In-person Inhibition!! I imagine that my experience in presenting played a part but it felt important to pay attention to the speakers whilst they were up, and a bit rude if I looked at the board. I wonder, a bit sadly, if I have a bit too much of the old-fashioned about me? My over-riding memory of technology at school was a calculator that you pulled the handle on – I marvel every day at how far we have come!

Not wishing to miss out on the whole experience I did try and keep up with the chat room at times, especially since there was constant conversation through and between the presentations. This was a little disconcerting for me and I found it difficult to stay both in the room and follow conversations (that sometimes weren’t related to the presentation) online – it was like I was both sides of the looking glass at once and my poor little brain had trouble computing. Interesting to think that this is a place where those two worlds collide and where it might feel the rules of engagement we are used to don’t apply perhaps?

The other thing that fascinates me about the ‘looking glass’ screen is the idea that we see ourselves reflected, and are maybe working more with our own fantasy (and attachment styles) through the lack of other cues. In effect, the barriers of both external and internal inhibition might be down. With clients this sometimes leads to early, and sometimes, over-disclosure…which can lead to disappearing – this is somewhat reminiscent of online group processes which can lead to shaming and disappearing….but I digress……..

So, what do I do next year? Do I pitch up and use my wiles to navigate my way through the day (a bit like in-person counselling), or do I challenge myself to try something different and attend by webinar (a bit like online counselling)? These indeed mirror decisions made by clients every day.

Maybe Kate and I will reverse our roles through the looking glass screen? ………….. Watch this space!!