“We help people,” the motto of Workplace Options, is verified and upheld through the power of a good conversation: the wellspring of human connection through which individuals feel seen, heard, respected, and most importantly, cared for.
At WPO, the gold standards for a good conversation as expected by our team of counselors and clinicians includes:
- Acknowledging the participants’ emotions and needs.
- Being curious and using open-ended questions to learn more about these needs.
- Making no assumptions and approaching each conversation with a nonjudgmental attitude.
- Effectively guiding the conversation, using reflections and summary skills to confirm understanding and to move the conversation forward.
- Keeping the participants‘ needs and wellbeing as the priority at all times.
As Darrell Shipley, Chief Service Officer, affirms: “The human component of the conversation is the essence of what we do. WPO employees are empowered to go beyond standard procedures to help a member in need. They are trained to put the client first in every interaction to serve above all else. Our employees know that, when in doubt, it is always correct to go above and beyond and do the right thing for our member clients.”
This drive to go “above and beyond” to help those in need, is also what is known as compassion: a uniquely and intrinsically human quality, considered by many to be the linchpin for successful and sustainable care.
Over the last several years, however—particularly the last couple of years—this trait has been sidelined in the name of expediency, and perhaps anonymity. For while generative chatbots can be programmed to “be curious” by asking open-ended questions, and to use reflections and summary skills to “confirm understanding,” what they cannot be programmed to do is to genuinely care and desire to help people.
The Limitations of Human-Robot Connection
Despite our inclinations to humanize them (and despite our best efforts), chatbots are not sentient “beings;” they cannot themselves feel or sense the full range of human emotion, and as such, cannot always accurately identify where on this spectrum an individual currently lies. Moreover, they cannot, at least as of yet, be programmed to consider the individual as the complex, complicated, layered being that he or she is; possessing qualities both seen and unseen, emotional hangups or inner turmoil both expressed and kept hidden. They cannot be trained to go “above and beyond” to help someone in need, simply because they lack the ability to see behind the mask that someone wears; to read between the lines of what they say—or rather, type—within responses that are oftentimes already limited to begin with.
As Ergo Sooru, co-founder and CEO of DrHouse, explains, “AI-based therapies are not able to interpret non-verbal cues which are essential for a successful therapeutic relationship. Nor are they able to provide the same level of emotional support and understanding as a human can.” In a study on the possible dangers of mental health chatbots, another researcher faults the bots for their “scripted nature and lack of adaptability beyond textbook cases of mild anxiety and depression.”
And there are plenty of examples of this being the case, as chatbots fail to understand nor respect the sensitive nature of these exposing conversations, and furthermore fail to grasp how nuanced every person’s experience with mental health issues can be—even when it comes to depression and anxiety. As ChatGPT4 itself notes, when prompted to explain the cons of using generative AI as a mental health therapist, chatbots:
- “Lack the emotional intelligence and empathy of human therapists” (Limited empathy)
- “May not be able to provide the same level of support as human therapists, particularly for complex mental health issues” (Limited scope)
- “May not be able to provide the same level of feedback and guidance as human therapists, potentially limiting their effectiveness” (Limited feedback)
- “Lack the personal connection and rapport that can be important in supporting people with mental health issues” (Lack of personal connection)
As the author of the article later admits, “we are social animals, and evidence suggests that human connection is a protective factor in terms of mental health, so overreliance on technology for emotional support is a risk.”
Thus, when it comes to mental health, “AI can play a role in early detection and treatment of depression,” Chris Winfield, the founder of Understanding AI, asserts, “but it is essential to ensure that human empathy and understanding remain central to the process. In both instances, human connection is still key.”
The Transformative Power of Human Connection
As Darwin proposed in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, survival of the fittest comes down to who possesses the most kindness and compassion, “for those communities which include the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”
Today—thanks to evolutionary biologists like Darwin—it is now widely accepted that one of the most important strategic adaptations in human evolution is sociality. It is this intrinsic desire to seek connections with others that has driven social intelligence; the very foundation on which today’s communication technologies and therapeutic interventions were formed. As many psychologists now confirm, social connection—that is, positive social relationships with others—is a principal psychological need essential to one‘s health—including their physical, emotional, mental, practical, and spiritual health—and subjective wellbeing.
Decades’ worth of studies have linked strong social relations—even brief but positive interactions with strangers or acquaintances—with above-average levels of happiness, lower rates of mental illness, better physical health, greater resiliency against stress, time abundance, perceived wellbeing, and a positive outlook on life. Social connection has been proven to enhance emotional regulation, as it enables one to identify and cope with their emotions, identify stressors and manage stress, and pinpoint external sources of support in a crisis. On the other hand, a lack of social connection—including feelings of loneliness and isolation, social anxiety or antisociality, lack of trust, and low self-esteem—has been associated with more severe cases of mental illness and emotional dysregulation; poor or unhealthy coping mechanisms; a lack of resilience against stress; and a poor outlook on life.
Thus, a key component of any and all successful therapeutic interventions is the human-to-human connection: helping clients to identify positive and conducive coping strategies, pinpoint available support resources—both internal and external, accept and acknowledge the validity of their inner experience, and ultimately enhance their self-efficacy—or their confidence in their ability to overcome challenges and push onward in life—by way of “an empathic, accepting, and genuine therapeutic relationship.”
Why This Matters Now, More Than Ever
This is just not something that can be achieved through talking to a robot, no matter how generative and “adaptable” it’s designed to be. A chatbot is never going to be able to exactly replicate the nuanced, emotionally-charged, and personalized response that a human clinician can provide to a client—and even in moments when it can say the right thing, the disconnection remains.
“A perfect example of this,” offers Director of Clinical Service Delivery, Leila Raffoul, “is when I had to contact Amazon about a Secret Santa gift I had sent to a colleague in India. They had received the first two gifts, but the third had been missing for quite some time,” she explains. “One thing led to another, and I got onto Amazon’s chatbot, and the weirdest thing ever, it starts with ‘You need to select an option.’ You can’t type anything, you’re not talking to anyone, you’re selecting prompts to ‘talk’ to a bot. I select ‘Package still not received,’ and the bot replies, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t know how you’re feeling about this, it must be so tough,’ and I’m like, ‘I know you’re a bot. This is so off.’ The way it was written as well was just so off. Let me just get connected to an actual person.”
And once you do get in touch with an actual person, she adds, even if it’s via text, “it’s not like your responses need to be broken up or you need to just send one response; you can blurt out a couple of sentences and still get a response and still feel that human connection. Even if it’s sort of give-and-take, back-and-forth, you still get that personal touch because the live person’s sentences are phrased differently; the client reaching out can express themselves more authentically than a bot might allow them to do in 150 characters.”
“That’s why I feel those wellness apps that are purely managed by a robot are limiting,” she argues, “in the sense that your questions, your thoughts, your ideas, your concerns, your queries…they won’t be fulfilled to the max. They might be partially fulfilled by one answer, but that’s it. It’s super limiting. You need to be extra patient, and then you build that tension—that frustration—up.”
In order to get that maximum level of fulfillment that she’s referring to, once again goes back to the need for compassion—that uniquely human urge to dig deeper, synthesize one‘s experience with the bigger picture or larger context, and go above and beyond to determine the underlying causes of one’s problems, and their most appropriate solutions.
As Leila explains in her description of WPO’s single-session therapy (SST) model, “We get calls at any time throughout our shifts. The calls can come from anywhere around the globe as well, so we need to be aware that the call can be about literally anything and everything that the person is experiencing in the here and now. But we also need to keep in mind that the person is coming from a particular culture, and that may be the same or different from the culture the counselor at the other end of the line comes from.”
“Therefore,” she continues, “when approaching these phone calls we need, as counselors, to sort of take a step back and set our own opinions or upbringings or premonitions aside and be very open-minded in the sense that, ‘I’m here to support this person across the phone. Although I can’t see them, I need to tune into everything that they’re saying and everything that they’re not saying; the tonality of their voice, the pace in which they’re talking—are they rushed? What are they talking about?” And that’s achieved by being a genuine counselor and saying, ‘Okay, this is the first and last time that I am talking to this person, so what can I do to help? I am going to take my time as a clinician and as a counselor to get a better understanding of what made this person call in today versus one month ago or two weeks from now. What happened today that made them call? And what is it that they’re experiencing?'”
To glean the answers to these questions requires following the standards of a good conversation laid forth by WPO: being curious, making no assumptions, and guiding the conversation in a natural but productive way. It requires counselors and clinicians to have patience: recognizing that “Sometimes you may get people that are super open and will tell you right from the beginning: ‘I’m calling about this,’ [whereas other times], they might just say ‘Yeah, I’m not feeling well,'” in which case clinicians and counselors have to be inquisitive and compassionate and be the one to say “Okay, so tell me what’s been happening.” As Leila explains, “Sometimes you need to give that push or open that door. And the way that we ask things is super important because it either does or doesn’t show empathy. So, we need to come in using caring tonalities: ‘You know what, it sounds like you’re going through a lot. I’m here, I’m not going anywhere. We’re having a discussion so you can talk about anything that is happening.'”
It requires counselors to recognize that each person is unique, as are their experiences: “We can’t say, ‘Okay, so you’re experiencing anxiety right now. I have a textbook that teaches me about anxiety. You are that textbook. No, because every person experiences anxiety in different ways. We need to be treated differently in the sense that the counselor needs to hear you as if it is their first time hearing about someone experiencing anxiety. ‘Tell me a bit more about it, what have you been experiencing and for how long?’ That helps you paint a picture of what you’re working with—physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. You’re trying to paint a picture of the person on the other side of the line. You want to understand, ‘Okay, so this person has been going through anxiety for six months now. Six months is a lot of time to go through anxiety and to keep it inside. It must have either done something or had negative coping habits that kept it going.’ You want to tap into their coping skills, their self-care strategies, their internal and external support systems and resources—which includes their community, family, and the systems that a person has around them. Based off that, the counselor is able to better understand a bit better who they are talking to in terms of their own thought process, but also everything that the person has gone through, which fluctuates country to country, culture to culture, person to person.”
Ultimately, the amount of empathy, flexibility, inference, synthesis and complex thinking on display in these examples can only come from the presence of a live human on the other end of the line. A chatbot can do the best it can to try to fill in the gaps created by character limits, time constraints, a lack of patients’ personal information, and the absence of body language, non-verbal cues, and a free-flowing conversation, but inevitably, it will never hold a candle to the level of customizable, personalized, and holistic care that professionally trained and culturally competent counselors, clinicians, and coaches can provide.
As Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. Kennette Thigpen Harris, appraises about the human-to-human connection in the therapeutic context—circling back to the power of a good conversation: “It’s an opportunity for clinicians and counselors to have a conversation with participants that is unscripted. I often like to think of it as participants being in the driver’s seat of the car whereas the counselor is a navigation or GPS system. Ultimately, the participant is in charge of their life and what they want to work on—what presenting issues they have—while the counselor is the individual that is going to help them get the services and supports that get them to that destination in the fastest way possible, or in a way that avoids any detours.”
That last point is especially critical when it comes to providing timely and effective care. Just think of how often a chatbot has been accused of offering the wrong or even harmful advice. In just our day-to-day use of chatbots, think of how hard it sometimes is to get them to understand our queries and signpost us to the right resource for further assistance. Strictly going off of what a participant is aware of and can or is willing to communicate about their current issues is bound to result in less-than-optimal solutions; trying to address a “headache” without the additional context regarding the state of the person’s mental, physical, financial, emotional, social, or environmental health would be like snatching a weed out of a garden while leaving the roots firmly intact.
As Dr. Harris maintains, “life events do not happen in siloes, but affect many different systems in our lives. So, a counselor—as a participant in that conversation with their client—is also hearing the need: these are the things that are being said, as well as the things that are not being said. In doing this, we are able to offer holistic support that addresses the emotional, practical, and physical support needs of the individual.”
This includes providing in-the-moment, personalized psychoeducation—another critical component slash result of the power of a good, human-to-human conversation. As Leila explains, “a counselor can understand what is happening to a person a mile away, but the person experiencing it can’t. That’s why there’s a counselor there to tie things together, and let the client know a tiny bit more about what’s been happening and the reasons why their mind and body have been reacting this way,” she says, stressing that, “it’s a conversation, nothing towards a checklist. I’m not asking you a couple of yes or no questions. I’m having a genuine conversation with you where you feel heard, you feel like you have the space to talk at your own pace, and that’s important not only for a person to feel like this is a safe environment, but also to feel heard.”
“A lot of the times,” she continues, “people might not feel like they’re heard by their family or friends, and will ask themselves ‘who can I talk to if I can’t talk to the closest people around me?’ And that’s why they reach out here and that’s why it’s important to say, ‘This is your space. There is no rush. Let’s talk things out. If you need to cry, cry it out. I feel like you’re in pain, what’s happening? Tell me more.’ and I give them that space so that the person feels validated, heard, their experience is normalized, so that the person can then start to breathe a tiny bit, which builds that therapeutic rapport.”
“It’s so important on this call, whether it’s a short or long call, that the person got to be heard, got to feel that they were heard, got the support that they need, got to ask questions…that on its own can help so much to a person that hasn’t been heard, that’s feeling left out, lost hope in life, feeling helpless,” she finally emphasizes. At a time when disconnection, polarization, and isolation abound, amidst rising geopolitical tensions, social unrest, and the rampant digitalization of work, people are more in need of traditional human connection now, more than ever. Even if connecting with a counselor or a clinician is done over the phone, over video, or even through chat, just the awareness of knowing you are speaking to a real human being—being able to put a face, a name, and a voice to the reassuring words that are coming your way; knowing that all your questions will be heard and answered—is so important when it comes to reminding people that they are never alone, and that help—or rather, people who truly want to help—is always out there.