Barriers to Cross-Cultural Counseling

When counseling culturally diverse clients, counselors will often encounter many obstacles or barriers. These barriers can stem from the counselor’s lack of cultural knowledge to language differences between the counselor and client. Barriers to cross-cultural counseling can negatively influence the counseling relationship as well as the outcome of counseling. The literature has even linked these cultural barriers to the underutilization and premature termination of counseling services by ethnic minorities and low-income persons. An increasing awareness of these barriers has led to changes in counselor preparation and the delivery of counseling services to culturally diverse populations. In this entry, seven barriers to cross-cultural counseling are described.

Lack of Counselor Cultural Self-Awareness

A major barrier to effective cross-cultural counseling is the counselor’s lack of cultural self-awareness. Cultural self-awareness refers to the counselor’s awareness and acknowledgment of his or her own cultural beliefs, attitudes, and values as well as an awareness of his or her biases and faulty assumptions about other groups. Essentially, a counselor with a heightened sense of cultural self-awareness acknowledges and recognizes when his or her culture is contradictory to a client’s culture. When a counselor does not recognize that he or she has biased views and stereotypical beliefs about other groups, he or she will likely provide ineffective counseling services and experience high rates of client dropout. Also, a culturally aware counselor is able to recognize when he or she is conceptualizing a client’s case based on prejudiced and/or stereotypical beliefs about a particular group of people.

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Lack of Counselor Cultural Knowledge

In many cases, the counselor’s lack of cultural knowledge can serve as a barrier to effective cross-cultural counseling. Cultural knowledge includes the counselor’s understanding and knowledge of other cultural groups’ behaviors, norms, beliefs, and attitudes. Both counselors and clients bring to counseling a set of cultural norms that have been reinforced for long periods of time. These norms then influence the way in which the counselor and client perceive their world, each other, and their approach to counseling. Counselors who are knowledgeable of their clients’ cultural preferences and norms are better equipped to make appropriate clinical decisions. For example, in some cultures, passivity rather than assertiveness is revered. A counselor adhering to the Western culture may have great difficulty understanding a Chinese client’s unwillingness to “demand” more from others. However, after learning more about the client’s culture, the counselor introduces counseling interventions that take into account Chinese cultural norms.

When counselors lack knowledge of varying cultural groups, they will often rely on stereotypes to better understand clients from different cultural backgrounds. Stereotypes are often negative, based on faulty perceptions, and are of unspecified validity. Many argue, however, that some stereotypes or generalizations can be helpful in the process of learning to understand other cultures. African Americans are an example of an entire ethnic minority group that has been subject to historical and contemporary stereotyping. African American stereotypes have ranged from portrayals of African Americans being lazy and intellectually inferior to being violent and poor. For example, a White career counselor might assume that an African American client is not able to pay for a series of career-exploration courses. The counselor, therefore, fails to share information about the workshops with the African American client but she shares the information with a White client. Her faulty assumption is based on the stereotype that all African Americans are poor, from low-income backgrounds, or both.

Counselors are often ineffective with culturally diverse clients because they view cultural differences as deficits rather than strengths. In addition, counselors will often neglect to discuss a client’s problems in the context of current social issues facing the client. Counseling professionals create barriers in counseling when they do not consider clients’ problems in the context of educational, economic, social, political, legal, and cultural systems. The deficit perspective, coupled with a neglect to address social contextual issues, can hinder the cross-cultural counseling process.

Because of the vast number of cultures that clients may ascribe to, it is impossible for a counselor or therapist to know everything about every culture. Working together with a counselor, healer, or helper from an unknown culture can vastly improve a counselor’s ability to be effective and the probability of success in implementing appropriate interventions.

Lack of Culturally Appropriate Counseling Skills

Distinctions can be made between general counseling skills, which may include active listening, empathy, and illustrating genuineness, and the specific skills that are central to working with a client who is culturally different. Counselors who lack multicultural counseling skills are at risk of providing culturally insensitive counseling. Examples of skill requirements specific to cultural competency are (a) determining effective ways to communicate with a client that may use a different style of thinking, information processing, and communication; (b) discussing race and racial differences early in the counseling process; (c) engaging in multiple verbal and nonverbal helping responses, recognizing responses that may be appropriate or inappropriate within a cultural context; (d) using resources outside of the field of psychology, such as traditional cultural healers; and (e) modifying conventional forms of treatment to be responsive to the cultural needs of the client. Some counseling professionals have indicated that there is no simple methodology or approach that can easily define the “how-to” in the counseling session with the culturally diverse client. One of the greatest dilemmas in the area of cultural competency is determining what counseling strategies and interventions are most effective with different cultural groups.

Language Barriers

Language may be a barrier in the cross-cultural counseling process. Language differences in counseling can lead to miscommunications, misdiagnoses, and misinterpretations. A lack of language or communication skills often emerges as a major stressor for clients who are bilingual, immigrant, or both. It is also important to consider immigrant clients’ level of acculturation, which might be linked to their command of their native and English languages. Bilingual clients may have the ability to express themselves in English in a rudimentary way but may need to use their native language to discuss more emotional subjects. Because of language barriers, many immigrants will avoid counseling services for fear of being unable to communicate with counselors. Likewise, counselors may avoid immigrant clients because the language barrier frustrates them.

Because counseling is a process of interpersonal interaction, communication is paramount to the counseling process. Both parties in counseling interpret the information transmitted between them, and if interpreted inaccurately, the counseling process and outcomes can be negatively influenced. The difficulties related to communication are most prevalent when interpreting nonverbal patterns because nonverbal communication is highly influenced by culture. Types of nonverbal communication that are important in cross-cultural counseling include proxemics, kinesics, paralanguage, high-low context communication, and kinesthetic. Proxemics is the use of personal space and appropriate distance in social interactions. For example, Latinos/as tend to stand close, touch, and avoid eye contact, whereas White Americans ascribe to greater physical distance between individuals, avoid touching, and maintain eye contact. Kinesics are bodily movements such as facial expressions, gestures, posture, and eye contact. Different cultures have different meanings attached to these bodily movements and expressions. Paralanguage refers to vocal cues that are used to communicate, such as volume and intensity of speech and turn taking. For example, in some cultures, speaking loudly may not indicate anger, hostility, or poor self-control and speaking softly may not be a sign of weakness, lack of confidence, shyness, or depression. High—low context communication refers to an individual’s primary communication style. For example, high-context communicators rely on nonverbal cues and behaviors, whereas low-context communicators rely on the verbal part of the interaction or the spoken word. Kinesthetic refers to touching. Touching in some cultures indicates a very personal and intimate gesture, whereas in other cultures extensive touching is commonplace and expected.

Client Distrust and Fears

When counseling ethnically and culturally diverse clients, counselors might encounter clients whose past experiences with oppression will hinder the development of a trusting relationship. It is not uncommon for clients of marginalized and historically oppressed groups to approach counseling with feelings associated with past experiences of discrimination and oppression. These clients might come to counseling with a great deal of “healthy suspicion” and distrust based on racial and cultural biases in the larger society. This unconscious process of bringing past conflicts into counseling is called transference. For example, an African American client may have difficulty trusting a White counselor because of African Americans’ history of oppression in the United States. Understanding sociopolitical events and forces in the larger society is critical for counselors of culturally diverse clients.

Counselor countertransference can also create a barrier to effective cross-cultural counseling. Counselor countertransference is defined as those responses to the client that are based on the counselor’s past significant relationships and experiences with persons in the client’s cultural group. For example, a heterosexual male counselor may respond angrily to a homosexual male client based on the counselor’s disappointment and anger with his homosexual brother. Effective cross-cultural counselors must then recognize transference and countertransference, as both are important to understanding the feelings, behaviors, and attitudes in the cross-cultural counseling relationship.

Many persons from ethnic minority and low-income backgrounds have little or no prior understanding of counseling. Therefore, when they do come to counseling, they may be distrustful of the process. Fear of being labeled “crazy,” fear of deportation, and fear of disclosing “family issues and secrets” may all be experienced by culturally and ethnically different clients. Because of distrust and fears regarding the counseling process, counselors may experience clients who make an appointment but do not show for the first appointment or come to their first appointment and never return. For instance, a doctor has referred a Latina client with very little English proficiency to counseling. Without any prior information about the nature of counseling, the client is frightened by the paperwork and extensive intake procedures at the counseling agency, and she does not return for her next counseling appointment.

Racial Identity Development

Racial identity has been identified as an important concept when examining cross-cultural relationship development. Racial identity theory refers to an individual’s racial self-conception as well as his or her beliefs, attitudes, and values relative to other racial groups. Racial identity development is a maturational process in which an individual uses more complex cognitive-affective ego statuses to perceive of herself or himself as a racial being. It is also assumed that the individual is also developing racial meanings about members of his or her own affiliated and reference racial groups. There is a relationship between racial identity and the quality of the client-counselor relationship. In particular, a difference in the counselor’s and the client’s racial identities might become a barrier to effective cross-cultural counseling. It is even possible that the psychological meaning that individuals attribute to their race and racial group affiliation can determine how a client and counselor will interact with each other. For instance, an African American counselor who harbors anger and self-hatred about her racial group may transmit her anger and frustration in counseling sessions with an African American adolescent who is immersed and exploring racial meaning. The adolescent terminates counseling after one session because she states that she “can’t relate to the counselor’s views on Black people.” Clients and counselors of the same cultural group may experience tension or lack of rapport as a result of differing levels of racial identity development.

Lack of Multicultural Counseling Training

There is extensive literature suggesting that “traditional” and “culturally insensitive” counselor training leads to ineffective cross-cultural counseling. As such, one barrier to effective cross-cultural counseling is the lack of multicultural counseling training among counseling professionals. Despite the fact that many counselor training programs have revised their curricula to include issues pertaining to race, culture, and ethnicity, there are still counselors who have not received adequate multicultural counseling training to effectively counsel clients of culturally different backgrounds.


  1. Baruth, L., & Manning, M. L. (2006). Multicultural counseling and psychotherapy: A lifespan perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Ponterotto, J. G., Casas, J. M., Suzuki, L. A., & Alexander, C. M. (2001). Handbook of multicultural counseling. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (5th ed.). New York: Wiley.

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