Cultural empathy is the learned ability of counselors to understand accurately the self-experiences of clients from other cultures (Ridley & Lingle, 1996). Cultural empathy is based on three principles: 1) every client should be understood from their unique frame of reference, 2) normative information can be useful as background information but does not always fit a particular client, and 3) people are a mixture of multiple roles and identities (McCarthy Veach, et al., 2003). Cultural empathy consists of two major processes: cultural empathetic understanding and cultural empathetic response.
Cultural empathetic understanding begins with striving for the goal of understanding each client as a unique individual. This means considering the meaning of each client’s self-experience, including his or her feelings, attitudes, thoughts, values, motivations, coping style, and behaviors (Ridley & Udipi, 2002). This self-experience occurs in a cultural context, as people are the products of the culture in which they were raised, and the cultures they choose. Cultural empathetic understanding is the process through which counselors understand the self-experience of their culturally different clients.
Cultural empathetic responsiveness means utilizing that understanding in a way that lets the client know they are understood. If a client cannot detect the counselor’s understanding, then the understanding holds no value for the therapeutic process. This means that the counselor must express himself or herself so that the meaning of their understanding is not lost in the communication process.
Genetic counselors can develop cultural empathy by becoming more familiar with individuals who are Deaf by participating in cultural immersion activities. Having experience with members of Deaf culture may make the genetic counselor more comfortable in the session and enhances cultural empathetic understanding. In a study of genetic counselors assessing attitudes toward deaf people and scenario-specific comfort levels discussing and offering genetic testing for deafness, respondents with deaf/Deaf friends had more positive attitudes toward deaf people than those without deaf/Deaf friends (Enns et al., 2009). More positive attitudes toward deaf people correlated with higher comfort level talking about genetic testing and correlated with a higher comfort level offering genetic testing to culturally Deaf clients wishing to have a deaf child. This study suggests that genetic counselors’ attitudes toward deaf people may influence their level of comfort when interacting with culturally Deaf clients. This important finding is supported by evidence that attitudes and biases can influence both content and presentation of information relevant to decision-making and the options offered by health care providers.