Counselling Dilemma: A Multicultural Issue in a Relationship
An Asian couple has been referred to a counsellor for marriage guidance. The impact of migrating to Australia has taken its toll on their relationship. In the session, the husband seems quite controlled and reserved, whereas the wife cries often but says little. The counsellor is a novice in the area of multicultural difference, but has just completed some workshops in multicultural counselling. The counsellor has learned that in Asian cultures, restraint of strong feelings is considered to be a sign of maturity, too much talking is viewed as impolite, and the husband is usually the more dominant member of the couple.
Conscious of these cultural differences, the counsellor avoids talking too much and attempts to refer to the husband for most of the exchange. The counsellor is also conscious of their silence and wishes not to be disrespectful by challenging the couple to open up further. As a result however, the counsellor himself feels uncomfortable and stifled, and useless as a counsellor.
If you were confronted with this dilemma, how would you deal with this couple?
The Code of Ethics of the Australian Counselling Association encourages practitioners who counsel clients from backgrounds different from their own to respect these differences, gain knowledge, personal awareness and sensitivity pertinent to these clients; and incorporate culturally relevant practices into their work.
In this dilemma, the counsellor has become so conscious of being culturally correct, that he has forgotten the real reason why the clients have come to counselling in the first place. In his efforts not to offend the clients and to portray an appropriate self-image, he has lost the ability to counsel effectively in his usual style. This has led to his feelings of helplessness and inadequacy.
It is very important especially in multicultural counselling to treat each client as an individual person first. Then being aware of possible differing values and beliefs according to culture, the counsellor must ask questions to find out exactly what the cultural differences are and how they impact on the client’s wellbeing. The main objective of counselling should always be respect for the client. The counsellor needs to be even more aware of not putting their own values and beliefs onto the client. Be careful not to assume how life is for them. What the counsellor may perceive to be difficult for their own culture may not necessarily be a problem in other cultures. We must be careful not to stereotype clients into cultures but rather to learn from them by asking questions and trying to truly understand and empathise with them and the problems they may be having, whether the problems are relationship or cultural.
In this particular case, the counsellor was assuming the clients’ behaviour was due to them being Asian. This could have been the case but it may also have been due to other reasons such as anxiety over coming to counselling, worry over whether the counsellor could help them or would understand their problem, feeling inadequate that they couldn’t solve their own problem themselves. These are common concerns for clients attending counselling.
By incorrectly assuming how the clients wanted to be treated (in this case as Asian people), instead of treating them as individuals, the counsellor was acting unnaturally and therefore unsure of what to do and feeling helpless and uncomfortable. He was not gaining the correct information he needed to assess the clients’ concerns, thereby doing himself and the clients a disservice.
In summary, in multicultural counselling, counsellors need to be aware of their own values and belief system and understand that there are differences in all cultures. To realise that they do not need to know the values and beliefs of other cultures but they must be aware that they exist and to ask appropriate questions in order to understand the client’s cultural differences. If counsellors are honest and comfortable within themselves, clients will be more confident and willing to work in the counselling process, which leads to successful outcomes. Counsellors should endeavour to continue to gain self-awareness and experience in all aspects of counselling and to have regular professional education and supervision.
Without the exact Asian country of origin this couple would be difficult to be exacting with. However dealing with the situation here from a client-counsellor perspective I would counsel as follows.
Asia is known for its respect of elders, public and private face culture, non-visual displays of affection and male dominated roles.
Although affection is not demonstrated publicly, this is not an indication of a lack of caring or less loving emotions than our western civilisation. It is a learned behaviour that this culture is comfortable with, but often is confused when confronted with more public displays in western cultures.
This restrained relationship, for us in the west, is a difficult situation to comprehend however this does not indicate, nor should it be, a stumbling block for counselling in any area. People have come to you because they have a problem and are hoping that you will work with them to solve that problem.
The mixing of two cultures is always difficult in any country, there is always a period of adjustment and learning new skills is stressful.
With this in mind, I would encourage a counsellor to be in charge of his/her room and not be intimidated by ethnic differences. A counsellor who loses authority over their room needs to rethink attitudes and comfort zones.
Counselling is about empowering people to make a change; you may be the only chance for this to happen, therefore risks need to be considered.
I would firstly negotiate the level of communication, explaining that we would need a benchmark to work from. I would ask the couple if they still want to feel like this in six months time or would they like me to work with them to encourage change.
With this established I would then explain the need for opening up of information, individually and collectively. Helping the couple to understand that this is the reason the benchmark was set. Making clear to all concerned the level of disclosure they as a couple are willing to share with me, the counsellor, and each other.
Having established this realistic benchmark I would then work with great respect and appreciation of how difficult it is to be open about personal things without losing face.
Very clear remarks, thank you both Gaile and Kaye, especially Kaye, I identified myself with your advices. Thank you.
Coming from another country myself, I would just comment on this with: keep in mind that the couple also realises that you as counsellor are coming from a culturally different background and expects you to act like that and not “become Asian” and adopting their beliefs and ways to express or not express themselves. I would start with gathering information and showing honest empathy with the difficulties they have with adapting to a new lifestyle, etc. The rest is said.
I’m not trained in counselling myself but have lived and worked as a teacher in SE Asian countries for a number of years. I think initially it’s just got to be realized that the concept “counselling” hardly exists in Asian countries.
I wouldn’t anyway know of any Asian people who would voluntarily turn up to such a totally alienating and strange Western dialogue as a “counselling session”. This seems to have been reflected in the first instance of the example, in that the Asian couple have been “referred” by someone else, probably an Australian.
No matter how well meaning the agent here may be, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the whole concept of talking about stuff in a friendly manner doesn’t very often happen in communist countries (remembering that a vast majority of Asian people in Australia are from communist countries) where people do their utmost to retain some self-determination in the face of an all controlling state that attempts to pry into and totally control every minor aspect of their private lives.
Referring especially to the whole of China, Vietnam and Laos.
Of course other Asian countries may have different currents going on. Which is why it’s quite dangerous to talk about being “Asian” anyway, just as dangerous as it is to talk about being “European”, as if it were just an undifferentiated cultural mass.