Being a counselor can sometimes be a really tough job. Counseling can only be effective and beneficial when the counselor places himself or herself in the shoes of his or her client. If he or she is unable to do so, he or she will never become an effective counselor. Placing oneself in the circumstances of someone else is not easy, let alone placing oneself in the shoes of a person who is of a different race, religion or culture. That is the real test of a counselor. In this paper I shall discuss what is required to understand the cross-cultural relationships in counseling to help the client get over their problem easily. All the dimensions pertaining to counseling (of a client of a different background that the counselor) will discussed with the case scenario.
When clients and counselors have different cultural (or ethnic or racial) backgrounds, the need to understand the multicultural diversity is most obvious (Sumari and Jalal, 2008).
I work for an organization where we counsel teenagers who have trouble socializing or generally have low self-esteem and low self-confidence. When a teenage girl came up to me who was could not make friends at school because she thought she was a misfit, I did not find it very easy to help her come out of her problem.
The reason for this was not that I did not understand what her problem was, but the reason was that she was an Asian Muslim girl who used to cover her head. Since other students were white Americans and from a different religion and race, she did not feel comfortable socializing with them because she was not sure what they think about her.
That is when I realized that it is very important for the counselors to be sensitive to the cultures and worldview of their clients so that they can treat them in a better way. There have been many reports in which it has been stated that most of the counselors are not prepared to deal with clients of a different background (Padilla, Boxley and Wagner, 1973).
Since I was not aware of the importance of Hijab, I conveniently told the girl that when you know that because of covering your head, you think everyone makes fun of you, you should just take it off. I would have never said that if I did not assume that this was not just a custom, but covering the head was a part of the fundamental beliefs of Muslims. I just thought to myself, what is the big deal, and that is where I went wrong. My prejudice and bias came in my way to become a competent counselor. The question mark in the eyes of that young girl was a proof of my incompetence.
It will not be wrong if I say that this young girl had reservations talking to me. This is because she was also aware of the religious and ethnic barrier between us, because of which she might have been cautious while talking to me. And I just worsened her fears by saying what I did because of my lack of understanding of her culture and religion.
When the clients do not reveal their real feelings, the counselors cannot understand what they are thinking. Many a times it is noted that the clients do not reveal completely what they are thinking because they are afraid that they might get exploited or offended (Sue and Sue, 2003).
Enhancing Cultural Knowledge
The problem that I had to face while counseling this young girl was not one sided. Where I was not able to understand that I have to go to her level of cultural and religious beliefs to counsel her in an effective way, she was also not very confident as to how she was supposed to put forth her problems. This was purely a cross-cultural barrier between us.
The first and foremost cross-cultural issue, which is also important in counseling, is the definition of self (Gilbert, 2002). When the counselor and the client are from different cultural backgrounds, both of them have their own definitions of self. Since self explains the inner world, beliefs and worldview of the client, it needs to be understood by the counselor and not just assumed as being the same as his or hers.
Other issues include the language barrier. Even if the client knows what he or she has to tell the counselor about the emotional turmoil he or she is going through, he cannot do so if the languages spoken by the counselor and client are different.
As mentioned above, the fear of being exploited and offended also keeps the clients from revealing their actual sentiments. This is especially true for minorities. For example, the Arabs living in America are confronted with a general bias and prejudice because of the ongoing Arab-Israel conflict. The Arabs feel misunderstood and do not reveal their feelings. There are also many other minority groups that feel oppressed.
Almost all of the cross-cultural issues mentioned above were to be addressed by me when I was working with this emotionally unstable Asian Muslim teenage girl. I had to make her comfortable by showing tolerance and respect towards her culture and religion. I had to make sure that she was not hiding anything from me just because she was assuming that I might have a bias for her. I had to develop effective communication skills to understand properly what she was trying to say in a language that was not her mother tongue. I had to understand what she ACTUALLY meant by everything that she was saying.
Also, for counselors it is important that they understand the strengths in the particular culture from where the client is coming from. This also counts in the understanding and acknowledgment of the different cultures.
When we talk about the Asian Muslim community, the strengths include extended and strong family ties. In Asian community, these family ties can provide the client and the counselor with long-term support. These people also generally have a collective sense of responsibility for the community.
All of this required a great deal of dedication towards my profession, since I was a white American, my social and religious cultures very different from hers. I did know how it felt to be a minority in such a big country.
Awareness to Action
Social justice comes into play in the profession of counseling when the external forces, which can be social or racial background of the client, instead of the needs of the clients shape the function and role of the counselor (C and Ratts, 2008). For instance, many counselors and mental health service providers sometimes do not stand up against the oppressors, even when they know they are right, and would benefit their clients, because they are fearful of losing their peers and colleagues at the workplace for working against the odds. That is why they withhold their worldview and beliefs, which brings in cultural prejudice and racial discrimination in the counseling sessions.
The president of the American Counselor Association (ACA) was reported as saying that the basic aim of every counselor is to meet the needs of the clients for a healthier society. However, the variables in this statement are the definition of client (that varies from one counselor to another) and a healthier society.
It has been shown that there is a direct dependence of social injustice and mental health. According to report that was compiled in 2001by Surgeon General, we find out that mental health was directly related to discrimination; meanwhile oppression was directly related to poverty.
The role of social injustice needs to be highlighted in counseling because our clients are not individuals who are independent of the culture and society. This statement has also been clarified by the 2005 ACA Code of Ethics. The relevant clause of this Code of Ethics urges the counselors to "identify the social and historical prejudices in making the wrong diagnosis of certain clients and groups and the role of counselors in continuing these biases through their interaction with the clients."
There are some amendments that need to be made in the professional attitude of the counselors when they are providing their clients with behavioral treatment. First of the all the counselor needs to identify his or her own cultural biases and then determine the cultural and social and identity of the client with due respect. It is important for the counselor to recognize the history of local issues that the client is facing along with any oppression problems that he or she is confronted with (Sue and Sue, 2008).
The counselors should make it their priority to start the counseling session in a way that is client-centered. Once they do this, they should assess the issues that the client is facing from different angles and perspectives. Successful counselors also always integrate the community, family and cultural perspectives in their counseling sessions to achieve their…