Cross-Cultural Counseling: Developing Culture-Centered Interactions

Paul B Pedersen. Handbook of Racial & Ethnic Minority Psychology. Editor: Guillermo Bernai, Joseph E Trimble, A Kathleen Burlew, Frederick T L Leong. Sage Publication. 2003.

Cross-cultural counseling is any broadly defined psychological helping relationship in formal or informal settings where the provider assesses, understands, and/or evaluates a client’s behavior in that client’s cultural context where those behaviors were learned and displayed. Because all behavior is learned and displayed in a cultural context—and if culture is defined broadly to include demographic, status, and affiliation as well as ethnographic variables—then all counseling can be described as cross-cultural.

If culture is made central to counseling, then behavior can be measured more accurately, personal identity becomes more clear, the consequences of problems are better understood, and situations become more meaningful in their cultural contexts. Culture-centered interventions depend on an inclusive definition of culture and a broad definition of the counseling process. The search for models that tolerate the complexity of a culture-centered perspective includes non-Western alternatives as multiculturalism evolves into a “fourth force” or dimension in contemporary counseling theory.

Culture controls our lives and defines reality for each of us, with or without our permission and/or intentional awareness. A culture-centered perspective recognizes each person’s cultural context as central and not marginal, fundamental and not exotic. Some conventional approaches have been “behavior centered” without recognizing how culture shapes and directs our behaviors. Other approaches have been “person centered” without recognizing the role of culture in shaping the person’s perception of reality. Still other approaches have been “problem centered” without recognizing the role those problems serve in a culturally defined context. The culture-centered approach to counseling interventions is directly focused on the culturally learned assumptions that direct our behaviors, define our personality, and negotiate with our problems (Pedersen, 2000a; Pedersen & Ivey, 1993).

A Historical Perspective of Multicultural Counseling

Although mental health problems are similar across cultures, the appropriate response to those problems through various forms of counseling has been very diversified. The increase of urbanized, modernized, and industrialized societies and the corresponding breakdown of family and village support systems on a global scale have increased the appropriateness of counseling for managing social and individual problems.

The functional precursors of mental health services have been documented in a wide variety of cultures, although usually not differentiated as a separate specialty outside the Euro-American context. The labels of counseling and therapy are relatively new, but the functions described by those labels have a long history. A comprehensive history of counseling interventions would need to go back to the beginning of recorded social relationships. We now know (a) that formal counseling and therapy have spread with the worldwide rise of industrialization, urbanization, and modernization; (b) that “talk therapy” is only one alternative counseling intervention in a global context; (c) that counseling is the treatment of choice for a relatively small number of people worldwide; and (d) that counseling and therapy are becoming more responsive to the culturally defined context of people worldwide (Pedersen, 2000a; Ponterotto, Casas, Suzuki, & Alexander, 1995; Sue & Sue, 1999).

The Western and Non-Western Context of Counseling

Counseling has conventionally relied on a “Westernized” description of the self that presumes a separate independent and autonomous individual guided by traits, abilities, values, and motives that distinguish that individual from others. Western cultures are described by Berry, Poortinga, Segall, and Dasen (1992) as more idiocentric, emphasizing competition, self-confidence, and freedom, whereas collectivistic cultures are more allocentric, emphasizing communal responsibility, social usefulness, and acceptance of authority. Westernized beliefs grew out of a naturalistic understanding of the physical world describing human behavior in objective expressions rather than more subjective and internalized sensations (Taylor, 1989).

The clash between Western and non-Westernized thinking styles is evident in majority-minority cultural relationships. Counseling and therapy have a history of protecting the status quo against change, as perceived by minority cultures. These attitudes are documented in scientific racism (Sue & Sue, 1999) and Euro-American ethnocentrism. Cultural differences were explained by a “genetic deficiency” model that promoted the superiority of dominant cultures. This was modified to a “cultural deficit” model that described minorities as deprived or disadvantaged by their culture. Minorities were underrepresented among professional counselors and therapists, the topic of multiculturalism was trivialized at professional meetings, minority views were underrepresented in the research literature, and consequently, the counseling profession was discredited among minority populations.

The conflict between Western and non-Western perspectives is not necessary. Walsh (1989) described the relationship between Asian and Western psychologies as complementary to one another. Asian and Western psychologies both focus on development, with the Asian systems focused on advanced stages of development in a more transpersonal focus and Western systems focused on psychopathology and physical/mental development.

From a multiple-state-of-consciousness model, the traditional Western approach is recognized as a relativistically useful model provided that, because of the limitations imposed by state-specific relevancy, learning and understanding, it is not applied inappropriately to perspectives and states of consciousness and identity outside its scope. (Walsh, 1989, p. 549)

Pathologizing mystical experiences would be an example of Western models going beyond their boundaries in some cultures.

The recent emphasis on “indigenous psychology” (Kim & Berry, 1993) and the increased attention to psychology in non-Western cultures have resulted from (a) increased international contact, (b) redefinition of postcolonial relationships, (c) internationalization of the social sciences, (d) radicalization of special interest groups, (e) a methodological paradigm shift toward qualitative methods, (f) activism of contemporary social sciences, (g) increased interdisciplinary cooperation, (h) increased awareness of cultural diversity, and (i) increased international educational exchanges (Sloan, 1990). By positioning the cultural context as central to the counseling process, a new theoretical explanation of human behavior emerges.

We are living in a time when the conventional wisdom about human nature and the nature of society is under attack. Technology has run amok; many now question our ability to bring technology under manageable control. Bureaucracy—a social structure originally established to provide for personal growth—now stifles human development and generates a philosophy that human nature is lazy, irresponsible and extrinsically motivated. The communal movement has challenged a pessimistic drift in our society. Through study of the movement’s assumptions, aims, procedures and outcomes, we may gain an understanding of the future of philosophies of human nature. (Wrightsman, 1992, p. 293)

Sampson (1993) suggested that psychology and counseling have at best accommodated “add-on” eclectic strategies in response to culturally different perspectives without fundamentally transforming conventional frameworks of understanding:

Psychology is accused of using a framework of understanding that implicitly represents a particular point of view, that of currently dominant social groups, all the while acting as though its own voice were neutral, reflecting reason rationality, and with its ever expanding collection of empirical data, perhaps truth itself, (p. 1221)

The legitimacy of counseling as a science requires more than additional data or even more inclusive samples of objective data in defense of objective positivism. It requires the inclusion of more subjective, constructivist, and contextual perspectives based on the sociocultural context of culturally different people.

The Contemporary Context of Multicultural Counseling

Morris Jackson (1995) provided a concise description of the contemporary historical perspective for multicultural counseling. Although the functions of counseling have been applied around the world, the term multicultural is more of an American phenomenon, at least in its origination as a label. Many of the early writings about multicultural counseling were done primarily by Black American minority authors, leading up to the civil rights movement, women’s rights issues, and the forced recognition of other special interest groups in America and in response to segregation, exclusion, prejudice, and injustice toward those groups. More extensive discussions of these early authors are available elsewhere (M. L. Jackson, 1995; Pedersen, 1997, 2000a; Sue & Sue, 1999).

During the 1960s, there was a revolution going on in American society that was related, in part, to the opposition to the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, increased attention to feminism, and a questioning of established authority generally. This was the beginning of multicultural counseling as a visible perspective. Professional counseling organizations such as the American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) began to recognize the injustices of a monocultural perspective. Multiculturalism developed a militancy during this time that has continued up to the present time, as advocates of “minority groups” agitated for a more fair and equitable treatment by society.

During the 1970s, there was increased attention to ethnocultural minority issues and the different perspectives of special interest groups, and multicultural counseling organizations were established. Almost all of the counseling professionals working toward the establishment of multicultural counseling were themselves minority group members, writing about their own cultural groups and from their own perspective.

During the 1980s and 1990s, there was an explosion of literature about multicultural counseling, and the topic became more recognized among majority culture liberals, such as the present author. With increased publications and visibility of multicultural counseling, the movement gained power to influence the American Counseling Association (ACA) and APA as well as other professional organizations. There was a realization that multicultural counseling was not only advocating the welfare of minority groups but also the validity of counseling as a discipline. Because all behaviors are learned and displayed in a cultural context, accurate assessment, meaningful understanding, and appropriate intervention require attention to the client’s cultural context. This generic application of multicultural counseling to the whole field of counseling has profound implications for the future. If we are to take culture and multiculturalism seriously as a generic “fourth force” perspective to complement—but not compete with—psychodynamic, behavioral, and humanistic perspectives, then multicultural counseling will become a permanent feature of counseling (Pedersen, 1991, 1998).

The Future Context of Multicultural Counseling

Culture promises to make our lives more complicated in teaching, administration, research, and direct service. We must develop tools to manage this necessary complexity and not ignore it as we have in the past. Lifton’s (1993) “protean self,” in contrast with the “fundamentalist self,” demonstrates complexity with reference to the Greek god Proteus, who was constantly changing form. The postmodern person is a “shape-shifter” with multiple identities as a source of strength so that tolerance of ambiguity rather than dissonance reduction becomes the psychological ideal (Geleick, 1987). In the postmodern world, discontinuous change seems to be a permanent feature (Rosenau, 1992), but for the affirmative postmodernists, at least, it promotes the search for meaning through complex patterns.

Complexity theory in the social sciences grew out of chaos theory in the physical sciences as it seeks to redefine conventional categories. Those who advocate complexity theory

believe that they are forging the first rigorous alternative to the kind of linear, reductionistic thinking that has dominated science since the time of Newton—and that has now gone about as far as it can go in addressing the problems of our modern world. (Waldrop, 1992, p. 13)

Barton (1994) described a new paradigm for understanding systems described in terms of nonlinear and self-organizing dynamics. Butz (1992a, 1992b, 1993) applied chaos theory to the experience of anxiety in psychotherapy and systems theory in family therapy in a multicultural context, reviewing the dozens of publications in print that apply chaos theory to counseling and therapy. Chaos is the starting point for most psychotherapies, in which the therapist becomes the guide and companion for encountering chaos in the client’s life. Western cultures have tended to disregard or resolve chaos and thus lack conceptual tools for dealing with this level of complexity. We might well look to non-Western cultures to find conceptual tools for managing the complexity and recognizing the simplicity of each cultural context.

Current and Enduring Controversies

There are many controversies in cross-cultural counseling about how interventions should be done in multicultural contexts. Although there are no conclusive and final answers to any of these controversies, it is important to be informed on the issues being debated.

Is Counseling Culturally Encapsulated?

Wrenn (1962) first introduced the concept of cultural encapsulation. This perspective assumes five basic identifying features. First, reality is defined according to one set of cultural assumptions. Second, people become insensitive to cultural variations among individuals and assume their own view is the only right one. Third, assumptions are not dependent on reasonable proof or rational consistency but are believed true regardless of evidence to the contrary. Fourth, solutions are sought in technique-oriented strategies and quick or simple remedies. Fifth, everyone is judged from the viewpoint of one’s self-reference criteria without regard for the other person’s separate cultural context. There is evidence that the profession of counseling is even more encapsulated now than it was when Wrenn wrote his original article (Wrenn, 1985).

The former president of the American Psychological Association, George Albee (1994), described how completely psychology in the United States has been encapsulated in the past hundred years:

Most of the early leaders in psychology embraced ideological views that stressed the natural superiority of a white male patriarchy, the acceptance of Social Darwinism, the inferiority of women and of the brunette races. Calvinism stressed economic success as the hallmark of salvation and psychology concurred. Anti-semitism and homophobia were standard. Eugenics spokesmen urged the elimination of the unfit and inferior and opposed welfare programs, decent wages and safe working conditions, (p. 22)

Some of these biased views continue to be supported in the psychological literature, although in more subtle forms.

Examples of cultural encapsulation are evident in the counseling literature when the following assumptions are presumed to be true and accepted (Pedersen, 2000a):

  • All persons are evaluated according to a hypothetical “normal” standard of behavior across cultural contexts.
  • Individualism is presumed to be more appropriate than a collectivist perspective.
  • Professional boundaries are narrowly defined and interdisciplinary cooperation is discouraged.
  • Psychological health is described primarily in abstract jargon with little or no attention to the unique cultural context.
  • Dependency is considered to be an undesirable or even neurotic condition.
  • The client’s support systems are not normally considered in the analysis of an individual person’s psychological health.
  • Only linear-based “cause-effect” thinking is accepted as appropriate.
  • The individual is usually expected to “adjust” to fit the system, even when the system is wrong.
  • The historical roots of a person’s cultural context are disregarded or minimalized in counseling.
  • The counselor presumes herself or himself to be relatively free of racism and cultural bias.

Cultural encapsulation does exist. Counseling has a reputation in many minority communities as having been used as an oppressive instrument by those in power to maintain the status quo (Sue & Sue, 1999). Ponterotto and Casas (1991) contended that “the majority of traditionally trained counselors operate from a culturally biased and encapsulated framework which results in the provision of culturally conflicting and even oppressive counseling treatments” (pp. 7–8).

Are Counseling Measures and Assessments Culturally Biased?

Lonner and Ibrahim (1996) pointed out how assessment measures used in counseling have been culturally biased. They concluded that an accurate assessment would need to meet certain criteria: (a) The client’s world-view, beliefs, values, and culturally unique assumptions need to be understood; (b) the client’s culture-specific norm grouping needs to be generated; and (c) a combination of approaches using clinical judgment as well as standardized or objective measures needs to be derived. At the same time, standardized assessment measures raise problems of (a) the distinction between constructs and criteria, (b) the establishment of equivalence, (c) the effect of verbal or nonverbal stimuli, (d) the role of response sets, (e) the tendency to infer deficits from test score differences, and (f) other examples of embedded bias. Kohlberg’s measures of moral development, for example, are biased toward an individualistic norm reflecting the values of an urban, middle-class group (Segall, Dasen, Berry, & Poortinga, 1990) and with a bias favoring the male perspective (Gilligan, 1982, 1987).

Cultural bias in the use of tests and measurements are likely to result in overdiagnosis, underdiagnosis, or misdiagnosis. Although it is generally accepted that biases exist in the use of counseling tests and measures (Dana, 1993; Paniagua, 1994; Samuda, 1998), this does not necessarily mean that those tests and measures cannot or should not be used. The search first for “culture-free” tests and later for “culture-fair” tests has not been successful (Irvine & Berry, 1993; Lonner & Ibrahim, 1996). Flaherty, Gavina, and Pathak (1988) suggested that any culture-fair test would need to fulfill five validity criteria of (a) content equivalence across cultures, (b) semantic equivalence across cultures, (c) technical equivalence, (d) criterion equivalence, and (e) conceptual equivalence. Escobar (1993) contended that no test or assessment can fulfill these five criteria.

Lonner (1990) demonstrated that (a) testing and assessment are not familiar procedures in much of the non-Western world; (b) psychological constructs and concepts are not universally valid; (c) the basis of comparison across cultures is often not equivalent; (d) test stimuli are more frequently in the verbal rather than visual mode, even though language conveys strong bias; and (e) test score differences frequently imply a “deficit” in one or another culture by the language used to describe those differences.

Should Culture Be Defined Broadly or Narrowly?

The broad definition of culture presumes that the salient features of a person’s cultural identity may include demographic variables (age, gender, place of residence, etc.), status variables (social, educational, economic, etc.), and affiliations (formal and informal) in addition to ethnographic variables of nationality and ethnicity. According to the broad definition, some aspects of all counseling are multicultural, given the complexity of culturally defined salience as it adapts to each changing cultural context. The culture-centered perspective is generic, and a broad definition of culture becomes an important metaphor for counseling.

Culture-centered counseling must be sensitive to the client’s comprehensive cultural context. Segall et al. (1990) described culture as the ecological forces that move and shape nature: “Given those characteristics of culture it becomes possible to define it simply as the totality of whatever all persons learn from other persons” (p. 26). If culture is part of the environment and all behavior is shaped by culture, then culture-centered counseling is a response to all broadly defined culturally learned patterns. Cultural psychology (Shweder, 1990) presumes that each human behavior gives meaning to the environment, which changes people in response to that sociocultural environment. Cultural traditions and social practices regulate, express, and change patterns of human behavior. “Cultural psychology is the study of the ways subject and object, self and other, psyche and culture, person and context, figure and ground, practitioner and practice live together, require each other and dynamically, dialectically and jointly make each other up” (Shweder, 1990, p. 73).

Goldstein (1994) explained that the prescriptive mismatch of services occurred as a result of cultural differences between lower social class clients and typically middle-class change agents:

Both may be of the same race, ethnicity, age, gender and city of residence. But if they are from different social classes they are from different cultures. Further, they are from different cultures in ways that directly bear upon the form and efficacy of the intervention most appropriately offered, (p. 160)

Sampson (1993) described the political implications of a person’s many cultural identities. Identity politics is based on the culturally learned perspectives of people seeking to be in control of their own identities, despite being denied that opportunity.

The clear message is that current forms of cultural and psychological practice deny certain groups any possibility of being heard in their own way, on their own terms, reflecting their own interests and specificities and that this condition does not reflect mere chance but rather reflects the operation of the power in charge to dictate the terms by which psychological and social reality will be of those encountered. (Sampson, 1993, p. 1220)

Although the broad definition of culture presents the danger of “watering down” culture, the narrow definitions of culture also present a serious danger. Sue (1990) warned against the dangers of a narrow definition of culture in (a) fostering technique-oriented shortcuts, (b) developing rigid counseling styles, (c) applying the self-reference criterion to good counseling, and (d) perpetuating stereotypes.

Can You Measure Ethno-Racial-Cultural Identity?

One useful area of counseling research that has grown out of the ethnocultural perspective has been the measurement of racial/ ethnic identity (Ponterotto et al., 1995). This research was based on a conceptual framework proposed by Thomas (1971) on a six-stage “Negromachy” and independently by Cross (1971) on a four-stage “Nigresence” framework of Black identity development. B. Jackson (1975) also introduced a Black identity development with four stages at about the same time. The first stage emphasized passive acceptance, the second emphasized active resistance, the third involved redirection, and the fourth was internalization of identity. Marcia (1980) based his research on Erikson’s stages of crisis in ego identity formation through diffusion, foreclosed identity, and finally, achieved identity. Delworth (1989) used Marcia’s work to look at gender-related aspects of identity development. Others have looked at a great variety of different special interest group members’ identity development using the same framework.

Helms’s (1985) stage model is probably the best-known contemporary example. This model is based on five assumptions.

  • Minority groups develop model personality patterns in response to White racism.
  • Some styles of identity are healthier than others.
  • Cultural identity requires new attitudes toward cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes.
  • Styles of identity are distinguishable.
  • Cultural interaction is influenced by the participant’s cultural identity.

Helms (1990) went on to trace racial consciousness of Blacks from the less healthy White-defined models to more healthy self-defined models. Each stage is a worldview related to maturation. In the first Preencounter stage, the Black idealizes White standards and ignores or is assimilated into a White society. In the second encounter stage, the Black is confronted with racial injustice. The third immersion stage follows as an internalized but stereotyped Black perspective. The fourth stage of internalization moves toward a positive Black identity. The fifth stage involves commitment to the positive internalized perspective.

Cross (1991) has recently modified his earlier model toward a more inclusive direction. Cross’s recent framework follows his earlier work in the first three stages. In the fourth stage of internalization, however, a thoughtful salience shifts from a convergent nationalistic to a bicultural or multicultural perspective, so that racial identity is matched divergently to other identity concerns about religious, gender, career, class, and role orientations. In the fifth stage of internalization-commitment, there is a long-term transition of Black identity into a more broadly defined life plan focused on a wide range of potentially salient identities.

Should Culture-Centered Counseling Emphasize Similarities or Differences?

To distinguish universal and shared aspects of all cultures from unique and particular aspects of a single culture, Pike (1966) borrowed from the linguistic term phonemics (emic), referring to sounds unique in a particular language, and the linguistic term phonetics (etic), or universal language sounds. This emicetic distinction has led some counselors to focus on cultural similarities, whereas others have focused on cultural differences, ignoring the essential complementarity of these two aspects.

The applications of culture-centered counseling are always unique and universal at the same time. Brewer (1991) described social identity as derived from a tension between nomothetic similarity and unique individuation at the same time. Brewer documented the importance of this dual emphasis in “uniqueness theory” and other models of individuation. “In general these models assume that individuals meet these needs by maintaining some intermediate degree of similarity between the self and relevant others” (Brewer, 1991, p. 477).

Segall et al. (1990) also emphasized the interaction of similarities and differences. A counselor begins with an “imposed etic,” applying one’s own culture as though it were a universal rule, while refining and adapting those rules in practice to identify cultural differences. As a result, the two cultures are distinguished by their differences, and a “derived etic” describing their similarities is constructed. The emic approach has been associated with relativism, whereas the etic approaches have been associated with universalism. Berry et al. (1992) distinguished the relativist from the universalist position in cross-cultural psychology, pointing out the complementary implications of each for culture-centered counseling interventions.

Are Professional Ethical Guidelines Adequate to Guide Culture-Centered Counselors?

Too often, the culture-centered counselor has to choose between following professional ethical guidelines or acting in an ethical manner (Casas & Thompson, 1991). All professional counselor associations with ethical guidelines emphasize the ethical responsibility of counselors to know their clients’ cultural values before delivering a mental health service to those clients. However, professional guidelines continue to support the perspective of a dominant culture (Pedersen, 1994), sometimes requiring the counselor to demonstrate “responsible disobedience” (Pedersen & Marsella, 1982) to the formal ethical guidelines. The trend toward ethical consciousness in culture-centered counseling is credited to demographic changes favoring minority groups, increased visibility of ethnic minorities, pressure by civil rights and human rights groups worldwide, and the economic incentives to attract minority clients (Casas, 1984). The support for more adequate multicultural ethical guidelines has continued with heightened group consciousness, government-mandated affirmative action, court-ordered integration, and bicultural educational alternatives.

The ethical imperative has been overshadowed by the need to fix blame. This polarization of society into majority versus minority orientation has resulted in moral exclusion demonstrated through psychological distancing, displacing responsibility, demonstrating group loyalty, and normalizing violence. This can occur through overt and malicious action or through covert support and passive disregard. “As severity of conflict and threat escalates, harm and sanctioned aggression become more likely. As harm doing escalates, societal structures change, the scope of justice shrinks, and the boundaries of harm doing expand” (Opotow, 1990, p. 13). Moral exclusion is one obvious example of institutional racism.

Professional ethical guidelines have sometimes protected providers against culturally different consumers (Axelson, 1999; Corey, Corey, & Callanan, 1993; LaFromboise, Foster, & James, 1996; Ponterotto & Casas, 1991). The APA’s (1992) ethical guidelines provide numerous examples of how cultural biases are implicit within the principles themselves (Pedersen, 2000a). The APA’s ethical standards are even more blatant in their cultural bias, beginning with Standard 1.08, which presumes that differences of age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, and socioeconomic status are not always significant in all psychological interventions! The presumption of generalized and abstract standards or guidelines for ethical behavior is that all counselors of good will share the same cultural assumptions, despite the considerable evidence to the contrary (Pedersen, 2000b). Seeking safety in abstractions has allowed the individual counseling provider to project her or his own self-referenced cultural assumptions into the professional guidelines at the expense of culturally different clients.

What Training Models Are Culture Centered?

Culture-centered training results in movement from simple to more complex thinking about multicultural counseling relationships. A trained counselor depends less on stereotypes and is better prepared to comprehend the influence of a cultural context on the counseling process. The trained counselor has a wider range of response alternatives to meet the needs of each cultural context. The trained counselor can describe each cultural context from the contrasting viewpoints of culturally different participants. The trained counselor can identify and understand the “source” or basic underlying cultural assumptions of a problem. The trained counselor can keep track of the “salient” culture for a client as it changes over time and place. The trained counselor can account for her or his own culturally learned assumptions in the counseling process (Midgette & Meggert, 1991).

Several multicultural training models have been suggested. Ridley, Mendoza, and Kanitz (1994) described multicultural counseling training (MIT) as a framework that moves from training philosophy to learning objectives, instructional strategies, program designs, and evaluation that matches instructional strategies with learning objectives. Landis and Brislin (1983) described training alternatives that divide experiential/discover approaches from didactic/expository approaches and culture-general from culture-specific perspectives. Sue, Arredondo, and McDavis (1992) described a three-stage developmental sequence from awareness to knowledge to skill (AKS) as a hierarchy of multicultural counseling competencies. A needs assessment of these AKS competencies is available in Pedersen (2000a).

Awareness-Oriented Training

Culture is within the person and difficult to separate from other learned competencies. Developing an awareness of culturally learned assumptions is therefore essential for any intentional counselor as a professional obligation (Sue, Ivey, & Pedersen, 1996). The achievement of multicultural awareness through education and training is not a trivial goal. Understanding the basic underlying assumptions that control both counselor and client is fundamental for accurate and appropriate counseling interventions.

The Intrapersonal Cultural Grid in Figure 23.1 provides a framework for describing the degree of awareness necessary for culture-centered counselors. On one dimension, the “cultural teachers” or social system variables of demographic (age, gender, place of residence, etc.), status (social, educational, economic, etc.), affiliation (formal and informal), and ethnographic variables (ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, etc.) are combined to suggest the complex, dynamic, and potentially salient cultural identities and roles that control both the counselor and the client’s behavior. Salience is assumed to continuously change across social system variables, depending on the cultural context in each situation, with some social system variables becoming more salient and others less salient all the time.

The Intrapersonal Cultural Grid combines personal features of behavior (what you did), expectation (why you did it), and value (where you learned to do it) with social system variables (Pedersen, 1997). The Intrapersonal Cultural Grid is an open-ended framework to increase awareness of the “teachers” of our culture who have taught us the cultural rules that regulate each of our many behaviors. Each behavior is guided by culturally learned expectations that regard that behavior as appropriate in a particular situation. Each culturally learned expectation is an extension of culturally learned basic and fundamental values that are not negotiable and cannot be compromised. Each value is learned from teachers in the different social systems as these systems become salient. The personal behavior combined with the social systems contextual orientation provides an awareness of how culture controls behavior through culture-centered training.

Knowledge-Oriented Training

Developing an accurate and appropriate cultural awareness is not enough. It is essential to assemble the facts and information identified by those culturally learned assumptions as important for culture-centered counseling. The facts and information become important tools for change, based on cultural assumptions. Counselors who have developed an appropriate awareness will know what facts they need and will be motivated to gather that information before proceeding in their counseling interventions. The second step is that of gathering knowledge and developing an informed comprehension or understanding of the client in her or his cultural context. Without an appropriate foundation of awareness, the facts and information gathered will have no meaning (Sue et al., 1992; Sue et al, 1998).

A counselor who has the required knowledge, understanding, and comprehension of the clients’ cultural context will be better prepared to be genuine and authentic in a variety of cultural settings. Having mastered these competencies of knowledge can help the counselor be more accurate and competent with every client, regardless of that client’s cultural context. Absence of understanding, on the other hand, is likely to inhibit effectiveness.

Sue and Sue (1999) pointed out a pervasive and enduring bias in the knowledge being taught at most counselor education programs. First, although there is much rhetoric about the importance of multiculturalism in counselor education programs, there is little evidence of including culture-centered knowledge into the curriculum. Cultural information has usually been relegated to a separate course rather than integrated throughout the curriculum. Second, there has not been a systematic approach to the teaching of culture-centered counseling skills. Until culture-centered constructs are recognized as generic and central to all counseling, the changes are likely to be cosmetic and superficial. Third, media-based training packages need to be developed to demonstrate the broad and important role of culture in counselor education. These supporting materials for a counselor education curriculum need to be developed to demonstrate and illustrate specific strategies for inclusion in counseling. Fourth, there is a presumption that multiculturalism in counselor education is merely accumulating additional knowledge about other cultures, without regard to the underlying assumptions or the consequent skills that are necessary.

Skill-Oriented Training

The third level of educating a culture-centered counselor requires an effective and skilled ability to make appropriate changes in a variety of culturally different contexts. This third level is the most difficult and presumes a successful development first of cultural awareness and second of cultural knowledge about the client’s cultural context.

The Interpersonal Cultural Grid in Figure 23.2 describes how both cultural similarities and differences can be mobilized in culture-centered counseling. Culture teaches us that similar behaviors have different meanings, and different behaviors might have the same meaning. It is important for the counselor to interpret behaviors accurately in terms of the expectations and values attached to the behaviors by the client. If two persons share the same positive expectation of trust, respect, caring, success, or safety, it is not always necessary for them to display the same behaviors.

In the first quadrant, two individuals display the same behaviors (what was done) and the same positive expectations (why it was done) in a congruent and harmonious relationship. There is no conflict or disharmony in this aspect of the relationship, but there is also relatively little challenge or learning taking place.

In the second quadrant, two individuals have different behaviors but share some of the same positive expectations of trust, respect, and fairness, for example. This describes the typical cross-cultural conflict in which one or both persons misinterpret the other’s behavior by assuming their own self-reference criteria. If the skilled counselor can help both persons find common ground in their shared positive expectations, both persons may become more tolerant of behavior differences, and both will be more accurate in interpreting the other person’s behavior and/or may learn new behaviors appropriate to both persons’ shared positive expectations for trust, respect, caring, safety, or success.

In the third quadrant, both individuals display the same behaviors, but their expectations are now negative or different. One or both persons are forced to behave in a particular way, but they resent the imposition. When a culture-centered intervention has failed to find common ground of shared positive expectations, the conflict is likely to migrate to this third quadrant. The conflict in this third cell is more disguised and hidden—by the similar pretended behaviors—but more destructive of personal relationships because of the different or negative expectations.

In the fourth quadrant, the two individuals have both different behaviors and different or negative expectations. They are at war with one another and may not even be interested in finding common ground. In the absence of culture-centered counseling, conflict is likely to migrate from the second to the third and ultimately to the fourth quadrant. A skilled culture-centered counselor might be able to move the conflict back to the second quadrant, where differences of behavior are safe and even desirable, as long as both persons trust and respect each other through shared positive expectations.

The culture-centered approach suggests that individual change must be sensitive to the cultural context in which that change occurs. Change is perceived as linked to the cultural context in such a way that training and education themselves become a treatment modality. The influence between a culture-centered counselor and client becomes reciprocal in this cultural context, with both counselor and client contributing to the construction of a shared context that is both complex and dynamic. Culture-centered counselors are able to generate a wide variety of intentional verbal and nonverbal responses appropriate to the cultural context. Through training, the culture-centered counselor is able to manage more complexity, send and receive verbal and nonverbal messages more accurately, and perceive each client from the viewpoint of the client’s cultural context.


Gielen (1994) contended that American psychology routinely neglects international research, even when the research is in English, in contrast with the hard sciences, which include international research. Rosensweig (1992) estimated that about 40% to 45% of all psychological researchers live outside the United States and that the more international researchers are vastly underrepresented in U.S. professional psychological journals. Psychology is growing faster outside than within the United States, and in the very near future, more published research will be done abroad than in the United States, threatening to isolate monocultural domestic psychological perspectives.

If mainstream “textbook” counseling is to become more global and less culturally biased, several changes will be required (Gielen, 1994). First, textbooks need to incorporate examples from a variety of cultures. Second, textbooks need to introduce cross-cultural perspectives throughout the text. Third, psychological theories need to be routinely contextualized in a culture-centered framework. Fourth, psychological theories need to be consistently understood in their historical context. Fifth, U.S. journals need to invite more international editors, authors, and advisers to participate. Sixth, U.S. journals need to cite more relevant foreign publications. Seventh, textbooks might be jointly written by authors from different cultures. Eighth, institutional support and funding for collaborative research across cultural and national boundaries need to become more available.

Culture-centered counseling will be guided more by adapting to culturally different clients than by theory. Theoretical structures will need to be extrapolated from examples of success with culturally different clients. It will be important to remember that the counseling audience of the future is a globally defined population. Solutions to problems of culture-centered counseling will rely on both Western and non-Western cultures. By moving from practice to theory in the field of counseling, we can become responsive to cultural similarities and differences in each cultural context. By making culture central to the counseling process, this chapter has attempted to demonstrate the ways that culture can facilitate the quality of counseling and the effectiveness of counselors. Attempts to disregard the cultural context, on the other hand, will lead counselors toward abstract projections of their own self-referenced criteria and the fatal illusion of a monocultural fantasy.