Cultural humility: An essential framework for therapists that anyone can use to foster connection and understanding

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Cultural humility is an approach used by therapists and other mental health professionals to create strong relationships with their clients and promote better therapy outcomes. Cultural humility is the process of being open, having self-awareness, and committing to self-reflection and critique when interacting with others.

Having cultural humility as a therapist means you are committed to honoring and not ignoring or harming a client’s identities. The word cultural in cultural humility does not just mean race or ethnicity. Culture includes all groups to which one may belong and the ways that a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, among other things, are relevant to the process of engaging in psychotherapy.

Time and time again, research has shown that the therapeutic alliance –the relationship between the therapist and their client – is the most important factor in positive therapy outcomes. Cultural humility is a critical aspect of such a relationship. It allows for a client to be seen and understood and have their treatment tailored to their lived experience and goals. It is not just clients who feel seen and understood when interacting with a therapist with cultural humility. Non-therapists can also use cultural humility to foster more connection and understanding within their relationships.

Acknowledge your biases

Think about the relationships in your life and how having cultural humility could promote closeness, love, or understanding. Take the time to engage in critical self-reflection and recognize where you have biases and how they might show up in your interactions with others. Look at where power imbalances might exist within your relationships. This is not easy work, but it is impactful. All human beings have lenses through which they see the world. Cultural humility asks that we determine what lenses we see through and acknowledge our biases. A therapist committed to cultural humility will think about their own cultural story and the ways it might be different from that of their client. You can do the same as you engage with people from different backgrounds.

Educate yourself

Cultural humility as a principle holds that it is not realistic to ever reach a point of being fully competent in another person’s culture. Culture is incredibly nuanced and complex. What we can do is be present to another’s identities. We can take the time to educate ourselves about someone else’s culture. We can keep in mind that it is no one’s obligation to teach us about their culture, and at the same time be grateful and respectful when another shares their identities and lived experience with us.

Ask for feedback

A therapist might ask their client at the end of a session: “Do you feel I understand things from your perspective? Are there certain things I don’t understand about the way culture plays a role in the situation we talked about?” Imagine the space that asking these questions could open up in a friendship, partnership, or work relationship. When you show your interest in understanding another person in such a powerful way, a beautiful opportunity for a stronger and deeper connection within that relationship is created.