Culture and Empathy in Cross-Cultural Counseling

When I taught a course on cross-cultural counseling, I faced the challenge of selecting the most critical issues to emphasize.  Clearly, empathy was identified as the critical condition for effective counseling.  Without empathy, people cannot connect.  With empathy, the work can begin.  I wish I had come across this article by Chung and Bemak when I was teaching.  My students would have had another paper to read.  It’s really good.  Drs. Rita Chi-Ying Chung and Fred Bemak are on the faculty at George Mason University.  (If you want to read the whole article, it’s in the Journal of Counseling & Development, Spring 2002, Vol. 80 Issue 2, 154-159.)  Here are some excerpts.

Abstract from the authors:
Empathy has been identified as a core condition for providing counseling. There are numerous articles discussing the components of empathy. However, as the U.S. becomes increasingly ethnically diverse and the world becomes more globalized, there is little discussion on how empathy will be effective with diverse populations. This article discusses the interaction of culture and empathy and suggests guidelines for establishing cultural empathy
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Various Descriptions of Empathy
  • the counselor’s ability to enter the client’s world (Rogers, 1961)
  • to feel with the client rather than feel for the client (Capuzzi & Gross, 1999)
  • to think with the client rather than for or about the client (Brammer, Abrego, & Shostrum, 1993)
  • the therapist’s ability and effort to place him- or herself symbolically in the position of the client and understand the client’s world.

But empathic understanding alone is not enough for effective therapy. The therapist must also have the ability and skill to communicate and demonstrate empathic understanding so that the client perceives it. So it’s an extremely relational ingredient.

Worldview is defined as the way individuals perceive their relationship to the world.  Worldviews not only comprise attitudes, values, beliefs, opinions, and concepts but also affect how individuals think, make decisions, behave, define, and interpret events.  The challenge for the counselor is to place oneself inside the client’s frame of reference and then have the ability to effectively communicate one’s understanding of that world.   For example, Asian students believed that the counselor displayed greater empathy when the counselor considered the students’ cultural values, such as family or societal influences, than when the counselor focused on Western values of individualistic personal attributes and needs.
The display of culturally sensitive responses and attitudes by the counselor is more important than an ethnic match.  The counselor’s ability to do this may have an impact on their credibility and subsequent ability to be culturally empathetic.  When Chinese students perceived the counselor to be empathetically involved, they also perceived the counselor to be credible. The credibility predicted their willingness to be in counseling.
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The authors list six major dimensions that significantly contribute to effective cultural empathy:
  1. Understand and accept the context of family and community for clients from different cultural backgrounds. This is especially important given the collectivistic nature of many cultures that emphasizes the social-familial context.
  2. Incorporate indigenous healing practices from the client’s culture when possible. An integration of traditional healing methods demonstrates that the counselor has a knowledge and understanding of the client’s beliefs and values. This requires an understanding of the client’s cultural conceptualization of mental health, manifestation of symptoms, and cultural expectations for treatment outcomes (Chung & Kagawa-Singer, 1995). If the counselor does not work within the cultural framework of health and mental health for each client, cultural empathy is likely to become an imposition of the counselor’s cultural value system rather than a culturally sensitive understanding of and response to the client’s problem. It is important to note that the incorporation of traditional healing methodologies does not mean that counselors must actually perform rituals such as Native American sweat lodge healing or sun dance, but rather that they work concurrently and cooperatively with traditional healers in true partnerships that entail the utmost respect for traditional healing methodologies (Bemak, Chung, & Pedersen, in press).
  3. Become knowledgeable about the historical and sociopolitical background of clients. For example, the United States has a history of discriminatory behavior toward ethnic minority populations, such as the slavery of African Americans, genocide of Native Americans, and internment of Japanese Americans. In addition, immigrants in the United States may come from countries at war or countries that have long-standing conflictual relationships between different ethnic or religious groups. These issues have important bearing on how, when, and where cultural empathy is expressed by the counselor and requires counselors to be aware of and sensitive to the importance of transgenerational trauma on clients.
  4. Be knowledgeable about the psychosocial adjustment that must be made by clients who have moved from one environment to another. This could range from relocating to another neighborhood or town; moving between urban, suburban, and rural settings; or migrating from one country to another. In all these instances, psychosocial adjustment plays a key role that would be important for a counselor to understand (Berry, 1997).
  5. Be highly sensitive to the oppression, discrimination, and racism that are encountered by many people and often on a daily basis (Bemak et al., in press; Robinson & Ginter, 1999; D. W. Sue, Bingham, Porche-Burke, & Vasquez, 1999). It is essential for counselors to understand the nature and impact of this experience in the healing process while maintaining culturally appropriate empathy with these deeply rooted issues.
  6. For those clients who feet underprivileged and devalued, it is essential for effective cultural empathy to facilitate empowerment for clients (see Bemak, 1998). This may require that counselors know about and provide information about community resources and services to clients and create supportive responses to clients so that they become confident and skilled in growing personally as well as promoting social change in their lives and communities.

In summary, to be effective with culturally diverse clients, it is critical that the counselor displays and demonstrates cultural empathy. Without the counselor’s culturally responsive empathy, there is a high probability of clients’ premature termination of counseling and the danger that the counselor will be ineffective with clients. Simply stated, the contribution of culturally responsive empathy is that it has the potential to greatly contribute to the healing process when working across cultures.

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2 Responses to Culture and Empathy in Cross-Cultural Counseling

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