Developing a Therapeutic Working Alliance via Distance Counseling

Deciding to reach out to a therapist takes courage.  Deciding to engage in therapy using an online platform such as video takes courage times ten! You are literally inviting a therapist into your home or personal space. GULP!

  • Where should you place the camera so that the therapist doesn’t notice the pile of unfolded laundry?
  • What can you do to get your hair to lay down and not look like you just woke up?
  • Where can you put the kids /dogs so that they are not a distraction?

All of these thoughts are normal but could impede building the working alliance with a therapist if not addressed.  Hanson, Curry, and Bandalos (2002) defined working alliance as “the extent to which a client and therapist work collaboratively and purposefully and connect emotionally (p. 661).”  It has been shown to be an important and robust predictor of positive outcomes in psychotherapy.

Regardless if you are the client or the clinician, establishing a working alliance is critical to a successful counseling outcome.

  1. What’s your absolute? Remember the movie “Must love dogs” ?  Is it important for your therapist to have an affinity or understanding for something in particular? Therapists, are you willing to be transparent about something particular in your life?  For me, my clients know I love dogs and will do absolutely anything to spoil and cherish them.  Pictures of my fur babies and me are on my website, and I consistently post about them on all my social media platforms.  Bottom line: find a commonality that connects.
  2. Now that you have something in common ensure there is a common goal. As a client, be willing to discuss your desired outcomes.  Don’t hand over your power to the therapist with the expectation that their role is to fix you.  What does success look like for you after you have made some progress in therapy?  As a therapist, empower your client to crystalize their goal.  Acknowledge and remind them of the goal they have set for success.  This demonstrates that you are paying attention and walking beside them as they undertake the therapeutic journey.  Bottom line: identify a mutually accepted and attainable goal.
  3. Avoid the heavy lifting immediately. Yes, the presenting problem is XYZ, but why start each session discussing that? Why not start with discussing self-care?  As a therapist, ask your client “What did you do for yourself this past week?”  This allows the client a moment to self-adjust to a therapeutic environment and allows the clinician to use self-care practices as a therapeutic intervention.  Bottom line: create a safe therapeutic environment online that allows your client to feel empowered and safe.


Hanson, W. E., Curry, K. T., & Bandalos, D. L. (2002). Reliability generalization of working alliance inventory scale scores. Educational and Psychological Measurement62(4), 659-673.

About the Author

Thommi Odom, PhD, LPC, NCC is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at Gardner-Webb University. Her research agenda focuses on improving the academic and psychosocial outcomes of nontraditional students and aims to reform service delivery models that attract, support, and retain nontraditional students and help them achieve academic success. Dr. Odom was recently awarded the Outstanding Professional Contribution to Knowledge award by the Georgia College Counseling Association. Dr. Odom earned her doctorate in Counselor Education and Supervision at Mercer University – Atlanta and is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Georgia and a Nationally Certified Counselor.  Learn more at


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