Tonight I’m in Absarokee, MT and had a chance to talk awhile with my very cool nephew, Tommy Flanagan. Tommy attends Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA. He shared with me this evening that he’s currently enrolled in several courses focusing on gender, feminist, and cultural issues. We talked about our respective invisible knapsacks and he even asked me how a White guy like me would approach counseling with a Black Lesbian woman. In response, I said, “Well, I just wrote something about that in the Clinical Interviewing text and I had a Black Lesbian woman review it so I would be sure to get some feedback.”
And so here’s the piece:
Working with Gay and Lesbian couples or couples and families from different cultural backgrounds can present clinicians with unique challenges (Bigner & Wetchler, 2004). As discussed in Chapter 11, when a clinician and client have clear and unmistakable differences, the client may initially scrutinize the clinician more closely than if the client and clinician are culturally similar or of the same sexual orientation. These circumstances call for sensitivity, tact, and a discussion of the obvious. Imagine the following scenario:
You’re a white, heterosexual, Christian male. You have a new appointment at 3pm with Sandy Davis and Latisha Johnson for couple counseling. When you get to the waiting room, you see two African American females sitting side by side. You introduce yourself and on the short walk back to your office you mentally process the situation and come to several conclusions: (a) You’re about to meet with an African American Lesbian couple; (b) you’ve never done therapy with this particular cultural minority group; (c) you’re aware of your uncertainty and your concerns about your lack of knowledge makes you feel uncomfortable . . . but also recognize that you want the couple to be comfortable with you . . . and realize they may be feeling similar discomfort about your cultural differences; (d) you are clear that it’s your ethical mandate to provide services to the best of your ability; and (d) although you don’t feel competent to work with this couple, this is a low-income clinic and so the couple may not have many alternatives. How do you proceed?
Below is a brief list of how a clinician might specifically handle this situation. After this list, we provide a description of the underlying principles:
- Welcome the couple to your office with the warmth and engagement you offer to all clients (e.g., “I’m glad you could come to the clinic today for your appointment and am happy to meet you. . .”).
- Explain confidentiality and the limits of confidentiality. Also, review relevant agency policies that you routinely review with new clients.
- If you know the purpose of their visit (e.g., couple counseling) because of the registration form, explain how you usually work with couples.
- Let the couple know you’d like them to ask any questions of you they may have . . . but before they ask the questions, explain: “My usual approach with couples is primarily based on work with heterosexual couples. I don’t have experience working with African American Lesbian couples. I’d like to work with you as long as you’re comfortable working with me and it seems like the work is helpful. I know there aren’t lots of couple’s counseling options available. What I propose—if it’s okay with the two of you—is that we start working together today. Today I’ll be asking you directly about your goals for counseling, but also about your interests, values, spirituality and other things that will help me know you better as individuals and as a couple. And toward the end of our session I’ll ask you for feedback about how you think our work together is going and I’ll try to honor that feedback and make adjustments so we can work well together. If, for whatever reason, it looks like we can’t work together effectively, I’ll offer you a good referral to another therapist. What do you think of that plan?”
As described in Chapter 11, the general multicultural competencies include: (a) Awareness (e.g., knowing your biases and limitations); (b) knowledge (e.g., gathering information pertaining to specific cultural groups); and (c) skills (e.g., applying culturally-specific interventions in a culturally sensitive manner). In addition to these competencies, the preceding case illustrates the need for clinicians to explicitly address cultural differences using the following strategies:
- Cultural universality (treating culturally different clients with same respect you offer to culturally similar clients)
- Collaboration (working with the clients to understand the particulars of their culture and situation)
- Feedback (soliciting ongoing feedback regarding client perceptions of how the interview is proceeding and make adjustments based on that feedback).
No clinician can be expected to have awareness, knowledge, and skills for working with every possible diverse client. That being the case, if you also rely on cultural universality, collaboration, and feedback to help strengthen the therapeutic alliance, you’ll have a better chance for therapy to proceed in an ethically and professionally acceptable manner.