What It Takes to Be a Culturally Responsive Therapist

The events of the past year have heightened our awareness of problems in our society that can’t remain unacknowledged anymore. Social unrest related to the loss of Black lives at the hands of the police, outcries over the treatment of migrants at the border, and concerns over women’s rights are just some of today’s biggest problems. As these issues trigger sadness and anxiety, we’re tasked with helping our clients navigate these difficult times. 

The term “culturally competent” implies that mastering a finite body of skills and information is what creates an expert practitioner—one who is capable of effectively working with diverse communities and social concerns. In reality, however, social and cultural communities are dynamic. Social justice issues are entrenched in long-standing histories and institutional structures. 

So, it’s impossible for a practitioner to grasp such a large amount of complex information, especially for so many different groups of people with varying concerns. Culturally responsive counseling offers an ethical approach for how to help individuals facing issues related to their social and cultural identities—without inducing so much anxiety in practitioners themselves.

Be a Lifelong Learner

Cultural humility is at the core of culturally responsive counseling. Coined by Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia in 1998, cultural humility requires a commitment to an active and lifelong process of learning. As practitioners learn about the histories and lives of diverse people, they must also consistently examine their own opinions, behavior, and consequences of their actions. In order to check power imbalances and enable true collaboration with their clients, practitioners have to make a shift from “experts” to lifelong “learners.” 

Focus on Communication

Safe intercultural and cross-cultural interactions occur when practitioners initiate open and honest discussions with their clients. Effective communication between a practitioner and client is predicated on both parties accurately sending and receiving verbal and nonverbal messages. It’s also important to note that there is no single communication style that will work for every client and situation.1 

As lifelong learners, practitioners should educate themselves regarding how social and cultural identities influence communication. Then, they can increase their ability to flexibly shift their communication styles as needed. Rather than intuitively knowing what will work with a client, a culturally responsive counselor should focus on discovering their own style. Then they’ll be able to work in collaboration with their clients to identify the methods of communication that work best for them. 

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Plan to Make Mistakes

As a practitioner, you won’t always know the right thing to say or do. In fact, you should anticipate that you’ll make mistakes. One such mistake is a “cultural rupture,” which occurs when clients feel like they’ve experienced a microaggression or that part of their identity was disrespected.2 These kinds of ruptures will happen. And when they do, you need to have a “cultural repair action plan” to mend the breach. 

Have a Cultural Repair Action Plan

When you realize a rupture has occurred, you should check in with yourself. How are you feeling about the rupture, your actions, and your client? You shouldn’t focus on your own defensiveness, but rather find a way to keep your client’s needs at the center of this process. How might they be feeling about what happened and the therapy process? How might they be feeling about you? 

You also need to clarify your motivations for addressing the cultural rupture. Your goal shouldn’t be to defend yourself and the mistake that led to the rupture. Your focus should be on reconnecting with your client and restoring your working alliance. 

At this point, you should invite your client to share their perspective and experience with you. You should be vulnerable when you apologize, and willing to take full responsibility for your actions. 

What Makes a Culturally Responsive Counselor 

Despite the complexity of today’s cultural politics, practitioners need to continue to show up. They need to offer unconditional regard to their clients, and to consistently believe that change is possible. They should model ethical vulnerability by admitting that they don’t know everything, but are doing their part to learn more. 

Culturally responsive counselors help their clients identify negative self-talk, catastrophic thoughts, and feelings of hopelessness. This can help them reframe the pandemic and social inequalities as opportunities for personal growth and courage, as they explore ways to engage today’s problems together.

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Spend Time Working on Yourself

It’s also critical for culturally responsive counselors to develop their own racial consciousness. In Addressing Cultural Complexities in Practice, Pamela Hays offers an excellent cultural self-assessment for practitioners. Tools such as this help practitioners understand intersecting identities, privileges, and cultures. They also help people develop greater awareness of how to “show up” in the room, and how to mitigate any unintended consequences for their clients. 

Culturally responsive counselors utilize self-care and mindfulness to help themselves and their clients accept what they cannot change. But they don’t stop there. They also engage in activism and advocacy when there are injustices and circumstances that must change. 

This work reminds our clients that we all have to make choices that can lead to empowerment and life-changing circumstances. In this way, we do our part to hold light and hope during dark times, while confidently working with complicated cultural issues.


Citations 

1. Sue, D., & Sue, D. (2019). Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice. (8th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.


2. Hook, J., Farrell, J., Davis, D., Deblaere, C., Van Tongeren, D., & Utsey, S. (2016). Cultural humility and racial microaggressions in counseling. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63, 269-277. https://doi.org/10.1037/cou0000114


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