Building Bridges Instead of Walls: Effective Cross-Cultural Counseling

By Sanders, Mark | Corrections Today, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Building Bridges Instead of Walls: Effective Cross-Cultural Counseling


Sanders, Mark, Corrections Today


Cultural differences between the helper and client can be a major barrier in building rapport in the counseling relationship. Before change can occur, rapport is often a necessary prerequisite. (1) A lack of rapport can increase the chance that clients in the criminal justice system will miss scheduled appointments, not follow through on referrals, violate parole or probation, engage in criminal thinking or addictive behavior again, and end up back in the system.

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Racial and cultural tension that exists in the larger society can also be present in the counseling relationship. (2) This can be further exacerbated, as disparities in prison sentences based on race (3) may lead to many clients not trusting the counseling relationship. They may view the parole, probation or correctional officer as "a part of the system." Still, more tension and mistrust can exist if the staff person and client are from different cultural groups. To lessen this tension and mistrust, effective cross-cultural counselors can use seven strategies to build rapport with clients in the criminal justice system.

* Cross-cultural counselors should have an awareness of their personal biases, assumptions and stereotypes and strive not to allow them to interfere with their work.

* Take time to increase credibility in the cross-cultural counseling relationship. Clients often look at more than academic degrees, to assess if their helpers are credible. (4) Examples of counselor credibility, aside from academic degrees, include sincerity, service energy, knowledge of the client's culture, a nonjudgmental attitude and counselor resourcefulness.

Sincerity. Since it is difficult to have complete knowledge of another culture, it is possible for a counselor to inadvertently insult clients by saying the wrong thing. Helper sincerity is the one thing that allows clients to forgive helpers who violate a cultural boundary.

Service Energy. When helpers put out a minimal amount of energy, clients often feel that it has something to do with ethnic differences. High-service energy increases helper credibility by sending a message to clients that they are valued. This is particularly important in the criminal justice system, as high-service energy can lead clients to believe that the helper is in their corner, rather than a part of the system.

Knowledge of the Client's Culture. Credibility increases as helpers acquire knowledge of the client's culture. This knowledge is not gained to impress the client; it is gained to increase empathy in the cross-cultural counseling relationship. Four sources of knowledge include books, seminars, personal exposure to the cultural group and consultants. If the client speaks English as a second language, for example, it is often helpful for counselors to learn key words and phrases from the client's original language. This can be instrumental in building rapport. Just as some clients learn to speak English as a second language, a great equalizer is the client witnessing the helper struggle to learn the client's first language.

A Nonjudgmental Attitude. In focus group interviews, black female clients were asked what they found undesirable in helping professionals. Their No. 1 response was "discomfort with helpers who judge their romantic relationships." But, in focus groups with helping professionals who work with black female clients, helpers revealed that they find it extremely difficult to avoid judging the relationship patterns of black women. (5) A nonjudgmental attitude increases counselor credibility.

Counselor Resourcefulness. Helping clients with needed resources early in the counseling relationship often facilitates rapport-building and counselor credibility in the cross-cultural counseling relationship. (6)

* Have a sensitive discussion of race and other differences. Race and other differences between the helper and client can often be barriers to trust in the cross-cultural counseling relationship. …

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