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Faith, Culture, Ethnicity, Counseling and Canada

February 3, 2017

The issue of faith, culture and ethnicity in counseling is a tricky discussion. There are many widely held beliefs in this regard. Notwithstanding one’s own beliefs however, I do feel it is the counselor’s job to be respectful on matters of faith, culture and ethnicity and to recognize the role of faith, culture and ethnicity in people’s lives. Understanding, learning and being curious about the client’s faith, culture and ethnicity can inform and facilitate the counseling process and the counselor’s ability to be of service.

My appreciation of the role of faith, culture and ethnicity came early in my career. It actually started at least in 1986 when my then supervisor took me aside and advised that my presence and loud voice was closing down team discussion during case conferences. I am Jewish of Russian and Polish decent. Not that I ever considered our family to be loud, but it seems that relative to my colleagues who were predominantly White Angelo Saxon Protestant of British decent, I was relatively loud. As per the guidance provided by my supervisor, I modulated my volume and literally invited others to speak during the next case conference. It resulted in greater input. My cultural background was a factor in these professional relationships.

Later, in the same children’s mental health centre, the Director hired a black Jamaican psychologist to help us with our work with inner city black youth. To date we had a poor record of being helpful. Dr. Lowden talked with us about cultural differences and how those differences could be accounted for in the delivery of family therapy. Whereas a more facilitative approach was the mainstay of family therapy, the approach he suggested was directive and authoritative. We saw an improvement in our outcomes.

When as a volunteer in coop housing, the coop manager brought to my attention a resident who complained about noise in the apartment below. However, there was no apartment below and the real issue was mental health. I contacted the elderly resident’s family who took no action to support their parent. I next spoke with their religious leader, an orthodox Jewish Rabbi who in turn spoke with the family. It resulted in the elderly resident receiving the psychiatric attention required.

Since those times in the 1980’s and then since establishing my private practice in the 1990’s, my curiosity about the role of faith, culture and ethnicity has continued. As a result I have found that under certain circumstances including and facilitating a client’s beliefs or practices from those perspectives could be quite helpful.

For example, a couple was in conflict over their wedding. One side’s parents had been intrusive with regard to the wedding plan and the choice of faith under which they were married. The couple agreed to have a private ceremony on the faith of their choosing. The ceremony took place in my home office by a clergy of their choosing.

On other occasions and having worked with many persons who have had affairs, it is not uncommon that the guilt for some causes the person to feel distanced from their faith and the practice of their faith. I explain that while I may be of service person to person, I cannot serve in the capacity of clergy to repair one’s relationship with their faith. I have recommended that people speak with their clergy directly and for those who have been Catholic, to attend the process of confession. These suggestions have always been well received and felt to be respectful.

Recognizing at times the limits of my influence and cultural competency, I have at times sought a “cultural consultation” and have at other times included other members of one’s faith or culture in meetings.

For instance, working with separated parents of one faith, they presented very different perspectives on the practice of their faith and influence of their faith in family life. I spoke with a colleague of their faith to obtain a more neutral understanding. In bringing the more neutral understanding to the discussion table, the parents were able to resolve their differences.

In other situations, I have invited members of one’s faith or culture to join the meeting. Typically that person attends in the role of respected elder. From that perspective, the elder has influence upon the persons in conflict and we were able to co-facilitate their resolutions.

Respecting people’s faith, culture and ethnicity sometimes requires accommodation. On one occasion in order to accommodate the timing of a meeting the client’s requested a time out from the meeting for prayer. These requests can be easily accommodated. Recognizing one’s faith practices as reasonable and appropriate facilitates trust and a sense of acceptance in the counseling process and service provider. We took a break from counseling; I provided privacy; the couple prayed at the appointed time; and then we continued.

There are other occasions where a client requests a ceremony to facilitate the meeting. I have joined in prayer and we have held smudge ceremonies in my office.

Canada is a wonderfully diverse community of persons representing a multitude of faiths, cultures and ethnicity. We must do more than tolerate differences. To tolerate says we simply put up with the differences of another. In being more, we accept our differences. Acceptance lends itself to integration. Not integration in the sense that we give up our differences, but in the sense we can peacefully live with and work with each other, respectful of differences and demonstrating strategies to allow and celebrate our unique differences. We learn, grow and develop. We move from a narrow version of familiar to a wider version which then becomes familiar and comfortable with exposure. Then we can become friends.

Counseling is a very unique circumstance where the openness of the counselor to individual differences can facilitate adjustment and more peaceful living between the clients we serve. This can be a model of respectful living in a multi-cultural and diverse society. It is enriching.

The strategies of the counselor such as self-reflection, openness, curiosity and flexibility can hopefully serve the general public. We are seeing times when individual differences with regard to faith, culture and ethnicity are seen as threats to safety and social cohesion.

While it is wise to be vigilant for the person who could be dangerous among us, we learn to differentiate and otherwise accept people more broadly. We do not villainize whole groups of persons on the basis of faith, culture or ethnicity. We do not get inducted or goaded into base arguments or binary thinking carving whole groups of people into good or bad. We do not spread falsehoods to smear someone with an opposing view for our own benefit. We invite support, facilitate, make peace and provide shelter and safety. We get along with others and we are respectful and curious. We are Canadian and our counseling values and approaches are consistent with that reality.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out all my services and then call me if you need help with a personal issue, mental health concern, child behavior or relationship, divorce or separation issue. I am available in person and by Skype.

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Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships

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