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Cultural Competence in Counseling

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Being culturally competent is one of your most important mandates as a counselor, but it can be hard to achieve. This lesson discusses the reasons and strategies for cultural competence in counseling.

Defining Culture Competence

Ginny has been working in the field of counseling for ten years. She loves her job because it gives her the chance to provide emotional support to people in need.

Recently, though, Ginny has been getting more negative reviews from her clients, who feel that she does not always understand the way that culture is impacting their lives and emotional needs.

Ginny realizes she has to work on her cultural competence, or awareness of cultural norms, values, and traditions other than her own, if she is going to continue to be an effective counselor.

Culture is often defined as the combination of language background, traditions, ethnicity, religion, values, and beliefs that come together to inform many aspects of a person's identity. Culture can also be tied to socially-defined groups such as class and sexual preference.

Understanding Yourself, Owning Your Biases

As a starting point, Ginny takes some time to reflect on why cultural competence might feel difficult to her. She realizes that it has been a long time since she reflected on herself and her own biases, or unconscious assumptions and preconceived notions about others.

Ginny starts keeping a journal to reflect on her own cultural background and how it informs her work as a counselor. For instance, she knows that as an Italian-American, she has always believed in the importance of close relationships with family.

She also finds it easy to express strong emotions and speak her mind. Ginny knows that some of these values have to do with her specific temperament, but they are also culturally informed.

This can make it hard for her to relate to clients who are, for example, determined to pull away from their families. She also sometimes experiences bias against clients who might be very reticent or ashamed to articulate strong emotions.

One of Ginny's current clients is Japanese-American, and this client really thinks it is shameful to put strong emotions into words and let them out there for just anyone to see. Ginny has to work hard to overcome her bias against this approach to emotion and her ensuing assumption that all Asian clients will share this framework.

Learning About Families and Communities

In addition to working on her own issues, Ginny thinks she should spend more time and energy learning about the specific families and communities she is working with. The neighborhood where her agency is located is extremely diverse. Ginny starts taking more time outside of work to walk around the neighborhood, eat in restaurants, go to stores, and find out what people are talking about.

Ginny seeks out credible sources to learn more about the historical contexts of these cultures. Did some communities first arrive in America due to a prolonged civil war? Is there a history or marginalization or discrimination? These are important contexts to consider when building cultural competence.

She also starts reading novels and nonfiction books related to the cultural backgrounds of the people she is working with. When she meets a new client, she tries to maintain an open stance and work on active listening, or really focusing while the person speaks about themselves, their background, and their culture, as well as any personal issues they are facing.

Ginny understands that it is impossible to ever know everything about a specific culture, and of course, culture is dynamic, meaning it can change and evolve over time.

Still, the time and energy she expends on looking outside of herself make her a more culturally competent counselor.

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