Multiculturalism and Diversity in Supervision

Written by: Laurel Brockenberry, Clinical Psychology Graduate Student at the Virginia Consortium Program

Multicultural competency is an ethical requirement according to the APA Ethics Code (American Psychological Association, 2016). As a result, competent supervision regarding this aspect of training clinicians is imperative. Tsui, O’Donoghue, and Ng (2014, p. 240) define cultural competence in clinical supervision as “the ability of supervisees and supervisors to relate to each other to achieve the objectives of clinical supervision, regardless of any diversity issues or contextual differences.” Given this information, the role of supervision is to help supervisees meet an ethical standard of services, and this ultimately involves being culturally sensitive and responsive to the needs of clients, ourselves, and the cultural dynamics in the supervisory relationship (Davys & Beddoe, 2011; Falender & Shafranske, 2004). Understanding cultural differences provide us with relevant information to ensure we can meet the same standards of treatment in both an ethical and culturally appropriate manner for the specific populations we engage with. 

According to Martin and Vaugn (2007), cultural competence involves (1) awareness of one’s cultural background, (2) attitude toward differences, (3) and both knowledge of different cultural practices/perspectives and (4) ability/skills to interact with individuals of other cultures. While many psychologists-in-training or early career psychologists may gain this competence through coursework, it is with supervised clinical experiences that clinicians-in-training can transfer this contextual understanding to the first-hand experience. In a supervisory relationship, the first component involves both supervisors and supervisees becoming aware of their own cultural identities and reactions to others who do not fit into those specific identities (Martin & Vaugn, 2007). This notion of awareness can be beneficial to becoming a culturally competent supervisee or supervisor since it involves introspection and the ability to determine one’s own biases and expectations of others. Many supervisees spend time examining their own cultural identity and reactions to clients of different cultural backgrounds. But it should also be stressed that such facets be examined in supervisory relationships. 

The second component indicates that both the supervisor and supervisee are sensitive and inclusive regarding their interactions with others of different cultural backgrounds and worldviews (Martin & Vaugn, 2007). The incorporation of attitudes regarding culture or the concept of “cultural humility” (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998) is included as a tool that further promotes a commitment to self-reflection, self-evaluation, self-critiquing, and willingness to learn from others that is pivotal to multicultural competence. Falicov (2014) indicates that “cultural humility” is a concept of cultural competence that posits that the client is the sole person capable of describing their multiculturalism. Typically, the role of the supervisor in this process is to help the supervisee become willing to learn what cultural issues are relevant to each client as an individual. Consequently, the supervisor, in turn, needs to be open to learning about the supervisee’s own cultural identity and experience to facilitate this process (Falicov, 2014). This step demonstrates the collaboration between the supervisor and supervisee to promote multicultural awareness and understanding.  

Third, experience or knowledge of other cultures is advantageous for both the supervisor and supervisee since it allows them to work together on acquired knowledge (Martin & Vaugn, 2007). As a supervisee, I found that this was an aspect of multicultural competency that I focused on via discussion of different cultural aspects with my supervisor or reviewing manuals and books for cultural considerations. Finally, all these components, when incorporated into clinical supervision help form the fourth component of multicultural competence, cross-cultural skills that build on awareness, attitudes, and knowledge (Tsui et. al, 2014). These cross-cultural skills can involve more welcoming non-verbal communication or open curiosity and engagement with clients about their cultural identities (Tsui et al., 2014).  In essence, the identification and incorporation of diversity must be provided for a clinician to be truly culturally competent. 

The supervisor-supervisee relationship is described as the core of the supervisory process and outcomes, and therefore may be a mediating factor in terms of a supervisee’s perception of their supervisor’s multicultural competence and their multicultural competence (Inman, 2006). Such factors that could impact supervisee perception of their supervisor’s multicultural competence include unintentional racism, miscommunication, lack of interpersonal awareness within the supervisor relationship, undiscussed racial/ethnic issues, gender bias, overemphasis on cultural explanations for psychological difficulties (Inman, 2006). Further, there may be a lack of initiation by clinical supervisors to discuss these issues and cultural perceptions may vary between supervisees and supervisors (Gatmon et al., 2001). All of these issues relate to difficulty communicating and facilitating discussions related to diversity and multiculturalism. Such issues may be helpful to keep in mind as you continue clinical training, either as a supervisee or supervisor.

To address these concerns and ensure competency in this area, the use of multiculturalism in supervision can be very instrumental in the facilitation of these discussions (Ladany et al. 1997). It is also denoted that an effective way of acquiring cultural competence is through positive supervision experiences that prioritize and explore cultural expertise (Pope-Davis & Coleman, 1997; Sue, 2008).  For example, one study found that when supervisees discussed cultural issues with their supervisors, they felt more sensitized to the importance of clinical issues in clinical work and conceptualization (Burkard et al., 2006). Lastly, being mindful of microaggressions also contributes to providing relevant clinical care and allows for growth in incorporating cultural components into clinical practice (Constantine & Sue, 2007). 

Overall, research suggests that supervision should aim to prioritize the examination and understanding of culture in the clinical context (Tsui et al., 2014). It is also important to discuss both the influence and prevalence of culture and its association with the definition of cultural competence within supervision (Tsui et al., 2014). Keeping an open attitude, being flexible to discussing multicultural/diversity considerations and concerns, and seeking relevant knowledge on these aspects are essential tools to ensuring cultural sensitivity and developing the ability to examining how one’s own identity may affect their perspectives or biases of other cultural groups. I encourage you to think further about multiculturalism within your supervisory experiences and ways in which you can continue to grow in multicultural competence.


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