The Cross Cultural Experience…Every Day
Parallel process is a clinical term used to describe the common occurrence in therapy when the therapist’s own experience is reflected in the client’s. It is when a client comes in grieving over the loss of a loved one while the therapist has only just experienced his or her own loss as well. It is a therapist helping a client through feelings of anger and hurt that the therapist has also just recently confronted.
But, here’s the thing: we are all in parallel process. Too often in life it goes unsaid.
Here is where I say it.***
One of my great loves is learning about other cultures. I love to experience them in travel and read about them in novels. I am studying Spanish on the side right now…not because I will ever, ever master it, but because studying it makes me feel just so “other-worldy”. It is like taking an adventure without the costly plane tickets.
One of my favorite graduate experiences at my much-loved graduate school was a class simply called “Cross Cultural Counseling”. Counseling programs by design must be very “hands on” in order to adequately prepare a student for the work. There is a lot of simulated experiences and then the actual practicum that spans at least a year and involves seeing real, live clients with real, live issues.
However, typically, a class on cross-cultural counseling would be a rather stale look at different cultures with some attention to case studies and class-simulated encounters. The class might watch some movies on different ethnicities and dialogue about ethical responses to cultural issues.
Not this class.
We didn’t meet in a classroom per se.
I was six months pregnant and said goodbye to my husband to leave for class…three hours south of our California valley home.
The room number: inner city Los Angeles
For two weeks we lived, slept, and breathed as many cultural experiences and discussion as could be squished into each 24-hour day. All the while we were reading and writing responses to books like The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a book that is not only well written and entertaining, but likely to rock your western world.
I had never before been inside a Buddhist temple or an Islamic mosque much less attended one of their services or had one of their “elders” spend time teaching and dialoguing about their beliefs. Each Sunday we were required to find and attend three worship services in the Los Angeles area. We were also taken to communities of a wide variety of ethnicities and were given tours of their work and living conditions. We volunteered and served alongside of organizations such as this one. We visited the Crystal Cathedral, one of the main Episcopal churches of Hollywood, dialogued with the pastor at Metropolitan Church of LA, and walked the real Skid Row.
Through our evening “class” discussion times and reading I learned about the importance of approaching cultural issues with an attitude of respectful curiosity…all while staying in tune with what my own “cultural” “bias” is. Ethically I am required to be aware of my own “bias” and to be on the lookout for how that impacts my work with a client from a different background.
Moving to Cleveland, Tennessee, my hometown, after living in California and then Europe you might think that this class has little value for the work I do now.
You would be grossly mistaken.
Every client is a cross-cultural experience.
Actually, every RELATIONSHIP is a cross-cultural experience.
And, an opportunity to approach a person with respectful curiosity rather than preconceived judgment.
Even with fellow Christians, I encounter people every week that I quickly realize have different beliefs than I do on certain issues. People have different ideas about parenting, about the marriage relationship, about church, about school, about politics, about life.
There is a joke I heard when in school. It goes something like this. There was once this man and he was telling people that his daughter was going to school to be a therapist. His punch line was that it was a perfect fit…she had been telling people what to do since she was two.
The real irony in this joke for counseling students is that one of the first things you learn in school is to NOT give advice.
I heard it said this way from a seasoned therapist: “I am sure you have a LOT of people telling you what to do. If I tell you what to do…I just become one more voice. What I am concerned about is you learning to listen to and hearing your own voice.”
Or, perhaps, that still, small voice (1 Kings 19:12).
Our world is quite noisy. It is full of commentaries and judgments from well meaning people. When it comes to this kind of “noise” Cleveland, Tennessee…or any other Small Town, America… has about the same amount of “noise pollution” as any other place…including Los Angeles.
Cross-cultural counseling is about listening in order to understand rather than listening to jump in and correct…or to give your “two cents” advice and opinion. And, in the process of listening to understand, you just might help the person talking come to a deeper understanding, too.
It is easy to give advice.
The reality is that it is easy to forget advice, too.
People pay attention, listen more, and follow through when they are able to talk themselves through their own stuff and come to their own conclusions.
It is the therapist’s job to help clean up the “noise pollution”…not add to the pollution levels.
A lot of times we jump in with our attempts at
control advice because we do not trust the work of the Holy Spirit. We do not trust that if we help clear the path in the desert that He will show up (Isaiah 40:3).
Unless you are my clone, I will likely disagree with you on something. But is harping on the disagreements ever the point in a relationship…including and especially the therapist/client relationship?
Do we want to be right…or do we want to have a relationship?
Whether that relationship is professional, clinical, personal, or familial.
Sure, in situations where safety is an issue…whether that safety is physical, emotional, mental, etc…speaking up is important and the ethical thing to do.
And, yes, there are times to make our thoughts and beliefs known.
But, too often what we really need to do is just suspend our need to judge. We need to listen to understand.
The greatest gifts I can give to someone are respectful curiosity, good questions…and silence.
If I jumped in on every client with my soapboxes (and if you are regular reader you know I have some!) I would never get any work done with anyone! I have bias. I am a human being who is not a completely “clean slate”. I have beliefs. I was raised in a particular culture.
Cross-cultural counseling is about treading carefully…not stomping through someone’s home.
In most of Europe you take off your shoes when you enter a person’s home. The point is for you to not track dirt from the street onto their family room’s floor.
Maybe we need to practice “taking off our shoes” when we talk to friends, family…and the strangers we meet along the way.
If you haven’t been in their exact shoes…it’s not your “home”, too.
And, here’s the thing…no matter how close you think you share in experience with a person you still haven’t been in THEIR shoes. The divorce, the death, the illness, the addiction…each circumstance is a different culture…a different “home” for that person.
In fact, if I feel like I can relate to my client I have learned that I better watch out. I might jump to too many conclusions, assume too much…just because I have been through something similar.
Cross-cultural counseling is about counseling without judgment.
I think we need to practice cross-cultural relationships of all kinds.
So the next time you find yourself in a group setting…sitting across from someone and you feel a little uncomfortable because they seem so “different” than you…consider it a cross-cultural experience. Be curious. Be respectful. Listen to understand. Don’t feel a need to argue your position or even make your position known. Who you are speaks for yourself enough.
Take off your shoes.