Counselors Should Understand Client Cultural Differences

Mar 24, 2012 No Comments by

Interested in knowing more?  Call us today at 1-855-55-CHANGE (855-552-4264)!

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. Counselors can help avoid this by always documenting the counseling session, and noting the steps you taken to understand and adjust to the client’s individual culture. Also, remembering that the goal of therapy is to understand the individual as a whole (not just his/her ethnic background) is key.

We don’t make assumptions about clients. For example, some cultures avoid eye contact as a sign of respect, but we need to understand whether the individual in counseling is not looking at us out of respect, or if he/she is feeling ashamed or uncomfortable, or being dishonest. If we assume clients’ behavior stems from culture without asking questions about how they’re feeling, we may miss an opportunity for healing and set ourselves up for liability.

A good way to avoid misassumptions is to be educated about the culture of our clients.  The same is true for counselors everywhere.  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 counselors, we understand that all our clients come with unique needs. Creating a treatment approach that respects the client’s cultural identity as well as his/her individual characteristics will meet those needs!

Resources Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development

The Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development

ACA Ethics Code

Interested in knowing more?  Call us today at 1-855-55-CHANGE (855-552-4264)!


(Portions of this article wwere originally published at
The Change Group Blog

About the author

Ryan Thomas Neace is the co-founder and managing director of The Change Group, and holds a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy. He brings nearly 10 years of mental health experience to The Change Group. He is also an official blogger for the American Counseling Association.
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