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.


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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

  • Ubiquitous
  • Cultural identities (ability, age, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, Indigeneity, religion/spirituality, sexual orientation, social class)
  • Cultural self-awareness



Cultural Identities

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 paycheck 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, in a way that 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 and his father both work for a moving company as drivers and loaders. Eli started working at the same company as his dad when he was 16. His family never had a lot of money, but his dad always had a better used car than other families on his street. Until recently, he still lived in his parents’ home (they are both deceased) with his wife and two high school age children. Although he has been with the same company for over 30 years and has worked his way up to floor manager, he is making less money, relative to the current cost of living, than his father did in the 1970s, and he has a lot more responsibilities with longer work hours (class background). Eli and his colleagues have bought lotto tickets together for years; a year ago they hit the jackpot and each took home $2 million.

In the past year, Eli’s life has been turned upside down. He stopped working immediately upon winning the lotto, and his wife more recently quit her long-term job as an administrative assistant. They paid off all of their debts, and they purchased a house in a middle-class neighbourhood, where his kids attend a new high school. Eli also bought a house for each of his two brothers, paid off debts for a couple of close friends, and gave big chunks of money to several other people. He made a couple of investments; however, because of his lack of experience, he didn’t choose trustworthy people through whom to invest and lost money. Eli and his wife bought a Winnebago and plan to travel around Canada and the United States to visit relatives (current class access). However, Eli is feeling lonely and stressed. The kids are having trouble adjusting and making friends at their new school. His wife was reluctant to give up her job, but now she is focused on planning the road trip and seems not to notice his discontent. He has had a falling out with one of his brothers, who has already spent all his money and now wants more, claiming his new house needs expensive renovations. Eli misses hanging out with the guys at work. He dropped by the moving company a few weeks back, but the sales staff has turned over completely. It was a nice day, so he went for a walk around the old neighbourhood, had a haircut at the barbershop, and chatted with George, who has dementia and is always sitting on the front porch on nice days. Eli felt sad and nostalgic when he headed home that night (class identification). Eli can’t figure out what is wrong. He should be happy, shouldn’t he? He doesn’t have a care in the world now, after struggling to make ends meet his whole life. He can do whatever he wants with his time. He just cannot figure out why he feels so lost and restless (class consciousness).

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

Elements of Social Class Identity


Adapted from “Reconciliation across social class,” by A. Sears, 2015, Retrieved from Copyright 2015 by Creative Commons.
  • 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 influences your social class positioning. 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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Cultural Self-Awareness and Self-Exploration


Cultural Awareness and Cultural Sensitivity

Celebrating the richness of diversity (Self-study)


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 (2016) suggestions on Discerning appropriate Information sources, and in particular, the information on Web sources, to ensure that you are relying on scholarly, professional, and free of cultural bias.

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Personal Cultural Identities

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

The following figure illustrates the kinds of personal, cultural, contextual, ideological, and universal factors 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 forefront. 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 identity.

Figure 1. Factors influencing cultural identity.

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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Identity Narratives/Stories


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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Collins, S. (2018). Embracing cultural responsivity and social justice: Re-shaping professional identity in counselling psychology [Epub version]. Victoria, BC: Counselling Concepts. Retrieved from

Collins, S., Arthur, N., & Wong-Wylie, G. (2010). Enhancing reflective practice in multicultural counseling through cultural auditing. Journal of Counseling & Development, 88, 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]. Victoria, BC: Counselling Concepts. Retrieved from

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


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