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What Is Cultural Humility and How to Foster It?

An in-depth look at the importance of cultural humility as it applies to the training of psychotherapists

by Skillsetter on October 21, 2020

What three adjectives come to mind when you hear the words “Trump supporter”? This question is part of a lesson plan Dr. Jesse Owen teaches around the concept of cultural humility, and he says that most therapists-in-training have a reaction when asked. “It’s really interesting because the reactions can be strong and in a lot of cases negative,” he says. “But let’s take a deeper look. Is everyone who supports Trump a racist, for example? Where do those beliefs come from? And if you’re a psychotherapist, what would you do if you were sitting across from a client and they told you they were a Trump supporter?”

Owen is a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Denver and the co-author of “Cultural Humility: Engaging Diverse Identities in Therapy.” He’s been instrumental in having the psychotherapy world embrace the concept of cultural humility and work within its parameters to improve care not only for clients who are minorities, but for everyone because we all have a cultural identity, world views, beliefs and values. He’s also played a key role in helping Skillsetter encompass cultural humility within its offerings. In this article we concentrate on the concept of cultural humility, why it’s important, and how to apply it to the training of psychotherapists.

What is cultural humility and how does it apply to psychotherapy?

Let’s begin by stating what cultural humility isn’t. It is not:

  • empathy
  • pity
  • kindness
  • sympathy
  • friendliness

In fact, cultural empathy is more of a discipline. It is the mindfulness that everyone has cultural biases and in order to truly help someone, those biases must continuously be acknowledged and kept in check. “I don’t think people can be a blank state,” says Dr. Jesse Owen. “Everyone comes to the table with values and beliefs. Everyone has assumptions about other people based on their cultural identities. So it’s important to know you have them and check in with yourself regularly to ensure you’ve put them aside.”

That said, cultural humility is not simply a concept about race. For example, “were a white male client to enter a psychotherapist's office, it might be right to assume the man is from privilege,” Owen says. “But from a cultural standpoint, that man participates in different cultures just by moving through his daily life. For example, his culture at home could be very different from his office.” Cultural humility is a stance that transcends identities, race, and sexual orientation—and instead focuses on the awareness one has about their own values and beliefs and the fact they arise from the various cultures people experience daily. Once that is acknowledged, it’s easier to understand the context of another person’s life.

Therefore, cultural humility includes:

  1. Intrapersonal aspects — such as knowing your own cultural biases and values
  2. Interpersonal aspects — such as being relationally oriented
  3. And it’s marked by curiosity, openness, and a stance of non-superiority

Why is cultural humility an important concept that needs more awareness?

According to Owen there is a concept in psychology that revolves around information avoidance: as people gain more privilege, they tend to avoid collecting more information and stop furthering their training because, quite simply, they don’t have to. But as we’ve written in other articles, therapists who don’t continually train and challenge themselves can become complacent and, ultimately, ineffectual. Which is one of the reasons why positive psychotherapy outcomes have stagnated over the decades.

Those therapists who practice cultural humility, however, experience better outcomes for their patients. Recognizing that, by default, you see others through a cultural lens means, “there are fewer microaggressions,” Owen says. “There’s more opportunity to connect with honesty.” It’s a concept that goes beyond basic empathy. It’s an intellectual stance that acknowledges the role culture plays in our perceptions and ultimately, “that’s another tool in your arsenal,” Owen continues.

How do we get better at cultural humility?

To paraphrase Skillsetter’s co-founder Dr. Bruce Wampold, “Training, training, training.” The interesting thing about cultural humility is that we’re really only ever forced to confront it when things get difficult; when a client gets angry with us for example. What caused the conversation to get to that point? Were cultural disparities a factor? How could we have acted or said things differently?

“We’re most likely to resort to our cultural assumptions when things get tough,” Jesse Owen says. “Getting better at cultural humility means engaging a different type of muscle. In order to train people to do that, they must first understand that we’re not perfect, and then own it.” Of course, the challenge until recently was how to train psychotherapists to do just that in a safe, laboratory-like environment that doesn’t involve real people getting hurt by therapists who might not fully understand how to interact with diverse clients. That’s where Skillsetter comes in.

How does Skillsetter train psychotherapy students in cultural humility?

Skillsetter is the missing tool for instructors who want to focus on improving cultural humility. Its training modules feature people of different backgrounds acting as clients who lead the participant through various scenarios. The participant is sitting in front of a computer on which the training video is being displayed and their reactions to the scenarios are recorded and then analyzed by instructors.

The formula is successful because “people take more opportunities and more chances when they have a forum in which to do things without risk,” Owen explains. “To me, as an instructor, that’s great. I like to say to my students, ‘I know you want to get it right but there is no right. It’s just what fits in the moment.” Owen goes on to say that it’s training such as this that really allows people to grasp the concept of cultural identity and “see through a lens of multicultural understanding” in order to become more effective therapists.

To learn more about Skillsetter’s cultural humility module, contact us to set up a demo.

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