Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Multicultural competence: A continual pursuit

By Lynne Shallcross September 1, 2013

MulticulturalOnce you master the skill of riding a bike, you will always be able to ride a bike, or so the theory goes. But counselors would be mistaken if they apply that same logic to multicultural competence, says Michael Brooks, president of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, a division of the American Counseling Association. Instead, he says, remaining multiculturally competent requires constant work, study and development as counselors move through their careers.

Some counselor educators and practitioners think, incorrectly, that once they have learned about multiculturalism in a class or by reading a book, that they have “checked the box” and are done, Brooks says. Other counselors believe they are automatically competent about multicultural issues in counseling because of their own backgrounds, heritage or exposure to those from other cultures. For example, Brooks says, a counselor might think, “Well, I dated someone from this culture, so I know about issues relating to this group.” Although the counselor likely learned from that experience, Brooks says, that one particular experience should not be considered representative of an entire group of people.

Brooks says counselors should view multicultural competence in a similar fashion to a professional certification. “You obtain it, and then you maintain it,” says Brooks, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Services at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.

ACA President Cirecie West-Olatunji agrees, saying that counselors must accept the idea that multicultural competence is ever changing and demands constant work and attention. “Maybe we’re competent enough in that moment, but we’ll never be a card-carrying member of multicultural competence — and that is something we have to learn to be OK with,” says West-Olatunji, the counseling program director at the University of Cincinnati and director of the university’s Center for Traumatic Stress Research.

The importance of striving toward multicultural competence can’t be overstated, she says. “We understand and believe that to be multiculturally competent is to be effective [as a counselor]. We can’t avoid it or see it as an add-on or optional.”

Despite extensive training in multiculturalism, West-Olatunji says that when she started out in counseling private practice, she was still operating from a predominantly Western perspective and treating her clients “as if they were middle-class white males.”

“Most of what I had learned in my course work was based on evidence-based interventions with middle-class white males,” she says. “So, I had very few resources that were shown to be effective with diverse populations. In effect, I had to first educate my clients about how to behave as middle-class white males, and only then could I provide interventions. Over time, my clients patiently taught me about their own realities and worldviews. Then I was able to develop culturally responsive interventions.”

Having the capability to work with clients from their own cultural perspective is more expedient in resolving issues, West-Olatunji says. She offers the concept of ambiguity as an example. In Western cultures, counselors are taught that when a client asks a question, the counselor should reflect it back, saying something along the lines of, “What do you think the problem is? And what do you think the answer should be?”

That ambiguous, reflection-based response may work within a conventional Western perspective, West-Olatunji says, but counselors must also have an awareness of when that perspective doesn’t fit with the client sitting in front of them. Otherwise, counselors run the risk of compromising their credibility with those clients. “For a lot of culturally diverse clients, those kinds of reflective responses can appear as though you don’t know [the answer] or you’re avoiding the question,” she says.

Instead, West-Olatunji suggests that counselors use more engaging responses with culturally diverse clients. For example, counselors might consider asking these clients to role-play as if they were talking with someone important in their life who has provided them with those kinds of definitive answers in the past. “Let’s have a conversation with that person and move forward with that,” West-Olatunji might tell a client.

Just as each counselor’s work is never done when it comes to multicultural competence, West-Olatunji says the profession as a whole must continue reaching higher as well. “Although we have come a long way in disseminating research about multiculturalism in counseling, we still have a long way to go,” she says. “First, counselors-in-training and practitioners still evidence resistance to the topic of multicultural counseling. We need to continue to investigate resistance to multicultural counseling. Second, counselor educators conduct the bulk of the research. So, much of the research is about what multicultural counseling is rather than how we enact it. Now is the time for us to investigate clinical practice in the area of multicultural counseling.”

For example, West-Olatunji says, research has shown that many African American clients utilize spirituality as a way of maintaining well-being. “We know that, but what does that mean when I’m working with a client?” she asks. “When the door closes, what evidence-based practices do I have available to me that use spirituality for working with African American clients?”

West-Olatunji’s hope is that the profession will keep growing, moving forward and seeking answers to questions regarding multiculturalism.

To probe this issue further, Counseling Today contacted several ACA members who have studied, researched or worked in the area of multiculturalism. Read on for their thoughts about the state of multiculturalism within counseling.

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Fred Bemak is a professor and coordinator of the counseling and development program at George Mason University and director of the Diversity Research and Action Center. He is also founder of Counselors Without Borders.

Where are counselors in terms of multiculturalism competencies? What is the profession doing well and, conversely, where does it need to put more effort?

The AMCD multicultural competencies have been established as the baseline for counselor training and provide a shared and universal foundation of awareness, knowledge and skills. This is a huge step when contrasted with past decades when focused multicultural research and practice were discounted and marginalized in the mainstream literature and, subsequently, in training and practice. In my opinion, although the acceptance of the multicultural competencies as a baseline for training has significantly advanced the field, there are still some serious gaps. For example, every counselor I know is aware and supportive of the multicultural competencies. The problem with this is that the buy-in to employing the multicultural counseling competencies in research, training and practice, although well intentioned, is sometimes superficial and lacks a real understanding of the complexity and depth of the issues that relate to the competencies. This will be the work of the future — to move from politically correct rhetoric to fully understood and [to] implement meaningful training, practice, supervision and research.

How do you see that happening in practical terms?

I think we have to have authentic, honest discussions — not politically correct discussions. We have to take risks and be honest with each other in talking about these issues of diversity and race. We need to get it on the table rather than brushing over it. To talk about similarities, differences, biases, stereotypes, prejudices — talk about these issues honestly, talk about history with these issues, talk about the current state of these issues.

Where might that happen?

It has to start in training at the university level. That means that faculty need to get real with these issues and look deeply into themselves as to where they are and then figure out how to promote the difficult dialogues. And, of course, then it extends to ACA, leadership forums and the like.

How are multiculturalism and multicultural competencies taught — or how should they be taught — in counselor education? 

Multicultural counseling is a required course in counselor graduate training. Although many graduate programs do an excellent job in expanding multiculturalism beyond the one class, many programs maintain that the multicultural course is sufficient for multicultural training — [that is], check the requirement box. I would strongly disagree with this and would want to expand multiculturalism to all courses.

At my university, we teach about racial identity, white privilege, racism and discrimination, social justice, the relationship between poverty and mental health, and the multicultural competencies in the first “Introduction to Counseling” class and every class thereafter through practicum and internship. We believe that since multiculturalism is a foundation in counseling, it must be a core component of every class, along with the parallel social justice issues that systematically impact our clients. Furthermore, we believe that learning expands beyond the classroom and is not just book knowledge or competency memorization. Two recent articles I coauthored about social justice training applications through a classroom-without-walls training model and the use of ethnographic fiction to teach social justice and multiculturalism exemplify the importance and ways of incorporating intense experiences and book knowledge.

 

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Mark Pope is professor and chair of the Department of Counseling and Family Therapy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Pope is a past president of ACA as well as the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling and the National Career Development Association, both divisions of ACA. He has been working in the area of multicultural competence for more than 30 years.

Can multiculturalism be taught, or must it be learned through experience?

There are two theories of how to include multicultural counseling skills in the counselor education curriculum: 1) the one-course model and 2) the infusion model. In the one-course model, there is a stand-alone course in multicultural counseling, and in the infusion model, multicultural counseling competencies are infused throughout the curriculum and included in each course that counseling students take as part of their degree program. The truth is that you need both. In all courses where you are teaching adults, experience is critical to effective learning. There is definite content that can be learned didactically, but experiential learning is a critical component to real learning of most anything, [and it is] especially important to multicultural competence. The experiential component gives students the opportunity to test out their old ways of looking at culture and then to try on new ways.

When a counselor is multiculturally competent, how does it facilitate the counseling process?

First, I don’t think that we can speak of a counselor being “multiculturally competent.” It’s kind of like “reliability” and “validity.” You can never say that an inventory is reliable or valid. It is better to think of it as there is “evidence” of reliability and validity, just like with a counselor being multiculturally competent. It is better to think that there is evidence of competency because “competent” implies that they are complete, finished. All of this is really a process of gaining increased evidence of competency. The essence of being an effective counselor with any person is to truly understand this person and the many aspects of who they are and their life. It’s so much like a jigsaw puzzle. The more pieces of the puzzle you have in place, then the closer and closer you are to fully understanding that person, and the more effective you can be with your helping.

How is this topic personal to you? 

I am a walking multicultural event all by myself, as someone who grew up as a gay Cherokee boy in rural southeast Missouri with a congenital birth abnormality — spina bifida — and who married a gay Filipino artist. Way back in 1995, when culture was being narrowly defined, I wrote an article [for the January/February issue of the Journal of Counseling & Development] titled “The ‘Salad Bowl’ Is Big Enough for Us All: An Argument for the Inclusion of Lesbians and Gay Men in Any Definition of Multiculturalism.” That article came out of my frustration with feeling left out, or (dis)integrated in certain parts of my identity, from multiculturalism. And I knew that in order to get the importance of culture in our profession and in the lives of our clients, you had to have skin in the game. You had to feel that you were part of all this. That feeling would invite involvement and buy-in at a deeper level than just a theory in a book.

What are the challenges involved in striving toward multicultural competence?

In order to understand prejudice, you have to admit your own prejudice. The bottom line is that you can’t grow up in a racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., society and not have vestiges of it yourself. All human beings do. But it’s what we do with that knowledge and those feelings that are the keys to being a very effective counselor. In my multicultural classes, I try to give students a safe place to talk about all this in a respectful and caring manner.

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 Angela Coker is an associate professor and clinical mental health counseling program coordinator in the Department of Counseling and Family Therapy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. In August, she finished an eight-month sabbatical at the University of Botswana, where she was collecting data for a study on counseling across cultures.

How are multiculturalism and multicultural competencies taught in counselor education? Can they be taught, or must they be learned through experience?

All CACREP[-accredited] programs are required to offer at least one multicultural class as part of a student’s training, but best practices show that honoring cultural diversity happens best when such discussions and objectives are infused in every counselor education course. It is not enough just to have one course. This approach tends to minimize the importance of multicultural counseling.

It is important to have a balance between theory and practice. However, I believe multicultural counseling and issues are best learned through experience. It is the only real way learning can have a lasting impact on the human psyche. During the 1980s and early ’90s, we were using Paul Pedersen’s three-factor approach to talking about multicultural training — awareness, knowledge [and] skills. Multicultural discourse has now evolved to include issues related to social justice, which looks at the negative societal factors that work to complicate the psychological wellness of individuals.

On the topic of social justice, what do counselors need to be ready and willing to do?

Social justice counseling is a natural progression and evolution of multicultural counseling. In social justice counseling, we are no longer questioning whether racism, sexism or other isms exist. That was the dialogue of 20 years ago. Social justice counseling discourse pushes the envelope even further. It calls for counselors and other mental health professionals to consider not only issues of diversity and culturally appropriate counseling strategies, but it requires counselors to tap into their own social consciousness regarding where a society and all its institutional structures — education, business, health arenas — have failed to provide equal opportunities and access to all its citizens. Second, social justice counseling requires counselors to take action and actively work to fight against oppression and discrimination within a society. The social justice counselor in many ways sees society as having the pathology, not the client.

In practical terms, some of the ways counselors can do this is through client and community advocacy. A few examples may include, but are not limited to, advocating for a particular lunch or breakfast program at a school, making politicians aware of negative issues in a community — for example, violence, gun control, drug abuse — or advocating for the rights of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community. Other things counselors can do in their clinical work are to use assessments that account for a client’s perceptions of negative societal influences and stressors in their lives. Counselors also need to be prepared to help clients uncover inner and external resources to combat negative societal stressors. Social justice counseling is about advocacy and empowerment.

What responsibility do counselors have to find ongoing continuing education on multiculturalism, and how do they go about doing that?

Ongoing continuing education is critical in any profession. First, it keeps us current and up to date in our field. Second, our students and clients expect us to be knowledgeable because it is critical to our ethical practices as counselors.

One of the ways counselors can continue to gain ongoing education on multiculturalism is through their own daily living. I always tell students that they have to be intentional about wanting to seek out new information and new experiences with others. Too often we allow human differences — race, gender, age, ethnicity — to be barriers to us getting to know each other. Other ways of staying current with respect to issues of multiculturalism are through their own research/scholarship production and professional development activities. I would also suggest participation in organizations whose missions are focused on multicultural issues.

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Michael Mariska is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Development at LIU Post. He is researching nonverbal skills in counseling as they relate to multicultural effectiveness and, along with Ryan William Green and Sarah N. Baquet, presented on that topic at the ACA 2013 Conference & Expo in Cincinnati.

Tell us about the research you’ve been doing and what you’ve learned so far.

One of my areas of research is on nonverbal communication in therapeutic relationships, and I’ve recently focused on its impact on multicultural counseling. Nonverbal communication is very closely linked with our emotional selves, and because of this, I believe it should be a critical area of focus for counselors. In addition, a link between counselors’ nonverbal behavior, awareness and attending skills and the development of effective therapeutic relationships with clients has been shown in a number of studies.

It should not come as a surprise that there is a difference in nonverbal communication patterns across cultures, and neither should the idea that nonverbal miscommunication can negatively impact the formation of a cross-cultural counseling relationship. I don’t believe it’s reasonable, or even possible, to learn all of the nonverbal differences that exist between cultures. Rather, I think that building multicultural competence in this area comes from building awareness of the types of differences that can exist and then developing general intervention skills to target nonverbal signals in counseling.

Through my research, I have identified a few key nonverbal areas that differ across cultures that I believe can be utilized in counselor education to demonstrate the range of nonverbal differences that exist. I have also drawn from existing work in a number of fields to develop intervention skills specific for nonverbal signals. I am currently working on the creation of a training module focusing on nonverbal awareness and skills that can be utilized in multicultural counseling course work. Over the next couple of years, I hope to examine the impact of this type of training on multicultural competency and self-efficacy in working with culturally different clients.

Where do you see the future of multiculturalism within counseling? 

I think the future of multiculturalism lies with building effective multicultural skills training for counseling students and professionals. Throughout my time as a student and professional, I have seen an excellent focus in counselor education on building multicultural awareness through recognizing privilege, the many isms that exist, identity development, the importance of social justice and overall helping students to learn to see outside of their own worldview. In my experience, however, I have not seen as much in the way of specific skills training in how to engage, learn from and respectfully challenge culturally different clients. I think there is real value in knowing how to open a dialogue with a culturally different client such that you are able to explore and learn from their own unique worldview, rather than drawing from learned generalizations of their culture.

I have sought to address this through my own work in nonverbal intervention skills training but think that is only a small part of what could be accomplished. In the future, I hope we can utilize some of the excellent skill-based work that I’m sure is being done in counselor education across the country and work to enhance and emphasize the skills involved in becoming multiculturally competent.

What are the challenges to becoming multiculturally competent? 

I believe the greatest challenge is learning how to step outside of your own worldview. This is a challenge inherent in all aspects of counseling, as we consistently work to engage both our empathy for our clients’ experiences and the knowledge that their perception of these experiences can be vastly different from our own. I believe that our brains have developed to “take the easy way” in regard to making sense of the world around us whenever possible. Because of this, believing that everyone else sees and experiences reality the same way you do is a very easy habit to fall into. Stepping outside of this habit is difficult, and learning how and why to do so is a large part of what I believe multicultural awareness training seeks to do.

Can you share a tip or two for how to do that?

I’ve found that stepping outside of this habit has been a very individual process for the students I’ve discussed it with, so I try not to recommend any particular approach as the “right way” to do it. In my own experience, addressing the habit has involved focusing on developing my own mindfulness and curiosity. When engaging with others, I try to stay mindful of my own emotional experience, reactions and attitudes. In doing so, I hope to catch myself when this habit is occurring so that I can attempt to limit its impact.

In addition, I’ve also tried to maintain a basic curiosity about the subjective reality of people I talk with. Since breaking any habit requires consistent effort, I think that if I can stay curious, I’m more apt to make the effort needed to understand their unique worldview.

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Courtland Lee is a professor in the Department of Counselling at the University of Malta and a past president of ACA. He has authored or coauthored a number of books on the topics of multiculturalism, diversity and social justice in counseling. 

How would you describe the current state of multicultural competency within the field of counseling?

It is very obvious that we have made great strides in establishing the idea of multicultural competency as a cornerstone of professional counseling practice. For example, there has been a proliferation of documents and research articles on various aspects of multicultural competency. Significantly, the concept of multicultural competency is now firmly embedded in the ACA ethical standards.

While all of this is good, we still don’t seem to know how to assess multicultural competency beyond subjective self-report processes. What is needed as the profession moves forward are ways to objectively assess the behaviors associated with multicultural competency. We need procedures that allow counselor educators and supervisors to observe the behaviors of students and practitioners in cross-cultural contexts and then assess the extent to which these exhibited behaviors reflect multicultural competency.

What are the challenges to becoming multiculturally competent?

The true nature of the process by which one develops multicultural counseling competency is indeed challenging because it entails first developing global literacy. Successfully completing a multicultural counseling class or attending a diversity workshop are not endpoints in one’s development as a culturally competent counselor. Indeed, while these are important aspects of ongoing professional development, they should be seen as small components of a lifelong personal journey.

The major challenge to developing multicultural competency involves living one’s life in a manner that reflects a commitment to continually expanding one’s cultural comfort zone to include knowledge of and active interaction with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. It also means that one is constantly aware of how events, both past and current, impact upon people’s well-being. Global literacy, therefore, cannot be learned in a classroom. Rather, it is the result of one’s attempt to become a lifelong student
of cultural diversity and a true citizen of the world.

What challenges did you face personally?

The biggest challenge in attempting to become multiculturally competent involved my moving beyond viewing multicultural counseling from a very narrow racial/ethnic lens that focused exclusively on the issues and challenges facing African American clients. I have taught multicultural counseling to graduate students for over 30 years, and in that time, my views on multicultural competency have evolved significantly.

The curriculum in the course my first few years consisted of theories and strategies for counseling African American clients. Over time, I expanded the curriculum to include counseling other client groups of color in the United States. Gradually, as my conception of multicultural counseling grew, I began to include ideas on how to counsel people from other disenfranchised groups, such as gay and lesbian clients and people with disabilities. My biggest challenge was moving from viewing groups of people in often stereotypical ways when addressing counseling challenges to considering concepts of culture in a broader fashion that transcended both groups and geopolitical boundaries. Today, I teach my multicultural counseling course from a conceptual approach, as opposed to studying specific groups of people. Given this, students learn about important concepts that must be understood in a cultural context anywhere in the world.

 

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Clemmont Vontress is professor emeritus of counseling at George Washington University. He has been researching, teaching and practicing in the area of cross-cultural counseling for more than 50 years.

 Why is becoming multiculturally competent as a counselor so important?

Becoming a multiculturally competent counselor is important because problems that clients present [with] emerge from various cultures that impact them. There is not just one culture that influences our existence. There are at least five.

First, the universal culture is our way of being dictated by the fact that we are members of the human species. Therefore, we are like all other human beings in the world. Second, there is the ecological culture or the way of life dictated by the geographical environment in which humans live in a particular environment. Third, people reside in different countries. They must abide by the rules, regulations, customs and laws of their country. Failure to do so usually leads to social and psychological problems. Fourth, there are regional differences in each country. They, too, impact our well-being. Fifth, most people in the United States and other countries are born into a racio-ethnic culture.

If this understanding of culture is accepted, then we are all multicultural. To be therapeutic, counselors need to understand the many cultural environments or forces that envelop and affect our well-being.

Where is counseling as a profession in terms of multicultural competence?

The profession has done a fair job in terms of getting its members to recognize that people are culturally different. However, it has confused and perhaps misled people in making us believe that we can make counselors culturally competent by way of the classroom. Cultural competency is best achieved by standing in the other person’s shoes. It is hard to live in our safe, clean and well-ordered community and understand people in opposite situations.

How do counselors go about standing in another’s shoes?

There is no one way. However, a couple or so come to mind. First, cultural internships might be tried. Counselors-in-training might be required to live in a home or community that they or someone else perceives [as being] culturally different from them. I say “perceive” because some people perceived to be different from the counselor are not always different. Community involvement might enable the counselor to know that the person or persons first thought to be culturally different are just like them.

I think that we must think outside the box when training effective counselors. Classroom activities may not accomplish the task at hand. Unfortunately, counselor educators appear to be training cross-cultural counselors the same way they did when we did not talk about culture and counseling. Perhaps our certification groups should focus more on this very important area in counseling.

 

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Danica Hays is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Old Dominion University. She coauthored Developing Multicultural Counseling Competence: A Systems Approach with Bradley T. Erford, the second edition of which Pearson published earlier this year.

When a counselor is lacking in multicultural competency, how can it hinder the counseling process with clients?

When counselors lack the knowledge, awareness and skills to work with diverse clients, there is a domino effect: Clients do not come to counseling or they terminate prematurely, leading to one less resource for them. This affects their psychological and, often, physical well-being. Part of facilitating multicultural competency is knowing what you do not know and growing with your client — learning together in some cases. It involves asking questions to best meet client needs. These strategies help to dismantle the notion of “expert” counselor and provide a model of interpersonal growth for clients.

What are the challenges to becoming multiculturally competent? 

The challenges can be many: believing there isn’t enough time to seek continuing education, personal resistance to stepping out of one’s own comfort zone, lacking knowledge of where to start when it comes to learning new skills [and] lack of research on best practices with clients of diverse backgrounds who are facing a variety of concerns.

What advice would you give to counselors to address some of those challenges?

Acquiring multicultural competence can occur in small steps [such as] identifying a social issue or cultural factor we feel passionate about or seeking community resources to begin building a list for clients. Once we get into the intricacies of one cultural or social justice issue, we can then look for commonalities with other issues — or how one issue impacts a variety of people. Part of stepping out of our comfort zone involves establishing peer networks to discuss client and professional issues in a safe way. In addition, we need to start thinking about the notions that all counseling is multicultural, [that] attention to intersecting identities is important and [that] approaching a client case conceptualization or treatment plan from a multicultural and social justice lens is a must. Also, be an active consumer of research and develop methods for collecting data with your clients to inform practice; share with a professional audience as well as your community. Part of dealing with discomfort and knowing where to start is the realization that you are not alone and that the profession has only fairly recently started operationalizing multicultural competence.

Where does the profession need to place more effort on this topic?

First, the goals surrounding multicultural competency require counselors to have knowledge, skills and awareness to serve in a culturally relevant and affirmative manner. We have a great distance to go in terms of understanding what skills foster multicultural competency while promoting client and student welfare. In addition, most of what we know in terms of changes in counselor multicultural competency is self-report from counselor trainees. It is important that we involve supervisors, school administrators, clients, parents and other stakeholders to contribute to our understanding of counselor multicultural competency.

With a foundational discussion of social justice over the last decade, we need to turn our attention to socioeconomic status and the roles of classism and poverty in clients’ lives and how this intersects with other cultural identities, as well as environmental conditions, to foster and sustain problems with mental and physical well-being. Degree of economic security within families and communities has a far-reaching impact on academic, social, occupational and physical well-being. While privilege and oppression related to other cultural group memberships certainly matters, socioeconomic status often has a moderating effect that perpetuates social injustice.

Finally, we need to constantly attend to diversifying our profession and expanding our experiences, whether this involves recruiting students of color and males into our counseling programs or practicing in settings that might challenge us culturally. The type of counselors and experiences they have as trainees ultimately provide a model for the public that counseling could be useful to them, no matter their background or concern.

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Kevin Feisthamel is the director of counseling, health and disability services at Hiram College in Ohio. Along with Paula Britton, Feisthamel presented on multicultural supervision at the ACA 2013 Conference & Expo in Cincinnati.

Talk about the importance of multicultural supervision. What does it mean to be a multiculturally competent supervisor, and what will that mean for the counselor being supervised?

Multicultural supervision is crucial to the advancement of the counseling profession in producing future mental health counselors who have gained the knowledge, awareness, values, beliefs and practical skills to become competent multicultural counselors. As such, supervisors have an ethical mandate set forth by the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision that states, “Counseling supervisors are aware of and address the role of multiculturalism/diversity in the supervisory relationship.”

What it means for me in becoming a multiculturally competent supervisor is being aware of diversity, race, ethnicity and LGBTIQQ concerns as they relate to the supervision process. Supervisors must “start the conversation” with their supervisee and not be afraid to confront their own fears of not knowing all the answers in approaching a supervisee from a different culture.

Being a multiculturally competent supervisor also includes being culturally sensitive in assigning DSM diagnoses to certain races. I have done research in this area, including an article in the Journal of Counseling & Development in 2009, that [suggests] professional counselors disproportionately diagnose clients of color more often than Euro-Americans with certain mental disorders such as psychotic disorders. [This was] the first-ever study looking at this phenomenon with professional counselors. Euro-Americans are often diagnosed with more mood disorders.

Supervisors also have so many roles, including monitoring client welfare, professional development [and] being a teacher, mentor, advocate and facilitator of self-awareness and self-exploration, that we need to integrate multicultural competencies in all of these roles for our supervisees. I am more concerned about the applicability of multicultural skills, and I will bring this up in the supervision session — “What about this client triggered you as a therapist?” It could be religious belief, a different culture such as Muslim or Hindu, abortion versus the right to life, etc.

How would you describe the current state of multicultural supervision within the field of counseling?

It’s in its infancy. More clinical research and practical techniques need to be implemented within the educational and field placement settings. I think supervisors lag behind supervisees in multicultural awareness and knowledge. For example, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs requires only one multiculturalism course that is basically an overview of the various types of cultures and what future counselors should particularly pay attention to. Thus, as graduates become licensed and obtain their supervisory credentials, there is usually no requirement of obtaining CEUs related to multicultural understanding. If a supervisor has been in the field for 15 to 20 years, only their clinical experience may help with understanding multicultural issues, but more formal training may be needed.

 

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Mary Bradford Ivey is courtesy professor at the University of South Florida. She has been studying multiculturalism since the late 1970s and is a founding member of the National Institute for Multicultural Competence.

Why is being multiculturally competent as a counselor so important?

Paul Pedersen once said, “All counseling is multicultural.” If we are to be effective, we need to take his words at heart. First and foremost, we are here to serve all people. Research and clinical experience has shown that many clients drop out of counseling because they don’t feel comfortable with their counselor. By 2019, just six years from now, authorities state that at least half of youth in the U.S. will be what we now call “ethnic minority groups.” Most counselors currently beginning their careers will see white people become less central [in U.S. society].

In short, if we are to be the central helping profession, it is our moral duty to refocus our thinking and practice. And, for mere survival as a counselor, it becomes essential that one is able to work with people of all colors, ethnic groups, genders and sexual orientations, physical and mental abilities, rich and poor, and all forms of diversity. This is quite a challenge for many of us.

Given this challenge, how does the field need to proceed?

All students, professionals, professors and textbook authors need to examine all theory and practice so that we come to terms with the present and future. Individually, we each need to make a commitment to learning and change, but this is not enough, as we cannot do all this alone.

Then how? First, each school, counseling center, and local and regional counseling association needs to establish action plans and serious in-service training to make this important leap. Getting out of the office and into the community and its many multicultural events is important, as is becoming active in working toward positive change in social issues.

Where is the intersection between multiculturalism and social justice?

If all counseling is multicultural, then we need to maintain awareness that all counseling inevitably involves issues of social justice. This means that the difficulty a child or adolescent faces is not just “their problem.” Rather, their issues arise in a social environment. If that environment includes poverty, racism, sexism, ableism or other form of injustice, we have two obligations.

First, we need to help clients become aware of the system surrounding their concerns and issues. Is the problem in the client or the system? This awareness frequently helps clients understand issues more fully and can take away feelings of guilt and self-harm.

The second dimension of action is working against oppression in the community and society. This can range from helping parents understand and work with social benefits, to working in a soup kitchen, to direct participation in social justice action groups within a church or community. Social justice action is central to meaningful multicultural competence.

What responsibility do counselors have to find continuing education on multiculturalism, and how do they go about doing that?

As all counseling is now defined as multicultural, all of us need to make that central in our educational efforts. Counseling Today articles such as this one have been important in building awareness and teaching some level of skills. All of us need to read and learn more, but especially we need to get out in our communities and learn face-to-face.

All continuing education programs need to have meaningful correspondence with the multicultural competencies. This seldom happens. If the CE is specifically oriented to these issues, that is helpful. But when you attend a session on the DSM-5, CBT [cognitive behavior therapy] theory and practice, family therapy, etc., I have seldom seen any attention at all [paid] to how these sessions relate to multicultural issues. This means that we as professionals have to start challenging our teachers and workshop leaders. Are they really engaged in teaching multicultural competence and walking the talk?

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Carlos Zalaquett is a professor and coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling program at the University of South Florida. He is also the associate editor of the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development.

How is multicultural competence achieved?

As awareness, knowledge and skills suggest, becoming multiculturally competent requires learning and practicing, as well as seeking exposure to diverse races, cultures and worldviews. A commitment to action is needed too. Many of us have some multicultural awareness, knowledge and skills but fail to bring them to action when working with others [who] are different from us or when we face situations that are unacceptable to us. The infamous knowing-doing gap becomes painfully evident when it relates to multicultural skills.

In your opinion, what is the solution to that knowing-doing gap?

Intentional practice is the best approach. Knowledge will set in as we practice what we have learned about multiculturalism and multicultural competencies. We accomplish this by using and teaching these competencies to others. The more we understand this and the more we practice with the intention to master what we have learned, the more we will implement what we know and the more we will close the gap. Mastering multicultural awareness, knowledge and skills requires the “doing” — the intentional practicing and experiencing of these aspects in our everyday work with our clients and students.

What are the challenges to becoming multiculturally competent? 

Perhaps the challenges are around ego and vulnerability. We all like to think of ourselves as caring individuals, but we have blind spots and hot points that trigger our emotions. These matters have to get addressed as we work on our multicultural competency.

Where do you see the future of multiculturalism within counseling? 

Everything is global, and we are recognizing the intersectionality of individuals’ identities. To be an ethical and effective counselor, one must continuously push to learn more about others and oneself. Additionally, we have to broaden our repertoire of skills and lived experiences to “do no harm.”

 

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Richard Henriksen Jr. is an associate professor of education in the Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling at Sam Houston State University in Texas. He has been researching and working in the area of multicultural counseling for almost 20 years and has written extensively on counseling multiple-heritage clients.

What are some practical examples of ways practitioners can go about being multiculturally competent?

There are many ways, and the one I believe is most important and most challenging is to make genuine friends with others who are culturally different from you. Many times, you hear things like go to cultural events or read books or talk to someone about their culture. We even teach in counseling programs to ask your client to tell you about his or her culture so that you can learn about [it]. I say make a friend because then you get to really know someone and, oftentimes, his or her family. When you are able to make friends with those from different backgrounds, our fears are removed and doors are open to new adventures and opportunities to learn.

I also believe that multicultural competence comes from our experiences in being with other groups, so service-learning projects can be integral to learning about diverse cultural groups. It is more than just volunteering. It is about joining with a new group of people and sharing with them [in] their experiences.

You suggest making friends with people of different cultures. How do counselors avoid the trap of thinking that because one new friend is a certain way, that he or she represents the characteristics of the wider culture?

While befriending others from diverse cultures, it would be important for counselors and counseling students to remember that meeting just a few people is not enough to make one culturally competent. Our relationships give us insights into what it means to be different or to come from a cultural background different from our own. It is not enough to give us insight into the world of a different cultural group, nor does it give a definition of the experiences of others. It does help us to become comfortable meeting people from diverse cultures and helps to take away our fears of getting to know people from diverse backgrounds.

We still need to remember that limited experiences and friendships give us limited information, so [we] need to always be meeting new people, finding new experiences to engage in and allowing clients to teach us about their cultural experiences. With limited information, we need to be aware that we cannot generalize our limited knowledge to entire cultural groups. If we forget this, we can easily fall into the trap of stereotyping diverse groups of people. We need to always remember that the experiences we have help us to be able to approach others and give us the opportunity to stretch our experiences so that we can stretch ourselves when we meet new clients from diverse cultural backgrounds.

 

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Lynne Shallcross is the associate editor and senior writer for Counseling Today. 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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