The computer seemed to pay better attention than a living breathing and distractible human. The computer video camera was able to measure sadness. Patients talked with an avatar named Ellie and were willing to speak about important problems as long as one condition was met. Ellie seemed so real that they needed to be assured that she was not a computer image being manipulated by a live person.
If the participants believed they were only talking with a computer then they were willing to talk about subjects that were very important to them. If they did not believe that they were only talking with a computer then they limited how much information they gave. There are lots of lessons in the article about communication, but the real message is about trust.
At the heart of counseling relationships is trust. If the counselee does not trust the counselor then vital information will be withheld. I have often told students that when counseling seems to bog down after several weeks that it might be time to circle back and ask the struggler if there is anything else they might want to tell them about the problems. It should not be surprising that people do not trust a counselor much in the first few weeks. It is not surprising when they hold back important facts that would explain their struggle.
So, there are several lessons in this article for counselors and counselees. For those who struggle it is essential to find a counselor that you trust. (A subject for another blog) And, when you do, it is important not to withhold pertinent facts. Counselors are not psychic and you should not make them guess as to why you come for help.
On the other hand, counselors need to be relentless in the pursuit of truth. Proverbs 18:13 tells us that “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is a folly and a shame to him.” We must take the time to listen and to continue to ask questions until we are satisfied that we have a thorough understanding of the problems the counselee brings.
The last lesson reminds of line in a Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” in which he exhorts his son not to lose the “common touch.” I have practiced medicine for nearly 40 years and I am computer electronic medical record literate. I believe that computers have been a positive benefit in health care. But, they will never be able to provide the most important ingredient in medicine and counseling, the human touch.
The writer of Hebrews speaks of it and its importance. “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:15-16 KJV) No mere machine can give that kind of touch.
[i] “The Computer will see you now, A virtual shrink may sometimes be better than the real thing,” The Economist, August 16, 2014