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Avoid misinterpretations involving culture

September 1, 2007
by Nicholas A. Roes, PhD
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Some research suggests that fewer members of minority groups seek counseling because of the perception of a lack of cultural sensitivity in the profession and a mistrust of a process viewed as geared toward white, middle-class America.1 The very idea of counseling may be alien to some cultures.

Lack of sensitivity to each client's unique mix of culture, previous experiences, and values offers a recipe for failure, so cultural sensitivity must be considered a prerequisite for treatment success. Part of making clients comfortable enough to benefit from treatment includes doing our best to have a staff that reflects the makeup of the population we serve.

Information from cultural sensitivity trainings can be very helpful, because we can learn unique aspects of the many cultures from which our clients come. These trainings provide valuable information because they educate participants on ways of relating in different cultures—factors that we might otherwise misinterpret. This helps us to decide what questions to ask when we are unsure about how to interpret a particular behavior, and prevents us from jumping to possibly faulty conclusions.

But this information also might work against us when we work with a client who doesn't share the traditional values that we learned were part of his/her particular culture. It's possible that misuse of information from cultural sensitivity trainings could accomplish the exact opposite of what we hope to accomplish. If we place greater emphasis on understanding a culture than on understanding an individual, we may become less respectful of the unique views and perspectives of the person we are counseling.

Overemphasizing culture

We should not assume anything about any of our clients before we meet them. In a rush to prove our cultural sensitivity, we can do serious harm to clients. It usually is not helpful unilaterally to elevate clients' cultural practices or beliefs to a higher status than any of their other practices or beliefs, and it is counterproductive to divorce cultural sensitivity from every other kind of sensitivity.

When we misunderstand the goal of being sensitive, or when we relate to the person we are serving as part of a group rather than as an individual, we undermine the therapeutic process. For example, many clients report that it is definitely not helpful—and is often taken as insensitive—when a counselor shares that he/she has many friends in the same ethnic group as the client.

Good counseling involves the accurate interpretation of both verbal and non-verbal messages. Counselors need to consider not whether members of a certain ethnic group avoid eye contact when they feel shame or act dishonestly or show respect, but whether the specific client they are sitting with is communicating shame, dishonesty, or respect. If you limit yourself to culture-bound interpretations, you'll often miss the real message.

Also, don't assume that you have a built-in advantage in instances where you come from the same cultural background as your client. Depending on the client's view or your own view of your culture, this even could pose an impediment to success.

Be aware of feelings

While the content of your sessions and the specific ways you relate to your clients will vary greatly, the therapeutic process requires the same prerequisites for all of them. We all have our own assumptions about human behavior and how to be helpful to our clients. It is important to stay in touch with our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We have a responsibility to be aware of how these are affecting our relationship with each individual client and to address any issues that present an obstacle to an optimal therapeutic relationship.

In addition, we need to become aware of each client's world view and assumptions about human behavior and how counselors can be helpful. We have a responsibility to respect the differing values and preferences of our clients. As we help clients make the changes needed to achieve their goals, we must resist the temptation to direct them toward the same choices we have made in our own lives. This self-awareness will contribute to a treatment plan that honors and accepts clients' cultural identity as well as all of their other characteristics.

As we listen to our clients, we will learn about the role that culture plays in each of their lives. Clients have the right to decide whether their cultural heritage is relevant to their treatment. They have the right to decide that it has a defining role in their lives, or that it is irrelevant.

If either of these decisions upsets you, you won't be able to give each client what he or she deserves: a totally open mind about how to be helpful. This openness is a contributing factor to successful outcomes, and can be developed and strengthened through conscious effort.

Of all the nationally known experts with something to offer in the area of cultural sensitivity, one very accessible source of expertise stands head and shoulders above the rest: your client.

Nicholas A. Roes, PhD, is Executive Director of the New Hope Manor residential treatment facility in upstate New York. His e-mail address is

NickARoes@aol.com and his Web site is



  1. Freedman FK.Multicultural Counseling. Retrieved via www.alaska.net/∼fken/.