Understanding Cultural Competence and Humility

Tips from a DEI specialist on the 4 C’s – curiosity, comfort, clarity and confidence 

One highlight from our most recent Month of Learning was outside consultant Asia Wong’s talk about cultural competence and cultural humility. Asia is a Licensed Master Social Worker and Director of Counseling and Health Services at Loyola University New Orleans. In her enlightening and relevant talk, she reviews the tenets of coaching from a perspective of cultural competence and humility, the differences this can make in your interactions with students, and the concrete changes — internal and external — that pave the way to becoming culturally competent and practicing cultural humility.

Defining the terms 

Asia defines cultural competency as the discrete knowledge and skill sets specific to the communities and individuals that you are actively interacting and working with. This knowledge and these skill sets allow communication to occur more quickly and create space for understanding and shared language.

Cultural competency is not cultural expertise, and being culturally competent is not about being a subject matter expert. Instead, it’s similar to knowing about someone’s interests without taking them on as your own. An example of being culturally competent is making sure to know the date of Ramadan when you’re working with Muslim students. While you can certainly maintain the knowledge and skill sets for communities and individuals that you don’t currently work with, the relevance and application of the work comes through the fluid interactions and frequent exchanges in the here-and-now.

Cultural humility refers to a set of attitudes, approaches and beliefs that allow you to be open to others and their experiences from a place of non-judgement. The goals of cultural humility include an ease with and openness about difference, along with accountability and curiosity. As Asia often repeats throughout the talk, “Don’t expect it to be easy or friction-less or mistake-free. You will mess up.” Use difficult moments as learning opportunities with room for apology, repair and changes.

As further explanation, Asia shares a quote from Ella Greene-Moton, Community Education Coordinator at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor: “I accept cultural humility to be the ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to others) while accepting cultural competence as the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures—more of a learned/taught condition.”

Trusting the triangle: research, listen, remember 

Getting to cultural competency involves work, and maintaining it requires continuous work. Asia thinks of this on-going work as the cultural competency triangle, whose three points are doing research, listening and paying attention during interactions, and remembering what is shared during interactions (and maybe filing something away to look up later). Your learning is informed by the listening and remembering. Those three actions should be done on a constant loop. And you’ll do them for whatever intersectionality is important to the person or community with which you’re working.

Important to maintaining cultural competency is the awareness that interests shift and evolve over time. A person’s relationship to their own identity and modifiers is also dynamic. As part of your listening, remembering and relationship-building work, don’t ever forget that people change.

Embrace the 4 C’s: Curiosity, Comfort, Clarity and Confidence 

A commitment to cultural competence and cultural humility means moving beyond simply being aware of or sensitive to people’s cultural differences. So how do you start your own journey to cultural competence and humility? Asia suggests using the 4C’s: curiosity, comfort, clarity and confidence.

Curiosity: Be open to explore areas of ignorance, discomfort and difference with accountability and responsiveness 

Asia cautions that there’s a difference between being curious and being intrusive. Intent can be hard to read in these conversations, so throw the golden rule – treat others as you wish to be treated – out the window. How you want to be treated has nothing to do with how someone else does. Start using the platinum rule: treat others the way they want to be treated. So, how do you figure out what that is?

  • Ascertain if there’s an invitation to ask: does the person seem like they want to share?
  • Disclose your ignorance and signal your willingness to learn. Say something like “I don’t know much about that” and then wait. They can either respond with enthusiasm about explaining it to you or be dismissive. Be open to that response, that interaction.
  • Be mindful of what you’re asking them to do: is it effortful for them to educate you/help you understand?
  • Know what work/follow-up is expected from you. Are you ready to do that?
  • Be clear about your goal: why do I want or need this information? How helpful or pertinent? Does it help my student feel seen and heard? Or does it make them feel uncomfortable/ alienated/othered or like they have to perform?
  • Ask check-in questions:
    • “Tell me if I’m getting it right or wrong”
    • “Some people experience X – is that consistent with your experience?”
    • “People mean all different things when they say X – what does that mean to you?”

Comfort: Get comfortable with discomfort

You are going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. Create a safe space for people to say “that hurt” by being direct and open to feedback – and to apologizing, learning and changing.

  • Increase your awareness and be willing to ask hard questions
    • Think about how your students’ experience/interactions are shaped by their identities
    • Always be willing to assess for oppression and bias, to create a space for the person to share their feelings about possibly receiving racially or sexually biased treatment.
    • Don’t lie. You can normalize the experience of oppressed people without:
      • Claiming it for your own (“I know what that feels like”)
      • Agreeing that it’s hopeless
      • Asking that the individual be “resilient”
      • Instead, validate with comments like “Oh that sounds hard. That sucks. I’m here to support you.”
  • Notice and follow up on non-verbal cues (which differ by culture)
  • Get rid of any performance anxiety by being present

Clarity: Understand yourself and how other people see you

It’s important to own your identities and experience and to know where you’re comfortable or uncomfortable.

  • Pay attention to the identities/intersectionalities/who you are in the room
  • Understand the potential dynamics in your coaching relationships – and don’t be afraid to address them
  • Build trust through respect:
    • Honor boundaries. It’s your job to create a safe space for sharing and openness. No one owes you self-disclosure to make you feel better.
    • Be patient and pay attention
    • Create space for self-validation where your students feel comfortable coming to you

Confidence: Put it all together! 

How do you operationalize cultural competence and humility to know that you are changing and that these changes are meaningful and helpful to your work? Look for external evidence, such as a certain type of feedback from others – “I feel seen, I feel understood, I feel like you get me” or “My coach is honest, and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.” You should also notice internal changes:

  • Increased comfort with difference
  • Decreased distraction by intrusive thoughts about difference
  • Increased openness to discussing topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Increased knowledge of resources to support marginalized populations

What will getting it right feel like? Asia says it will feel great. The quality and depth of interactions will increase. You will feel let in, in a real way. Through small exchanges, you’ll have built trust and connection with your students and increased their sense of being seen, heard and understood. When you’re getting it right, your students will be visibly more comfortable. Maintaining cultural competence and humility is intentional, continuous, and – most importantly – deeply satisfying work.

To learn more about InsideTrack’s core values — as well as our DEI commitments — our first-ever Impact Report is a great place to start.

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