Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Strategies Used by Foreign-Born Family Therapists to Connect across Cultural Differences: A Thematic Analysis

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Strategies Used by Foreign-Born Family Therapists to Connect across Cultural Differences: A Thematic Analysis

Article excerpt

Societal changes and technological advancements are altering the landscape of human relations. Now more than ever, we are exposed to individuals and groups from different backgrounds. For example, developments in technology and transportation have facilitated more geographic mobility, migration, and communication (Platt & Laszloffy, 2013). This is especially true for the United States, a country that continues to have one of the highest levels of net migration in the world (World Bank, 2014). Also, a growing awareness of social barriers such as racial and economic discrimination is now making it possible for diverse groups that have historically remained mutually invisible or segregated, to start seeing and relating to each other.

These global demographic trends and growing awareness are also experienced during therapeutic encounters between therapists and clients (Vasquez, 2007). Thus, as family therapists, we will likely work with an increasingly diverse clientele. This will require the development of successful clinical strategies that help to establish strong therapeutic relationships with clients who are culturally different from us regarding culture of origin, family composition, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and other salient contextual variables. Providers need to learn how to connect across cultural differences to become culturally sensitive. Even though this has been recognized and accepted in extant literature (please see review below), studies that specifically describe successful strategies therapists use to establish cross-cultural connections with clients continue to be sparse.

Among the groups of providers who more drastically face the challenge of connecting across differences are therapists who were born and raised in a country different from where they practice. For these clinicians, not learning how to connect across differences with their clients can mean perishing professionally. The ingenuity that foreign-born therapists in the United States have displayed to overcome this challenge makes them a privileged group from whom to learn. Many authors agree that every therapeutic encounter is a cross-cultural experience (Collins & Arthur, 2010; Hardy & Laszloffy, 2002). All therapists need to find effective ways to connect across differences to build strong therapeutic relationships with clients. Therefore, we believe the strategies described in this article can be useful to many family therapists.

In this article, we describe a thematic analysis of interviews with 13 foreign-born family therapists who are currently practicing in the United States. The purpose of this article was to describe successful clinical strategies they used to build strong therapeutic relationships with their clients in the United States. First, we briefly summarize general trends in the literature describing cross-cultural connections in therapy. Then, we describe the strategies reported by the 13 foreign-born family therapists, followed by a discussion of these findings. We conclude by describing future research, clinical and training implications.


Before we describe some general trends in the literature addressing cross-cultural connections in therapy, we want to make some clarifications about terminology. In this article, we chose the word "connection" as a general term to describe the therapeutic relationship, therapeutic bond, or therapeutic engagement. We chose this term because the latter terms have specific definitions in the literature and denote particular aspects of interactions between therapists and clients. The descriptions provided by participants in this study do not adhere to these specific definitions, as their descriptions were more experiential and less theoretically based. Additionally, we used the Qureshi and Collazos (2011) definition of cultural difference as dissimilarities in social locations that not only refer to ethnicity, but also to other variables such as race, religion, or sexual orientation. …

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