Jeff Guenther on May 23, 2017
Today, we're more culturally-sensitive in our speech and nonverbal cues. Although there is much more work to be done, thankfully, there is a growing emphasis on cultural education and awareness. In an effort to welcome multicultural clients to therapy, therapists take care to ensure communication is inclusive and validates clients' experiences as racial and cultural beings.
However, attention should also be placed in the physical design of office environments to ensure they are multiculturally friendly, as well. Offices with decorations that fall short of representing various racial groups can minimize or send a message that racial identity is insignificant. Feeling unheard, or not having a sense of belonging, can have damaging effects - ranging from a client being more reticent or hesitant to discuss certain issues, or at worst, reduce the chances of returning for further sessions.
How, then, can therapists make diverse populations feel at ease?
The most important thing is to keep in mind the population you serve. The area your office is located, the languages you speak, as well as specialties you treat, can play a part in the demographic you serve. Simply a general smattering of "ethnic" items without appreciating context and background is appropriation and likely to offend. The goal should instead be to take into account your specific population, and genuinely welcome and honor that culture's unique elements.
Some therapists choose to include magazines in the waiting room that appeal to diverse clients, as well as make choices in radio station music and furniture to reflect a welcoming attitude toward those from diverse cultures. Familiar physical objects encourage feelings of belonging and comfort. The “mere-exposure effect” is true for populations all over world, and seems to be common human trait across all cultures; we prefer familiar shapes, landscapes, products, songs, and voices.
Artwork, in particular, can have a meaningful impact. Displaying ethically diverse art can help cultural minorities feel comfortable voicing their thoughts and experiences. Not only does creating this sense of ease help encourage frank conversations about run-ins with implicit or overt racism - it also goes a long way in helping clients open up about other issues, as well.
Some therapists display religious symbols if they convey something relevant to the types of clients they commonly see. In a study that examined the display of art objects in a therapy office on judgments of the therapist’s characteristics, participants, most whom were Latino residents of the surrounding community, rated therapists more favorably when more of the objects on display could be characterized as multicultural. Further studies have shown that this sort of personalization can increase the perception of care and comfort across cultures (United States, Vietnam, and Turkey).
The physical environment therapists organize to help their clients feel at ease, welcome, and heard has a profound effect starting from the first intake interview, to the ongoing regular sessions as the relationship builds. And, if the population you serve is diverse - multicultural elements could make a great difference in validating unique perspectives and encouraging openness.
A.S. Devlin, B. Borenstein, C. Finch, J. Koufopoulos, Multicultural art in the therapy office: Community and student perceptions of the therapist, Professional Psychology Research and Practice 44(3):168-176 (2013).
D. Sue, C.M. Capodilupo, G. Torino, M. Esquilin, Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice, American Psychologist, 62(4):271-86 (2007).
Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.