Sunday, June 17, 2012

Value Conflicts and Assuming Superiority

Conflicts and Assumptions

I often refer back to Stewart and Bennett (2006) who describe the typical (especially American) tendency to measure others by familiar cultural norms and expectations. I believe these findings speak volumes about how all people, although specifically typical of those who are steeped in individualist cultures, presume their cultural norms are superior to the norms of others. This may be markedly true if they are attempting to resolve perceived ambiguous behaviors in people of diverse or unusual cultures. Possibly the most frightening aspect of Stewart and Bennett's (2006) assertion is that much of the tendency to claim superiority is unconscious. People make these judgments and force perceptions on others without consciously doing so. I can understand how my own tendency toward presuming superiority of personal values could affect my work with clients who have different values. Other than superiority, making inappropriate assumptions and presumptions would hinder understanding the world of my client as well as contributing to the inability to be effective with a client whose values differ from my own (Laureate Education, Inc., n.d.).

As a woman, I strongly value my freedom to function without male constraints. I abhor the idea that women self-sacrifice for the males in their lives, and I feel disgust for populations and cultures whose religious or secular values support male dominance and the oppression of women. I realize, however, this is common and expected in some cultures. I will certainly have to remain conscious and aware of my attitudes when counseling individuals from cultures or religions that perpetuate values that are antithetic to mine. For example, if I am working with a woman of Hispanic descent, and she takes issue with her father's interference in her choice of employment, I must acknowledge and understand the dominant role of men in her culture (Sue & Sue, 2008). Furthermore, any suggestion of emancipation (choice of words here clearly represents my personal values) may be to her detriment.

Using Silence

Depending on clients' cultural contexts, silence can be used to show respect or honor their difficulty at finding words. Silence may also be used to support the ability to come to terms with personal realizations. Furthermore, in a therapeutic environment, and contrary to American cultural norms, it is not necessary to perceive silence as a void that needs fill. Whereas in European American culture, silence may be construed as anger or the verbal completion of an idea, but in other cultures, such as Chinese, Japanese, Alaska Native, and American Indian, silence is used to show respect for the individual speaking or for the specific idea being communicated (Hays, 2008). Equally common is for clients to use silence for composing their emotions, or formulating new ideas (Knapp, 2007).

I think it is important to be comfortable with the use of silence; not as a technique, but as a deep and genuine way to honor clients. For example, when clients express deep sadness regarding their circumstances, I can be empathetic without using words. This, of course might be challenging or contraindicated when working with someone from a population generally uncomfortable with too much silence. Sometimes we can only know this by questioning the client.

Acknowledging these values is important when working with diverse clients. The use and meaning of silence is evasive and often ambiguous, and this may be a topic of discussion when working with a client whose values may differ from one's own. In most circumstances, it is far more validating to ask the client about personal values regarding silence than to assume the client's values are similar to one's own.


Self-disclosure seems situated on the slippery slope of effective and appropriate counseling. Although it may be apparent that some clients need the assurance that the counselor is, in fact, an ordinary human, others may see such disclosure as inappropriate or excessive information. In any cultural context, self-disclosure should only be used to respect and empower clients (Hays, 2008). Carefully sharing information that creates a more personalized therapeutic alliance seems of value in a variety of contexts (Laureate Education, Inc., n.d.). For example, if I know a client has children, I may briefly mention something about my own children. Self-disclosure should only be used to create an alliance, however, and not to represent a solution or example for the client. One aspect of self-disclosure's ambiguity is its situation-specific nature. There are few hard and fast rules, although, it should always benefit the client - not the therapist. Hays (2008) contends these issues are part of the "ongoing cultural self-assessment" (p. 38).

Considerations for the Effective Use of Silence and Self-Disclosure

I found Hays' (2008) conclusion on these issues poignant: "Humility, compassion, and critical thinking skills provide a therapist with a foundation for learning more about diverse cultural influences on oneself and one's clients" (p. 38). Ultimately, though, and even with these skills, it is essential that counselors continue to evaluate their personal perspectives, perceptions, and bias. Personally, learning humility seems central to effectively working with any client, whether from a foreign diverse population or one that mirrors my own.


Hays, P. A. (2008). Addressing cultural complexities in practice: Assessment, diagnosis, and therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Knapp, H. (2007). Therapeutic communication: Developing professional skills. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (n.d.). Attitudes, Values, and Beliefs [Streaming Video]. Baltimore: Author.

Stewart, E. C., & Bennett, M. J. (2006). American cultural patterns: a cross-cultural perspective. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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