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Cross-Cultural Counseling: How to be More Effective


Counselors strive to create both a trusting relationship and a comfortable environment with all their clients so that the difficult task of healing therapy can begin. Today, clients seeking counseling come from an array of backgrounds, requiring counselors to know and understand the various ways culture impacts the counseling relationship. A lack of sensitivity to a client’s unique background and experiences can result in miscommunication, a client’s refusal to participate, and ultimately, an ineffective counseling relationship. These consequences can open the door to accusations of negligence, leading to discipline from your state licensing board or professional organization, or even a lawsuit.

Cultural competence is one of only a few competencies required of counselors in most state statutes. The American Counseling Association (ACA) set forth specific guidelines for providing counseling services to ethnically and culturally diverse populations in their ACA Code of Ethics.

Know the challenges

Language barriers are often the biggest challenge between ethnic clients and counselors. A communication problem left unexplored could lead to allegations of mistreatment or abuse. Always document the counseling session, and note the steps you took to understand and adjust to the client’s individual culture. Also, remember that the goal of therapy is to understand the individual as a whole, not just his ethnic background.

Don’t make assumptions about a client. For example, some cultures avoid eye contact as a sign of respect, but you’ll need to understand whether the individual you’re counseling is not looking at you out of respect, or if he is feeling ashamed or uncomfortable, or being dishonest? If you assume a client’s behavior stems from his culture without asking questions about how he’s feeling, you may miss an opportunity for healing and set yourself up for liability.

A good way to avoid misassumptions is to educate yourself about the culture of your client. If you can’t find literature sources about specific cultural expectations, seek the advice of other colleagues in your area who may have experience counseling within your client’s culture. During a counseling session, it’s also important to determine your client’s level of acculturation to the United States. Clients with low cultural assimilation may not understand that some of the behaviors you’re counseling them about aren’t acceptable in this country.

Openness and honesty are key

Culturally competent counselors invite open and honest dialogue about race and ethnicity in their therapeutic sessions and use professional resources and activities to develop their counseling skills with racially and ethnically diverse clients. As a counselor, you understand that all of your clients come to you with unique needs. Creating a treatment approach that respects the client’s cultural identity as well as his individual characteristics will meet those needs while helping you avoid any legal liabilities.

Resources Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development: www.amcdaca.org

Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice, and Organizational Change for Psychologists: www.apa.org

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