Multicultural Counseling: Types, Strategies, and Techniques

For many years, white men dominated the counseling field in the U.S., along with most other professions during the first 200 years of the country’s existence. Most higher learning institutions did not admit women, and few admitted men of color.

This inequality still influences the counseling field today. In 2015, the American Psychological Association reported that 86% of psychologists in the U.S. were white, 5% were Asian, 5% were Hispanic, and 4% were African American. That distribution doesn’t reflect the country’s demographics: 60.4% white, 18.3% Hispanic/Latino, 13.4% African American, and 5.9% Asian, according to 2018 census data.

A multicultural counseling specialist meets with her group.

The racial and ethnic disparity between therapists and their patients often makes it difficult for minorities to find a therapist who understands specific issues related to their experience. Helping those in therapeutic settings to better connect with their patients and be more sensitive to issues related to experiences of culture and race is just one reason that multicultural counseling is so important. Continue reading to learn more about culturally competent counseling, why it is important, its impacts, and how you can pursue a career in therapy with a broader perspective and an ability to work with diverse clients.

What Is Multicultural Counseling?

The driving force behind multicultural counseling is that people from minority groups view the world through different lenses and that counselors, psychologists, and therapists of any race need to be sensitive to their unique difficulties and experiences. Multicultural counseling involves therapists demonstrating an understanding of their patients and their struggles with cultural issues, racism, and other related experiences. Always emphasizing caring and empathy, multicultural counseling enables therapists to better address unique challenges, considering how a patient’s experience may be different from their own.

What is multicultural counseling? This counseling style often has various approaches, but it essentially is a method of therapeutic counseling that considers the different factors that affect racial, ethnic, and other types of minorities, including historical oppression and its effects on society. Multicultural counselors do not conduct therapy in a vacuum; they understand that patients’ backgrounds influence the ways in which they view the world and that the counselor’s role must change to accommodate these perspectives.

Many factors can affect someone’s personal experience and thus the therapeutic experience. These include race, ethnicity, and geographic background. Religion and belief systems may also impact anything from a person’s values to how someone runs a household or raises children. There are also a range of socioeconomic backgrounds to consider, with people who grew up in extreme wealth as well as those who have survived life well below the poverty line. Multicultural counseling also takes into account disabilities, health conditions, gender, sexual orientation, living conditions, and more.

No one type of therapy or counseling most commonly uses multicultural counseling. Instead, it’s a mindset and style that therapists of all types can employ. These professionals may be school counselors working with elementary school students or psychologists working in private practice. They may also be social workers in all types of facilities.

Understanding Multicultural Counseling Theory

Multicultural counseling is a very recent development. It was not until 1972 that the American Personnel and Guidance Association (now the American Association of Counseling and Development) developed the Association for Non-White Concerns (now the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD)). AMCD’s mission is to “recognize the human diversity and multicultural nature of our society” and “identify and work to eliminate conditions which create barriers to the individual development of marginalized populations.”

Why was promoting a multicultural counseling theory so necessary? At the time, the vast majority of therapists were middle- and upper-class white men with homogeneous viewpoints, failing to take into consideration different experiences, perspectives, and emotional and psychological challenges. With more minorities and individuals from different backgrounds entering the middle class and going into therapy, it quickly became evident that many professionals were not able to understand their issues or respond meaningfully to their challenges.

Multicultural counseling developed out of a growing public awareness that the old ways of performing counseling work no longer applied and that they were in fact detrimental to those who were not in racial, cultural, and social majority groups. The 1970s was a time of social awakening and upheaval, including the countercultural movement against the Vietnam War and the continued growth of the post-World War II economy. AMCD’s development was another example of society revolting against the idea that everything was perfect and instead acknowledging that there was still a lot of progress to be made. Mass media, followed later by social media, made it easier for people to access different experiences and gain a greater understanding of life outside of their cities, socioeconomic groups, and races.

Multicultural counselors realize that when people come to therapy, their problems often stem from overlapping circumstances, such as their personal experiences and the state of society at large. A person with a disability who is also struggling with depression may need to address multiple issues, including resilience; hereditary traits; and societal impacts on self-image, opportunities, and more.

Developing Multicultural Counseling Competence

Becoming a therapist or counselor who is skilled at multicultural counseling is an ongoing process. It takes years of training, education, and on-the-job experience to become culturally competent, and multicultural counselors are always learning and adapting their methodologies to include new thinking and therapeutic strategies.

The best way to start down the road toward developing multicultural counseling competence is through an undergraduate program that exposes students to different ideas, therapeutic strategies, and multicultural counseling’s basic tenets. Such programs may include an internship at a facility that works with individuals of many different backgrounds. After receiving an undergraduate degree, the next step is typically graduate school, working toward a Master of Social Work, Master of Science in Psychology, or even a Doctor of Psychology or Doctor of Philosophy. When therapists and psychologists begin their careers, they can work in a multitude of environments, which offer opportunities to flex their skills with various clients.

Another challenging but essential part of developing multicultural counseling expertise is looking inward and examining one’s own biases and privilege. Multicultural therapists must be self-aware and examine how their upbringing and backgrounds influence the way they treat their clients. It is vital that therapists then learn how to balance those tendencies with greater awareness and perspective, approaching each client with sensitivity.

Exploring Multicultural Issues in Counseling

Culturally competent counselors and therapists must consider many different multicultural issues in counseling when working with their patients. Below are some of the most prevalent in American society.

Systemic Racism

The U.S. government evolved during an era in which wealthy white landowners enslaved Africans and their descendants in their homes and plantations, a practice which lasted for hundreds of years before being outlawed in all U.S. states and territories at the conclusion of the Civil War. Though eventually racial minorities won full rights via the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a long history of slavery and racial intolerance in the U.S. has led to deep-seated, systemic racism throughout the country.

Systemic racism may not be obvious, but it is very apparent when one looks at the statistics. For example, despite Caucasian people making up the majority of the American population, the majority of prisoners in the justice system are black, even though African Americans make up less than one-fifth of the population. Despite the justice system’s claim to treat everyone equally, the reality is that those without financial means –– who are twice as likely to be a minority according to an Economist report –– are at a disadvantage in the justice system. That’s just one example of systemic racism prevalent in the U.S. today; others include police profiling methods and stop-and-frisk policies.


Another issue in multicultural counseling that frequently arises is ableism. Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities. Society has come a long way in its treatment of people with disabilities, whether their disability arises as a result of a genetic condition or from a physical injury. People with disabilities face discrimination socially, in the workplace, and in the public sphere.

Consider a company that uses a monthly golf outing as a bonding exercise. An employee with a physical or mental condition may be unable to participate without assistance. If the company continued to hold these outings that excluded one employee, that’s an example of ableism in action. Essentially, ableism involves giving those without disabilities greater access and opportunities than those with disabilities.

Religious Differences

The U.S. has dozens of organized religions and subreligions, from Christianity to Zoroastrianism. They all have different dogmas, religious texts, and beliefs. Many people raised adhering to a specific religion believe theirs is “correct,” though it is often more nuanced than that. Multicultural counselors respect different religious beliefs and value systems, so long as they do not infringe on others’ rights and freedoms.

Why Is Cultural Competence Important?

Therapists should not reinforce socioeconomic norms during sessions with clients. Rather, they should mold their strategies to each client’s needs, using cultural competence and multicultural counseling concepts to drive their practice.

For example, a person who is struggling with money seeks help from a therapist who was born into privilege and never had to worry about affording rent the next month or buying enough food to feed their family. If the therapist tells the client that money struggles are easy to overcome and suggests borrowing some cash from their parents, the client will have few practical tactics to overcome the stress and other challenges associated with financial hardship. When therapists do not understand their patients’ backgrounds, it is difficult to offer a service that will benefit them.

Cultural competence is important because without it, therapists and counselors will be unable to provide therapy to anybody whose background is different from their own. Therapists must be able to form connections to make progress with their clients, who might be struggling with family issues, depression, anxiety, or other mental health and social woes. Without a connection built upon understanding, the therapeutic process would be restricted.

Multicultural Counseling Skills

Gaining cultural competence and becoming a multicultural counselor involves developing the right skill set that enables therapists to meet the individual needs of their clients. Multicultural counseling involves several key factors that are often gained through education and work experience. Developing these skills starts with the right undergraduate degree, such as Maryville University’s Bachelor of Arts in Psychology online, which emphasizes courses relevant to multicultural counseling, such as social psychology, multicultural psychology, and critical thinking in the social sciences.

Interpersonal Abilities

A key skill for all counselors is the ability to connect with another person on a human level. The most important part of interpersonal skills are conversational skills, such as listening, responding, and asking thoughtful questions. Counselors and therapists must be curious and attentive to their clients, inquiring about their backgrounds, views, feelings, and emotions in a respectful, conscientious manner. They must be able to read body language and know when to continue with a line of questioning or return to it in a later session.

Cultural Awareness

Cultural awareness means understanding that culture is about more than just skin color or physical appearance. Culture is a way of life, often influenced by someone’s background, surroundings, social circles, interests, and experiences. Cultural awareness is a two-way street: Not only do counselors and therapists need to be aware of other people’s cultures, but they should be introspective and reflect on their own, considering how their personal experiences have shaped their worldview.


Therapists and counselors must be careful when dealing with potentially upsetting topics. If their clients are unwilling to discuss certain matters, especially at first, therapists and counselors must respect their wishes and move in a different direction. Respecting others’ feelings is important to help them open up and become more receptive to therapeutic methods. A key skill that therapists and counselors possess is tact and sensitivity, approaching all potentially triggering issues with great care.


Implicit in all of these skills is an understanding of why they are important. Multicultural counseling is about more than practicing these skills and being kind. It is also about understanding clients on a deep level –– not only being sensitive but also recognizing why that sensitivity is necessary in the counselor-client relationship, as well as outside of the office.


Culturally competent therapists are able to put themselves in their clients’ shoes and understand their points of view. Empathy means sharing others’ feelings, not just feeling sorry for them or being sensitive to their needs. Empathy is a high-level skill and takes years to develop in a healthy, professional way. Yet, empathy is often necessary for multicultural therapists and can result in a great connection between therapist and client, yielding more positive results.

Discover Multicultural Counseling with Maryville University

Modern culture is about embracing the qualities that make us different and enable us to perceive the world in our own unique ways. Our backgrounds, cultures, religions, and other factors play a role in the way we see the world and the way certain circumstances and events affect our emotions and behaviors. Increasingly, more people acknowledge that no single viewpoint is any more or less valid than another. There is no “right way” to see and experience the world.

The best therapists, psychologists, social workers, and others who work in counseling services use multicultural counseling, informed by cultural awareness, to better assist their clients. By using empathy, sensitivity, and understanding, counselors can help their patients to feel heard and respected. Explore how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, with courses that emphasize multicultural counseling strategies and that aim to create an understanding of how racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic factors interact, can help you start down the path to becoming an effective, culturally aware therapist.

Recommended Readings
Anxiety in Children: What Parents, Educators, and Students Can Do to Help
New Mental Health Trends and the Future of Psychiatry
The Future of Psychology: New Methods for Helping People

American Counseling Association, Our History
American Psychological Association, “How Diverse Is the Psychology Workforce?”
Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, History
Center for American Progress, “The Intersection of Policing and Race”
Center for Disability Rights, “Ableism”, Multicultural Therapy
MDedge, “7 Ways to Improve ‘Cultural Competence’”
Medium, “Why Cross-Cultural Competency Is Among the 10 Most Important Skills of the Future”
National Education Association, Why Cultural Competence?
Psychology Today, Multicultural Therapy
The Economist, “Poverty in America Continues to Affect People of Color Most”
Think Progress, “Black Americans Suffer Most from Racial Trauma, but Few Counselors Are Trained to Treat It”
U.S. Census Bureau, Quick Facts

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