I teach multicultural counseling at my university, so I think a lot about how to help counselors become more effective at working with clients who are different from them. I also think this has big implications for society in general. If you turn on the news, you will see pretty quickly that we have difficulties engaging with people who are different from us. The election season highlights these struggles.
Often the scenario plays out like this: I tend to work and socialize with people who are similar to me. These people validate my own views, and so I become more certain that what I believe is right. Engaging with people who are different from me makes me anxious, so I avoid it. The cycle continues, until we end up with the current situation in our country—most people stay in their own little groups, unwilling to cross the aisle (or the street) to engage with people who are different from them.
I think a first step for effective engagement with people who are different is to become more comfortable with difference in general. Can you be in a relationship with someone who is different from you, without feeling anxious about it? Can you engage with someone who is different without having to argue your position or try to change the other person?
We did some research recently to look at the extent to which counselors were comfortable engaging with racial/ethnic minority clients. Perhaps not surprisingly, the counselors who were more comfortable with their racial/ethnic minority clients had lower rates of dropout among their racial/ethnic minority clients. The counselors who were less comfortable were more likely to have their racial/ethnic minority clients not come back.
How can we become more comfortable with difference in our own lives?
- Recognize the benefits of difference. Sure, being around people who are similar to you might be easier and reduce your anxiety. But there are benefits to being around people who are different from you as well. Engaging with difference might help you learn something new, or expand your worldview. Engaging with difference helps you grow. When you are more in tune with the benefits of difference, you are more likely to move toward it rather than away from it.
- Drop the conversion narrative. Often when we engage with someone who is different, there is an underlying desire to ‘win’ the discussion—either I win and the other person changes his or her mind, or they win and I have to change my mind. This usually creates an unhelpful dynamic. Instead, drop the conversion narrative. Don’t try to change the mind of the other person; instead, just try to understand their perspective and learn something new. In the same way, don’t feel like you have to change your mind either. It’s okay to just have a discussion, without needing to end up at the same place.
- Practice makes better. There’s a great saying that says, “If running is difficult, run more. This lesson applies to anything.” The best way to get more comfortable with difference is to practice engaging with people who are different. Seek out experiences and discussions with people and groups who are different from you. At first, you will probably feel anxious and uncomfortable. That’s okay. Over time, these feelings will gradually fade away, and you will become more comfortable with difference.
Discussion: How comfortable are you with difference? What do you think of the 3 suggestions?