When we label an individual, we become less sensitive to who they are whether that label be male or African American or Buddhist or PhD or whatever. Thus when a counselor takes a class in world religions or multicultural counseling or even DSM 5 diagnosis, they probably become more insensitive to the client sitting in front of them—these become filters through which much information about that client no longer can get through.
I just read a report done by Nextions, Written in Black and White, which again showed how insidious our biases can be. The study had individuals review a writing in which 22 errors were included: 7-spelling/grammar, 6 writing, 5 fact and 4 analytic. Half were told that ‘Thomas Meyer’ was African American; half were told he was Caucasian. On a scale of 0-5 (5 being the best), overall the ‘Caucasian’ writer averaged 4.1 and the ‘African American’ writer 3.2. On spelling/grammar, 2.9 spelling/grammar errors were detected in the ‘Caucasian’ writer’s essay; 5.8 in the African American’s essay! Evaluating the same essay, ‘knowing’ the race of the author dramatically changes the outcome of the review!
Such results have profound implications when blacks and whites compete for getting into college or graduate school to getting a job. Teachers in K-12 respond to a student and their homework differently. And, for us, we as counselors also respond differently to the client in front of us. Knowing they are Native American or Muslim or male or rich or whatever raises a filter through which the client then must communicate with us. And if we have studied multicultural counseling, that filter is going to be even harder to penetrate.
Instead of requiring ‘multicultural sensitivity’ for counselors, courses in careful observation (al a Milton Erickson—when was the last time you noticed a client’s heart rate increase in response to something you said?) of everything the client is presenting to us would be more helpful beginning with what the face reveals or word/phrase choices.
One principle of rhetoric is that every statement a person makes is intended to impact on the listener. Learning to feel and interpret what a client is trying to do to me with what they are saying seems to be to be more important than what I am wanting to do to the client—which is what we were ‘taught’ in my course in counseling techniques—you remember the ‘rules’: ‘Ask open ended questions’, ‘Don’t reveal anything personal’, etc.
This also has significant implications for those who want to ‘learn all they can about a client’ before counseling them. Clients, like all of us, are complex and what we must deal with is how the client is responding to us in the counseling room that is critical, not how they responded to others or on a test or in other situations. Don’t forget that a client will respond to us depending on how we are responding to them so that if we ‘know’ something about them because we have studied their culture or ‘know’ their diagnosis, they may be responding to that pre-conceived notion we have about them!
I cannot stress strongly enough, I feel that the more we as counselors know about a client including any ‘label’ the less effective we will be.
Ray McKinnis is a Counselor in Wheaton, IL specializing in anonymous substance abuse and LGBT populations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org