Multicultural Counselling

Australia is a land of enormous cultural diversity. Almost one quarter of our population were born in another country, yet most mainstream services mirror only broad Australian values and attitudes. Many of our multicultural clients may prefer to talk with a counsellor from their own cultural background, but often this may not be possible. It is therefore important that as counsellors we are able to offer a consistent and competent service to all our clients regardless of their language and cultural diversity.

Culture is a complex system of beliefs, habits, behaviours, attitudes and values that structures and preserves politics, religion, ideology, and education. Individuals grow up within a cultural landscape and their development is often mediated by the culture – their behaviour expressing what is considered “normal” and acceptable by the society in which they live. Often people are not aware of how much their culture influences their lifestyle and behaviour. It is not until you come into contact with another culture that the broad contrasts become visible.

It is therefore vital for counsellors to understand that a behaviour considered dysfunctional or inappropriate by western standards may be completely acceptable in other cultures, similarly, behaviours that are acceptable by our standards may be seen as unhealthy, sinful or unusual by others. Just as behaviour is influenced by culture, maladaptive behaviour can also be culturally specific.

Counselling offers people an opportunity to talk freely and openly in a manner that sometimes is not possible in the company of friends and family. However, for clients from different language or cultural backgrounds, they may not be aware of the services available to them, or are unsure of how to access them. Language may also be a barrier to some client’s attempts to get help. Utilising the services of a bilingual family member may be useful in some cases, but issues of confidentiality must always be taken into account.

When a client comes to be counselled, a professional counsellor will be aware that some of the client’s problems may be of a cultural nature that may not be understood or recognised within the counsellors own culture. As a first step to being an effective multicultural counsellor, there are some issues of which you need to be aware:

Recognise that differing values and cultural attitudes exist in different cultural groups. Acquaint yourself with the differing aspects of the cultural group you may find yourself regularly working with.

Ensure the information you give your clients (referrals, theoretical concepts, etc.) is sensitive to their language ability, but never talk to your client as though they were a child.

Be aware of socialisation patterns and how individuals in different cultures are taught to think, believe and act.

Recognise that there are different beliefs regarding health and illness, and be prepared for adverse reactions to the idea of ‘mental illness’, or being thought of as a ‘head-doctor’ regardless of your professional title.

The role of gender and the family varies enormously in different cultures and are often much more pronounced than in Western society.

Your client may also experience cognitive dissonance which occurs when problem behaviours arise as a manifestation of a conflict between their familial culture and the culture in which they now live.

An effective counsellor must be sensitive, resourceful, perceptive and imaginative. An effective multicultural counsellor must obey the following rules:

  1. Respect people’s choices. What may be acceptable to one person may be culturally inappropriate for another.
  2. Learn from your clients.
  3. Develop a culturally sensitive approach to all your clients, even if they do not come from diverse backgrounds. Avoid working within a cultural stereotype, and if you do not understand something – ask.
  4. The most effective technique will be one that acknowledges the values and beliefs of your client’s culture.


It is important to keep in mind that the following scenario is only one of a multitude of possibilities. It is useful to illustrate how the theory behind Professional Counselling can be employed to help clients from a range of cultural backgrounds.

Lin and Han recently moved from Vietnam to Australia so Han could work as a General Practitioner. He has been working as a doctor in Vietnam for over five years but his qualification was not recognised by Australian authorities and he must complete a two year retraining course. Lin had worked for her family’s jewellery business and now must work two jobs to help support Han while he studies. Both Lin and Han came from large, extended families. They have been married for three years.

Lin and Han have now been in Australia for six months and have been having difficulties in their relationship. They are living in a small apartment near the university where Han studies. Although they are friendly with their neighbours, they do not socialise much with them because they are considerably younger than themselves. Han and Lin have come to see a counsellor in the hope they can work through some of their problems.

Essential Case Information

Lin feels that Han has abandoned her and spends too much time at the university. She feels that he does not prioritise her and he only cares about his study. She is very lonely and tired. Lin works two jobs during the week but does not feel attached to any of her co-workers. She feels something is missing from her life and that Han should be more supportive.

On the other hand, Han feels that he is working hard at university so that he will be awarded his qualification and be able to provide for Lin. Han believes Lin is being too clingy and over-protective, constantly asking him to stay at home and spend time with her. In Vietnam she was very independent. Han says that he has many goals to achieve and wishes Lin would be more supportive of his studies. He also believes that Lin is selling herself short by working at a newsagency and at a bakery on the weekends. He says that Lin used to manage the family’s business and she has the qualifications and experience to find a similar job in Australia. Han knows that Lin is unhappy and does not understand why she does not look for a more satisfying job. Han and Lin have not talked much lately, although Lin did say she wants to return to Vietnam. Han wants her to stay and make a name for himself.

After gathering the background information “C” completed Personality Need Type Profiles on Lin and Han. “C” identified that Lin is a Type C and that due to the move she has lost not only the security of her own job, but Han’s as well. More importantly, she has lost the security of her family which played a vital role in her life. She lived and worked with members of her extended family. Although she loves Han, she feels her life has become empty and precarious. She does not know if the retraining course Han is undertaking will result in his being granted residency. Her own job exists on a week-to-week basis.

“C” identified that Han is a Personality Need Type D. He feels he lost a lot of face coming to Australia and having to retrain as a doctor when he was already a successful practitioner in Vietnam. He feels quite shameful about this, but does not want to tell Lin how he feels. Han’s father and two older brothers are doctors and he feels he must prove himself to them, and having Lin moping around the house when he is trying to study annoys him. Han is quite reserved about his feelings and chooses to stay in the library and study rather than talk to Lin about them.

Both Lin and Han felt that their dissatisfaction with their relationship may drive them apart. “C” suggested that their problems may be due to conflicts caused by clash of their Vietnamese cultural upbringing and the situation they now find themselves in which is affecting their needs. For example, Lin may be emotionally dependent on her large extended family and the security they provided. The family can play a much more explicit role in Asian culture that Australian culture, and the support, comfort, and protection Lin’s family provided in Vietnam cannot be replicated by Han alone. Similarly, Han’s drive and determination to better himself may be seen not only as a manifestation of his Type D personality, but also as a reflection on his Asian upbringing which focuses on individual success and prosperity. This may also explain why Han wants Lin to find a more prestigious job.

After explaining their Personality Need Types and the influence of their Asian background “C” asked Lin and Han if they could see a way to overcome their difficulties. After discussing many options it was agreed that Lin would investigate support from the local Vietnamese community. Lin felt that it would help her if she could talk with others who have experienced similar difficulties. “C” also explained that this new group could help her meet some of her security needs. It was also discussed that this may take some pressure off Han as Lin would be meeting some of her security needs elsewhere.

“C” then directed the discussion towards Han and his role in the relationship. Han expressed that he didn’t like Lin being unhappy but that he wanted a chance to prove himself in Australia and felt that she should support him. He stated that he also missed the large family. The discussions lead to his avoidance of the issues with him choosing to study at the library rather than at home. Han began to realise that this was only making the problem worse.

Lin agreed that if Han came home to study she would make the effort not to ‘mope’ but also asked that Han be supportive of her and the changes that she has had to adjust to. Han agreed to assist Lin in setting up networks of friends and stated that he felt he already had a better understanding of the problem from talking it over.

In cases like this the counsellor should assess not only the personality type of the client, but the cultural upbringing and expectations the client possesses in order to evaluate how the culture has mediated their personality needs. In the case of Lin and Han, their cultural background may have worked to amplify their personality types and needs, and an effective Counsellor will acknowledge this when applying their counselling technique.

Author: Shannon Rowe