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Aaron H. Carlstrom, Kansas State University

Entering into any helping relationship, including academic advising, can create a degree of uncertainty. People use a variety of strategies to cope with uncertainty in relationships, some more helpful than others. When advisor and advisee are culturally different, advisors may find they engage in two strategies to reduce their own uncertainty: (1) approaching students as “just individuals” (i.e. ignoring their cultural identities), or (2) approaching students as though their cultural identities were necessarily the most salient aspect of their current challenge (i.e. ignoring their individual identities). Both approaches are “either/or” in nature, and thus miss the complexity of the whole student. Advising done from an “either/or” approach is based upon the advisor’s cultural assumptions, whether the advisor is aware of those assumptions or not. “Either/or” approaches contribute to work that runs the risk of being distorted and unhelpful.

Here we will begin to explore how best to approach advising relationships in a multiculturally competent way, mindful of both the individual and cultural similarities and differences between advisor and advisee, and how those factors may influence the advising process. Suggestions are based on the author’s personal experience in helping relationships (i.e. mental health and career counseling), as well as the counseling psychology and intercultural communication literatures. The intention is to provide a description of a “both/and” approach to preparing for multicultural helping relationships. This approach can be useful with all students, regardless of how culturally similar or dissimilar advisor and advisee are, because all people are cultural beings. The objective of this article is to provide advisors with questions and principles to consider in interactions with students.

Multicultural Competence and the Helping Relationship

A multiculturally competent approach to any helping relationship is about taking steps to foster cultural awareness and mindfulness at both cognitive and emotional levels; it is about preparing ourselves to be in the room with another person, with the purpose of being helpful in a meaningful way. This approach involves a willingness to consider and respect both the intellectual complexity and the emotional uncertainty connected with navigating the influence that both the advisor’s and student’s individual and cultural identities have on the helping relationship. There are three areas that the author has found helpful to consider in fostering cultural awareness and mindfulness: listening empathically, focusing on meaning, and ongoing exploration of personal competence.

Listening Empathically.The starting point of listening empathically is to assume difference between oneself and the other. This allows us to hear from the other’s viewpoint, instead of assuming from our own viewpoint. Milton Bennett (1998; pp. 209-213) outlines a useful model for developing empathy in situations of cultural difference. He emphasizes the usefulness of remembering the “Platinum Rule” (i.e. “Do unto others as they themselves would have done unto them”), as opposed to the Golden Rule (i.e. “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”). His model involves 6 steps: (1) assuming difference, (2) knowing self, (3) suspending self, (4) allowing guided imagination, (5) allowing empathic experience, and (6) reestablishing self. While the scope of this piece does not allow for a detailed discussion here, further review of this model is encouraged.

Focusing on Meaning. Focusing on meaning involves questioning (1) if we understood what the student meant to communicate, and (2) if we communicated what we meant for the student to understand. Difficulty arises because meaning is based on an interpretation of the other’s behavior (both verbal and non-verbal), but this interpretation is often culturally bound. Craig Storti (1994, pp. 129-131) outlines 7 principles for approaching intercultural communication to guard against misinterpretations:

  1. Do not assume sameness.
  2. What we think of as normal or human behavior may only be cultural.
  3. Familiar behaviors may have different meanings.
  4. Do not assume that what we meant is what was understood.
  5. Do not assume that what we understood is what was meant.
  6. We do not have to like or accept “different” behavior, but we may find it helpful to understand where it comes from.
  7. Most people do behave rationally; we just have to discover the rationale. (Although it is important to keep in mind that a preference for rationality can be a culturally bound preference).

Exploring Competence. Exploring one’s competence in helping relationships is an ongoing process. Plummer (1995) provides 10 questions for mental health counselors to consider as a means of exploring their level of multicultural counseling competence. Consideration of these questions fosters the awareness and respect of cultural differences and similarities necessary for meaningful helping relationships. Plummer’s (1995) questions may be modified for the academic advising relationship:

  1. What cultural ground do I share with this student?
  2. What cultural differences do I acknowledge, respect, and welcome?
  3. What cultural differences do I fear, resist, dismiss, or minimize? How do I manage these differences during the advising session?
  4. Do I behave or think differently with this student than I do with other students?
  5. How comfortable am I, as a person of culture, with this student?
  6. Do I view the student as expert of his/her own cultural experiences?
  7. Do I attend to the use of language in the advising meeting to make sure terms have a shared understanding?
  8. Do I inquire, in a culturally appropriate way, if what I am saying is useful to the student?
  9. Do I check to see if I am reading nonverbal cues correctly?
  10. Do I check to see if my cultural perceptions are accurate?

The questions and principles presented in this article are not meant to be exhaustive. They are, however, intended to provide a framework that advisors can use to prepare themselves for their work with all students, and especially for their work with students culturally different from themselves.

The Tilford Group at Kansas State University provides a more detailed definition and model of multicultural competency development for racial/ethnic diversity. The Tilford Group model (http://www.tilford.ksu.edu/) outlines competencies in three broad areas: Knowledge, Personal Attributes, and Skills. This model can be a helpful guide for exploration of multicultural competence areas.

Aaron H. Carlstrom
Kansas State University


Bennett, M. J. (1998). Overcoming the golden rule: sympathy and empathy. In M. J. Bennett (ed.) Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc.

Plummer, Deborah, L. (1995). The therapist as gatekeeper in multicultural counseling: Understanding ourselves as persons of culture. Journal of Psychological Practice, 1, 30-35.

Storti, Craig (1994). Cross-Cultural dialogues: 74 brief encounters with cultural difference.Intercultural Press.

Cite this article using APA style as: Carlstrom, A. (2005, December). Preparing for multicultural advising relationships. Academic Advising Today, 28(4). [insert url here]



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