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Alaskan Cross-Culture: Working Effectively with Tribes and Organizations
Cultural Diversity & Ethical Boundaries: Overcoming Barriers to Counseling Effectiveness

Section 20
A Culturally Embedded Model for Understanding Communication

CEU Question 20 | CEU Answer Booket | Table of Contents
Social Worker CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs, Nurse CEUs

The majority of communication models for effective counseling (Egan, 1986; Gudykunst & Kim, 1984; Wallen, 1972), with the exception of Rogers (1951), tend to be of the interpersonal problem-solving type. They typically focus on the characteristics of the communicators, modes of expressing (encoding) and receiving (decoding), and elements of verbal and nonverbal communication. These models assume that what is spoken is understood. Communication in these situations concentrates on the clear exchange of facts, ideas, and perceptions between two people (hence an interpersonal focus). Cross-cultural clients, on the other hand, have deficits in the host culture language and social competencies and are not usually able to express themselves clearly. Not being fully understood by the counselor can be a discouraging and self-invalidating experience.

This is where understanding of the intrapersonal process of communication becomes essential. It is fundamentally important in working with ethnic clients that the counselor understands the client's subjective experiences, goals, ways of behaving, life plans, and other significant areas. For clients, particularly culturally distinct ones, making themselves understood while in the presence of the counselor is the major preoccupation in the initial stage of counseling. Clients' interpersonal communication effectiveness skills develop concurrently as intrapersonal understanding deepens. Therefore, both levels of communication discussed here are needed for advancing client competence.

The importance of the notion of self and subjective culture in cross-cultural counseling is highlighted in the culturally embedded model of communication developed by Westwood and Borgen (1988). The model demonstrates how both the intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects of communication provide a means for understanding what an individual thinks (cognitive), feels (affective), says (verbal), and does [behavior) in cross-cultural situations.

The framework incorporates aspects of cultural self discussed by Christensen (1985) and Hsu (1985). That is, notions of self are primarily culture-bound and shaped by the system of communication in which we are raised. What are the psychocultural factors operating within the self that influence internal sensations, thoughts, and experiences while we are communicating with another? Level of self-understanding and ability to make sense of our own subjective experiences directly influence the process and content of communication at the interpersonal level of communication as well.

Some of the main assumptions shared by Gudykunst and Kim (1984), Wallen (1972), and Westwood and Borgen (1988) are essential for counseling across cultures, including the following ones:

  1. All communication involves the use of symbols, which are culturally defined, and much of our communicative behavior, especially nonverbal, is outside of our awareness because communication is a cultural phenomenon (Hall, 1976). The same gestures or words can have different meanings depending on the social-cultural shaping that has taken place.
  2. The process of encoding and decoding messages in communication is mediated by our perceptual filters, which are culturally determined to some degree. These filters shape how the counselor and the client intentionally or unintentionally convey ideas and feelings and how they receive what is communicated to them.
  3. Immediate internal psychological states and the situational context of communication directly affect the process of interpersonal communication.

These assumptions emphasize the importance of subjective processes. Cross-cultural clients' awareness of such subjective experiences are, therefore, instrumental to their personal and bicultural problem solving and self-exploration.

The Circular Relationship of the Client and Counselor Understanding
As has been stated by Hora (1959) "to understand himself man needs to be understood by another. To be understood by another he needs to understand the other" (p. 237).

This quote forms an axiom of human communication according to Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967). It is particularly important to the understanding of intercultural communication as it applies to counseling. One of the implications of this axiom is that understanding of self requires being understood by another. Disconfirmation, lack of self-understanding, and invalidation of self occur when there is lack of congruence between these encoding and decoding processes.

Clients must be confident that their speech and actions are being decoded by the counselor accurately and that their messages are received as intended. Therefore, clients need to be given an opportunity to express their current experiences, feelings, and intentions in such a manner that what they intend to communicate is received accurately by the counselor.

It can be seen that the more the client makes himself or herself understood, the more understanding the counselor develops of the client. Furthermore, the more the counselor tries to help the client to express himself or herself, the more self-understanding is achieved by the client. Client self-understanding and counselor understanding of client are a function of the counselor and client efforts. In other words, to maximize counselor effectiveness, it is necessary to increase client self-understanding.
- Westwood, Marvin, Ishiyama, F.; The Communication Process as a Critical Intervention for Client Change in Cross-Cultural Counseling; Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development; Oct 1990; Vol. 18, Issue 4.

Personal Reflection Exercise #1
The preceding section contained information about a culturally embedded model for understanding communication.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Abbink, J. (1996). Communication and culture [Review of the book Communication and culture in war and peace, by C. Roach, Eds.]. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 2(2), 181–182.

Lardon, C., Wolsko, C., Trickett, E., Henry, D., & Hopkins, S. (2016). Assessing health in an Alaska native cultural context: The Yup’ik Wellness Survey. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 22(1), 126–136.

Mujica, C., Alvarez, K., Tendulkar, S., Cruz-Gonzalez, M., & Alegría, M. (2020). Association between patient-provider racial and ethnic concordance and patient-centered communication in outpatient mental health clinics. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 30(3), 423–439. 

O'Keefe, V. M., Cwik, M. F., Haroz, E. E., & Barlow, A. (2019). Increasing culturally responsive care and mental health equity with indigenous community mental health workers. Psychological Services. Advance online publication. 

Pomerville, A., & Gone, J. P. (2018). Behavioral health services in urban American Indian health organizations: A descriptive portrait. Psychological Services, 15(1), 1–10. 

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 20
What three characteristics do interpersonal problem-solving communication models focus on? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booket.


CEU Answer Booket for this course
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Cultural Diversity & Ethical Boundaries: Overcoming Barriers to Counseling Effectiveness

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