East Meets West Couples Counselling 5/5: Therapist as ‘Authority Figure’
When counselling couples from Eastern collectivist cultures, therapists may experience a stronger pull to ‘arbitrate’. Dr Kathrine Bejanyan is a relationship therapist with a PhD in Social Psychology. In the concluding part of her blog series, she explains the concept of ‘secondary control’, and warns of a potentially heightened power imbalance.
As therapists we are, often unwittingly, put in a position of authority. One of the foundational tenets of sound therapeutic practice is to refrain from giving direct advice to clients. In this final blog of the series, I want to draw attention to the special importance of bearing this in mind when conducting couples counselling with clients from Eastern, collectivist cultures. I have found that suggestions or guidance can carry additional weight with some clients, inadvertently overriding their own voice or desires.
Accommodation tendencies and control
Studies have shown that people from Eastern, collectivistic cultures have a stronger tendency to adjust themselves to fit within their context – whereas people from Western, individualistic cultures are more inclined to act from their own accord. One study of cultural conditioning in India and in the US found that, in cultures where people frequently face situations in which they are often rewarded for accommodating to others’ needs, members of that society will be more likely to respond favourably to the influence of others. In contrast, individuals will respond less favourably if they are from a culture that values autonomy and independence and does not reward subordination.
For Westerners, perceived control emanates from the individual and his or her ability to influence outside circumstances – primary control. To boost personal gains Westerners often try to exert authority over existing reality through personal command and agency.
For Easterners, control is gained through aligning oneself with the existing reality – secondary control. In this way, while they may not be able to change the external world, they are, instead, able to gain control over its influence on their internal psychological state and wellbeing.
Perceptions of the therapist
What are the implications of all this for our working relationships with our clients from Eastern collectivist cultures?
Clients come to us seeking guidance. But there is a fine line between supporting them and telling them what to do. This line may be thinner with some clients than others. Be aware that clients from Eastern collectivist cultures may be relating to you with deference, placing additional faith in you, and viewing you as ‘in charge’. There may be a greater risk of you being seen as ‘knowing what is best’.
For instance, when Jamal and Nadia sat down for their initial session, they immediately told me what they expected of me as their therapist: they wanted me to hear each of their sides of the story, and tell them who was wrong and who was right. Then, I should tell them how to fix their problems.
I started by explaining that I am not a judge and that they were not attending a court of law. Instead, we would be working on untangling the patterns in their relationship, how to communicate more effectively, and how to understand the underlying motivations that can often lead to what they tended to refer to as ‘petty arguments’.
Throughout therapy, in my communication and interaction with Jamal and Nadia, I also modelled effective listening and response skills.
My intention is always to help couples understand that it’s not about how much authority you have over the other, or how much weight or pressure you can put on the other to get your way. Instead, it is about preserving the integrity, dignity and voice of each person and, as a result, cultivating more depth, connection, trust and respect in their relationship.