Counseling Perspectives and Cultural Understanding

Two experiences this week inspired my blog today.

My dear friend and I meet weekly for a private yoga lesson. Class is in the morning during a time she can carve out for herself. She has two little ones who are in school, so you can imagine she is on the run most of the day.

As a woman who is self-aware but always a mom, she was experiencing some guilt over taking that time for herself. Thankfully she realized that we have to make these moments in order to nourish ourselves.

Certain circles call this mindset the “oxygen mask.” This refers to the directions we receive prior to take-off on an airplane: “In the case of loss of cabin pressure, please place you own oxygen mask over your mouth prior to helping others.”

If we didn’t follow these instructions, we wouldn’t be good to anyone for any significant length of time.

In the West, we view this “oxygen mask” way of thinking as healthy. We are taking care of ourselves first. I’m not talking about lavish narcissism. I am talking about spending time in healthy pursuits (i.e. eating healthy, exercising, meditating, praying, taking peaceful walks, painting, singing, reading) so that you can remain a balanced person.

We do this because it helps us function in a more healthy manner in our lives. Once I started following the advice I had heard so many times on the airplane, my life did get better. I felt stronger and my relationships were healthier because I was nourishing myself in healthy ways.

Upon recalling this situation, I was reminded of our Western bias toward individualism. We think our way of being is normative – how everyone is and should be. We LOVE the advice the airlines give us because it fits within our cultural paradigm.

My second experience from this week was with a person who is from an Asian country. We were discussing his decision-making process. He and his cousin explained to me that he would have to present the situation we were working on, to the entire family prior to reaching a final decision.

These two young men had been in the States long enough to realize how a Westerner such as myself may view this process. I can imagine that they gleaned that I was thinking stuff like “You have to ask your family before making a decision that is going to affect your life and not theirs? Are you crazy? You have to do what is best for YOU!”

Consequently they felt they owed me an explanation of how decision-making is done in their country.

I am an avid student of cultural distinctions and cross-cultural dispute resolution and no explanation or apology was necessary. I understood. Prior to this meeting I actually expected the young man to have to go through this process for the sake of harmony within his family.

I knew it might hold the process up a bit. However, I knew that forcing my individualistic ideals on the situation wouldn’t change things and would only result in my client feeling like I didn’t respect him or his culture. In collectivist cultures concepts like the “oxygen mask” are few and far between. The “we” comes before the “I.”1

Collectivist cultures place the interests of the group over the rights of the individual.2 The group is the decision-making body.

The apologetic manner in which these young men explained this cultural dynamic reminded me that people often judge others who they perceive as not operating in a “normative” manner. This interaction also brought up a crucial point that I wanted to convey to my fellow peacemakers: We need to help people resolve disputes utilizing their present cultural and value systems.

With the exception of the ethical and legal rules that bind us, we can’t force our ideas onto our clients of how we think they should manage their lives. We can talk to them about the benefits of peacefully resolving their issues, and using our professional judgment, refuse to take certain actions we think would be detrimental to the situation.

However, attempting to override a lifetime of cultural and values programming will be a waste our time and convey our disrespect for their “way.”

Above all, I want my clients to know I respect them as they are. I like to convey my respect by asking open-ended questions about how they make decisions. What do they need to feel good about this process? What tools do they use to arrive at a difficult decision? And then I wait for the response and actively listen.

It is important to realize that when you do this, judgments may come up on your part. Let them be there. Don’t beat yourself up because your programming is at odds with the other. The important thing is that you are openly and actively listening and gaining insight into how you can better help your client.

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  1. Walter A. Wright, Cultural Issues in Mediation: Individualist and Collectivist Paradigms, available at http://www.mediate.com/articles/Wright.cfm (last visited February 6, 2012)
  2. John Barkai, What’s a Cross-Cultural Mediator to Do? A Low-Context Solution for a High-Context Problem, 10 CARDOZO J. CONFLICT RESOL. 43, 68-69 (2008).

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