Intercultural Counseling

It has been a slow process, but the book that Celia and I are working on is kind of done. That is, it is done in terms of content. It is called “Dynamics in Pastoral Counseling” and is to serve as a textbook for some of our training. Of course, there is still editing, adjusting format, and finishing bibliography and index. So don’t know when it will be done. But getting closer. Here is a pre-editing section.

Caring for those of another culture is a challenge. David Hesselgrave describes several dimensions of culture that impact effective communication.

  • Worldviews (How we perceive the world)
  • Cognitive Processes (How we think)
  • Linguistic Forms (How we express ideas)
  • Behavioral Forms (How we act)
  • Social Structures (How we interact)
  • Media Influences (How we channel the message)
  • Motivational Resources (How we decide)5

All of these (with the POSSIBLE exception of Media Influences) are very relevant in pastoral counseling. There are too many different combinations of cultural possibilities between the counselor and the client to list here (or anywhere). It is not the responsibility of the client. There are some basic rules.

Figure 10. Cultural Distance in the Counselor-Client Relationship

Rule #1. Lessening of the Gap is the Job of the Counselor, NOT the Client. Refer to Figure 10. This may seem obvious after one thinks about it for a bit. However, culture is not so much a matter of thought as much as habit. We develop habits of behaviors, interpretations of experiences, and ways of communicating that are reinforced by those we share a culture with. The counselor needs to make a conscious effort to override habit and adjust himself or herself to the client. The language used should be language comfortable to the client. The style and manner of the counselor should be correctly interpretable by the client.

Rule #2. The Gap is never erased. While it may be the job of the counselor to reduce the cultural gap, it is not realistic to reduce that distance to nothing. Sherwood Lingenfelter has suggested that a missionary serving in a cross-cultural setting for years probably will become acculturated perhaps only about 75%. If that is true, there would be a 25% cultural disconnect between the missionary and the host culture. The cultural distance between the counselor and client should be acknowledged. Identifying it is a good first step to be sure that there is good communication feedback to reduce miscommunication.

Rule #3. The Gap should be honored. People tend to have a natural reaction of rejecting the reasonableness of situations that are caused by cultural situations that they don’t understand or value. So if a counselor is talking to a young woman who is struggling with the fact that her parents are pressuring her to marry someone that she doesn’t like, much less love, it counselor may feel the temptation to say, “Well this seems simple. Just tell your parents that your are a grown woman and certainly don’t need their help to find a proper spouse.” Such a response is ill-considered when the woman is in a culture where family and shame are given more importance and the parents commonly arrange marriages, not just “bless” them. The counselor needs to bracket these feelings. On the other hand the counselor should not simply embrace the common ground approach. “I understand exactly what you are going through?” Attempts to minimize the differences can come of as condescending or manipulative. The differences should be honored, and even disclosed. It may be appropriate to say, “In my culture we tend to do things differently, so I struggle to understand your situation. Please help me understand.”

Rule #4. Healthy in the Client culture may appear different to healthy in the Counselor’s culture. A counselor speaking to someone in the military may struggle with the fact that a healthy person in the military places high priority on employment hierarchy and on subordination. A healthy person in a very family-centered culture or a healthy person from a very egalitarian open society may look considerably different from this.

This is not to say that all there is not room for challenges. A culture that establishes well-being or success in terms of accolades from strangers (as opposed to affirmation from loved ones or achieving a one’s own sense of calling) may need to be challenged. Challenge should, however, be cautious. The temptation to fall into judgmentalism of what one doesn’t understand can poison the therapeutic relationship between the counselor and the client.

Rule #5. Despite differences, there are universals. An enduring image in the West has fit under the label, “The Inscrutable Oriental.” The term “inscrutable” means “impossible to understand or interpret.” This was the stereotyped view of some that people from Asia think and behave in ways that are impossible to understand by Western minds. But were they really inscrutable? Most likely not. Rather, people of the West did not make the time and effort to understand. We are all human. Our commonality as humans allows us to understand, at least on some significant level, others even where there may be sizable cultural differences.

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