Q7 Explain how diversity impacts on the counselling relationship. (3.2)
The client-counsellor relationship is fundamentally a relationship between two or more human beings. Obviously there are two different roles in the relationship but both counsellor and client(s) have a history of experiences that have shaped who they are, how they view the world and what their values are. Rapport is a foundation of the counselling relationship and without respect for and knowledge of diversity, rapport is difficult to build and maintain. In order to help clients deal with confronting issues it is important for counsellors to understand the intricacies of a client’s behaviour which are influenced by their age, emotional state, demographic profile, culture, and other factors.
Q8 Explain ways to address difference and diversity in counselling skills practice. (3.3)
Diversity is often understood to refer to the presence of particular differences between individuals in a group of people or a society. The most prominently recognised types of difference are sometimes called “The Big Seven”. They are:
• Ability (physical and/or mental)
• Socio-economic Class
This list is increasingly seen as limited in its scope, and not necessarily inclusive of all the ways in which difference manifests in 21st century Britain. LGBTQ+ diversity, ethnicity, neurodiversity, family background (e.g. adoption or non-conventional family background), regional differences, first language, and complexities of societal privilege are not comprehensively reflected in this list.
Equality is the principle that every person should be treated fairly and equally. This is an extremely important value for the counselling profession to uphold at all levels.
As helpers/counsellors we not only have a duty to demonstrate equality and respect diversity in our interactions with clients, but we also must uphold these values in relation to our colleagues. This extends to counselling organisations, colleges and universities too. Awareness of equality and diversity in counselling touches on the ethical principles of respect and justice outlined in the 2018 BACP Ethical Framework:
• Respect: “We will… endeavour to demonstrate equality, value diversity and ensure inclusion for all clients.” and “We will take the law concerning equality, diversity and inclusion into careful consideration and strive for a higher standard than the legal minimum.” (BACP, 2018, p. 20)
• Justice: “the fair and impartial treatment of all clients and the provision of adequate services.”. (BACP, 2018, p.11).
Diversity and difference in the counselling relationship can create challenges to the counselling relationship and may present barriers to relating. Potential issues include:
• Lack of knowledge about the client’s culture – A client may wish to talk about attitudes, customs or cultural references which are unfamiliar to the counsellor. In cases where there is a lack of cultural knowledge on the part of the counsellor, it is important that the counsellor does not rely on the client to educate them. Undertaking professional development around working with particular client groups is likely to be beneficial, and it is also important to remember that we cannot know everything – developing a strong counselling bond with a client can often be enough to explore at depth without having to understand all the ins-and-outs of the client’s cultural background. Additionally, a client may choose a counsellor who they feel is likely to be a close cultural match, or who specialises in issues relating to particular cultures. As counsellors, we trust in the client’s ability to autonomously select a route through therapy which will best support their journey.
• Accessibility – Not all buildings/therapy spaces are accessible for all clients. This can create a very real, physical barrier to relating. The BACP Ethical Framework stipulates that we should “make adjustments to overcome barriers to accessibility, so far as is reasonably possible, for clients of any ability wishing to engage with a service.” (BACP, 2018, p. 20).
• Communication – Interpreters may be necessary for those for whom English is not a first language, or for clients who are hearing-impaired and wish to access counselling. Challenges arising from the use of interpreters include the necessary adjustments to confidentiality agreements to include the interpreter, as well as potentially less fluid communication between counsellor and client and the possibility that some meaning could be ‘lost in translation’, particularly subtleties of inflection and emphasis. Specialist services exist for clients with language needs, including bilingual counsellors and counsellors who are able to use sign language to work directly with hearing-impaired clients.
Diversity as a Benefit to Therapy
Diversity does not necessarily create barriers to relating; in fact, it may be that speaking with a counsellor from a different background or perspective offers something valuable to the client. For example, a client who is experiencing difficulties with aspects of their culture or beliefs may find it beneficial to talk with somebody who is completely unconnected to the issues they are bringing. Additionally, somebody may wish to work with a counsellor of a different gender, age or with another difference in order to gain a fresh perspective or address relational patterns in the counselling work.
Our Personal Perspectives and Unconscious Bias
We all have unconscious biases and it is likely that on some level we will sometimes make assumptions about our clients based on their characteristics, backgrounds and even their looks. These assumptions are a response to our experiences, or introjected values, and if left unexamined and unscrutinised, may cause difficulties or even damage the counselling alliance.
It is important that in our personal development we strive to recognise what assumptions, beliefs (including stereotypical ones) and possibly any prejudices we hold regarding difference and diversity, and to be mindful of how they could impact the way we interact with clients. Supervision and an ongoing process of personal reflection are both vital for developing and maintaining good standards of practice, and nurturing our counselling relationships when working with difference.
As seen above diversity goes far beyond the common diversity issues of gender, race, religion, and disability. Diversity runs much deeper than this and also comprises diversity of personalities, experiences, beliefs, and reactions to events. It is important to recognise such diversity if counselling skills such as empathic understanding is to be provided to clients. Without recognising diversity, it would be all too easy to impose our own thoughts and feelings onto a client, especially if the client is experiencing something we have experienced. It is human nature to look for similarities and to identify with others; it is at the core of socialisation and is known as ‘homophily’ (Ingram and Morris, 2007). As counsellors, therefore, the challenge comes in identifying difference and being ok with it – working with it, rather than being threatened by it. The counsellor who can’t do this is merely placing more conditions of worth onto the client, which is incongruent with the person-centred concept of unconditional positive regard.
I believe that most people have experienced some sense of discrimination based on an actual or perceived difference. I often use my own experience of diversity within skills practice as a careers counsellor in USA, which helped me to establish the possible needs of clients attending counselling because of diversity issues. As a black heterosexual female, I have never experienced the discrimination that my gay clients had. In such cases, the skill of active listening becomes paramount if I am to gain empathic understanding and be able to demonstrate unconditional positive regard. Their story, like everyone else’s, is unique and only by accepting them from their own frame of reference can I fully appreciate their experience of diversity or discrimination.