Domain I: Acknowledge the Ubiquitous Nature of Culture in Counselling

CC 1 Cultural Sensitivity

Engage in cultural self-exploration as a foundation for cultural sensitivity towards client cultural identities and relationalities

Sandra Collins

The first core competency in the culturally responsive and socially just (CRSJ) counselling model (Collins, 2018) involves critical reflection on client and counsellor cultural identities, defined broadly to include Indigeneity, ethnicity, nationality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, ability, religion, and social class. It is important for learners to engage in a process of continuous reflection on self, on practice, and on self-in-practice (Collins, Arthur, & Wong-Wylie, 2010), which begins with cultural self-exploration as a foundation for awareness of, and sensitivity toward, client cultural identities. In the coming together of counsellor and client, their unique cultural identity narratives and lived experiences become resources for, and influences on, the counselling relationship and process. However, openness to other begins with openness to self and a commitment to active engagement in self-discovery.

The learning activities in this guide have been designed to be evocative of both emotion and thoughtful critique. If an activity evokes a strong reaction that leaves you with lingering discomfort or distress, please seek out appropriate supports in your local community or through your educational institution.


E-Book Navigation Tip

The activities in this chapter are designed to support competency development related to the key concepts listed below. Click on the concepts in the table and you will be taken to the related activities, exercises, learning resources, or discussion prompts. This e-book is a work-in-progress so I have not yet included activities or resources for all key concepts. Those with related activities are shown as active links in the table above.


CRSJ Counselling Key Concepts


Cultural Awareness and Cultural Sensitivity

Self-assessing cultural awareness (Self-study)

The two quizzes below are designed to give you a sense of your current level of cultural awareness by examining your beliefs and assumptions about (a) the counselling practice and (b)  various nondominant populations. This is intended as a learning tool from which you are invited to create your own continued competency goals. These surveys are completely anonymous; no information is collected about you, and no tracking of IP addresses is possible. You will gain the most insight by being honest with yourself.

Click here to start Part I of the quiz

Click here to start Part II of the quiz

You will receive a prompt at the end of the quiz that varies by score. The self-assessment quiz is based on the assumption that cultural awareness is a journey that will continue throughout your life and career.

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Celebrating the richness of diversity (Self-study)

© Historica Canada (2016, October 20)

All models of multicultural counselling ground cultural sensitivity in awareness of client culture. You cannot anticipate fully the cultural backgrounds of clients you will encounter in your practice; however, as much as possible, you are responsible to be well informed about the lived experiences of persons from diverse ethnic, ability, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, and religious groups. This background information must always be held tentatively; however, because within-group differences and the idiosyncratic nature of personal cultural identities.

Check out one or more of the following to increase your cultural awareness of diverse populations within Canada. In many cases, it is important to understand historical as well as current cultural contexts; many of these links are to Historica Canada.

Identify additional gaps in your knowledge of culture, and seek out credible sources to fill in those gaps. You may want to review the Collins (2020) Professional Writing in the Health Disciplines, Section 3. Establishing a Scholarly Foundation, for suggestions on how to discern and select appropriate information sources to ensure that you are relying on scholarly, professional, and free of cultural bias.

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Cultural Identities


Cultural Self-Awareness and Self-Exploration


Identity Narratives/Stories

Creating a cultural profile (Self-study)

One of the central foci of the CRSJ counselling model is the counsellor’s awareness of their own cultural identities. We all bring our cultural selves into our professional roles and into each relationship with our clients. Our cultural identities influence our way of being in relationship; our values, beliefs, and worldviews; the lenses we apply to understanding other people; and the ways in which we are positioned within society. In this activity, you will reflect critically on the various aspects of your personal cultural identity, both those with which you are most comfortable and those that may be less well understood or critically examined.

Select a creative way to represent some of the key aspects of cultural identities that influence who you are as a person and how you engage with the world around you. You may choose to use photos, collage, music, poetry, video, or any format or medium other than a written essay. Then identify 2‒4 elements of your cultural identities in which you have gained new insights, and reflect critically on how these influence your personal identity narratives or stories. For example, you may have taken your gender identity or your physical or mental ability for granted previously and not questioned your identity development or relative social location in this area. Or, you may not have noticed before a particular theme that runs through your overall cultural identity development. Attend to (a) the meaning you make of new insights, (b) the emotions that have been evoked or revealed, and (c) implications for who you are, or who you want to be, as a counsellor.

Finally identify two learning goals related to your own cultural identity development. Consider how you might prepare yourself to lean into and examine critically these less comfortable or conscious elements of your identities.

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Lived Experience

How lived experience shapes personal cultural identities (Self-study)

Our understanding of the impact of cultural identity may be enhanced by situating our awareness within specific contexts or experiences. Review your Personal Cultural Identities Inventory from the Exploring the factors influencing personal cultural identities exercise. Then, take a few moments to recall and record a couple of life events that are connected in some way with one or more aspects of your cultural identity on the Lived experiences and personal cultural identities template. Reflect on the meaning of these experiences in terms of the evolution of your personal cultural identities. Consider how other experiences may have shaped your self-identification differently.

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A day in the life (Self-study)

This exercise is intended to increase your awareness of the many ways in which gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation matter in our day-to-day lives. Over time, we tend to become accustomed to messages or images that are frequently repeated, especially if they do not have an immediate impact on our self-image, relationships with others, or sense of freedom to make our own choices. This exercise requires you to take a fresh look at your own world through the lens of a lesbian or transgender woman’s experience. Move through your world for a 24-hour period “as if” you self-identify in one of these ways. Attend to the images, messages, practices, and interactions that you observe. Identify examples that reflect prevailing ideologies about sexuality. Record your observations in the A day in the life inventory. It does not matter if you are male or female, cis or transgender, straight or gay; you are likely to be able to identify examples that you normally miss when you are not paying particular attention.

Once you have made your observations for a 24-hour period, review your list and answer the following questions:

  • What observation caused you the most surprise or concern? Why was this observation so significant?
  • What specific experiences or observations might allow you to build a bridge of understanding and cultural empathy with your LGBTTQI1 clients? Look for similarities in the effects of the items listed in columns 1 to 3.
  • What personal experiences can you identify that would allow you to empathize more fully with persons who differ from you in terms of gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation?
  • What changes might you make to your environment or way of being in the world to decrease the impact of negative sexual norms and dominant discourses on those around you?

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Personal Cultural Identities

Exploring the factors influencing personal cultural identities (Self-study)

The following figure illustrates the cultural dimensions, systemic factors, relationality, personal contextual factors, and *isms that feed into each of our cultural identities. The tendency for many of us is to take these factors for granted and leave them largely unexamined, unless we experience cultural oppression that brings these variables to the foreground. Even then, however, we may explore our ethnic identity and nationality, but fail to reflect critically on our sexual identity development or the impact of gender.

This image has five ovals of different colours that overlap at the centre of the image to suggest the interplay of the following factors on personal cultural identities: cultural dimensions, systemic factors, relationality, personal contextual factors, and *isms. The oval at the time describes cultural dimensions as ethnicity, ability, gender, gender identity, age, Indigeneity, sexual orientation, social class, as well as religion or spirituality. Moving clockwise, the second oval describes systemic factors as inclusive of historical, sociocultural, political, economic contexts; cultural and social norms and discourses; and structure of opportunity. The next oval introduces relationality as a key factor in personal cultural identities, listing family, friends, community, ancestry, heritage, chosen family, self-in-relation, social location, and relationship to land and place as important considerations. Factor 4, personal contextual factors, includes genetics, family history, personality, education, lived experiences, developmental milestones, and life transitions. The last factor in the diagram is *ism, which include racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, classism, ableism, heter0sexism, ageism, religious intolerance, and xenophobia. These interlocking ovals emphasize the interplay of these five core factors in shaping and defining personal cultural identities.

© Collins (2018)

Figure 1. Factors influencing cultural identity.

An audio file is provided to the right for individuals who are visually challenged.

Take some time to complete the Personal cultural identities inventory, identifying the factors that you consider important to your personal cultural identity. Pay attention to any influences that you may have taken for granted or ignored previously.

Consider the following questions for reflection:

  • What brings our awareness to some elements of cultural identity more readily than to others?
  • How might this tendency toward a lack of cultural awareness in some areas influence how you view the world or how you view your clients?
  • When you consider one or more of your current clients (or individuals you work with in another capacity), how complete or incomplete is your awareness of their personal cultural identities?
  • What influence might this have on your effectiveness in working with these individuals?

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Understanding religion/spirituality (Self-study)

Choose one of the major world religions with which you are unfamiliar. You may need to do an Internet search to identify options; try to choose a list that is as inclusive as possible. Most religious/spiritual systems or worldviews address some or all of the questions below. Feel free to add additional questions. Use the Understanding religion and spirituality template to complete your analysis, comparing and contrasting what you discover in your research with your own religious/spiritual beliefs or worldview.

  • What are the reference points for meaning-making (e.g., higher power(s), ancestors, nature, leaders, self)?
  • What are the core values, virtues, or ethics that characterize this religious/spiritual belief system?
  • How is religion/spirituality passed on over generations (e.g., manuscripts, oral traditions, art)?
  • How are human beings positioned in relation to other animate or inanimate entities (i.e., What are the human values, responsibilities, and privileges that govern the interactions between humans and other entities)?
  • What are the religious/spiritual motivations, goals, aspirations, or rewards?
  • To what degree are these goals positioned in the here-and-now or in the afterlife?
  • What are the core principles (i.e., assumptions, beliefs) that support these religious/spiritual goals?
  • In what ways does this belief system target or influence thoughts, emotions, behaviours, or relationships?
  • What are the core practices or rituals (e.g., prayer, ceremony, community service) that support the religious/spiritual goals?
  • How does this belief system support the creation of community?
  • What are the inclusion or exclusion criteria for the community?
  • How are diversity and social justice conceptualized within this belief system?
  • What is the relationship of this religious/spiritual community to other belief systems, dimensions of cultural identity, and communities?

Note that, above, I have chosen language above that is grounded in counselling and psychology to deliberately position religion/spirituality as a potential influence on counsellor and client mental health and well-being. How has your exploration of an alternative belief system influenced your cultural understanding of yourself and others?

Social Class

Deconstructing social class identity (Self-study)

[Contributed by Fisher Lavell]

Although people develop a personal class identity, it does not evolve in isolation, but rather as a complex, fluid, and dynamic interaction between person and environment. There is a saying that most working class people are one paycheque away from the street, and this may also be true for you. It has become more of a reality for many people, through the economic and international crises in recent years, and has impacted their social class identity. This is also a common experience for newcomers to Canada, who quite often are unable to continue on in the professions in which they trained and worked in their home countries. Consider the social class analysis below, which draws on the following scenario.

Eli’s social class identity can be understood drawing on the following model.

Elements of Social Class Identity

This image has four circles that overlap in the centre. The overlapping space is labelled as class identity. Each of the four circles represents an element of class identity: class consciousness, class access, class identification, and class background.
Adapted from “Reconciliation across social class,” by A. Sears, 2015, Retrieved from Copyright 2015 by Creative Commons.
An audio file is provided to the right for individuals who are visually challenged.
  • Class background refers to your past class background, including family income, housing, parent(s) employment, education, class culture, community status, neighbourhood characteristics.
  • Current class access refers to your current access to various communities, resources and power based on socioeconomic status, education, intersecting cultural identities, and other forms of social capital.
  • Class identification refers to the dominant or nondominant groups that you identify with through family, friends, or community, as well as your internalized class assumptions and biases.
  • Class consciousness reflects your ability to perceive, understand, and consciously address classism, social stratification based on class, systemic barriers and privileges based on class, and so on.

Reflect critically on your social class identity and the factors that have influenced your social class position. How might social class differences, whether overtly acknowledged or not, between you and your clients influence the development of trust and rapport?

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Collins, S. (2018). Embracing cultural responsivity and social justice: Re-shaping professional identity in counselling psychology. Counselling Concepts.

Collins, S., Arthur, N., & Wong-Wylie, G. (2010). Enhancing reflective practice in multicultural counseling through cultural auditing. Journal of Counseling & Development, 88(3), 340-347.

Lavell, F. (2018). Storying the lives of the working class: Attending to class at the intersections of identities. In S. Collins [Ed.] Embracing cultural responsivity and social justice: Re-shaping professional identity in counselling psychology [Epub version].

1LGBTTQI = lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, queer, intersex


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CC 1 Cultural Sensitivity by Sandra Collins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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