Using Cultural Humility and Narrative Approaches with Diverse Clients

By Marty Apodaca and Shalom Bond

Career counseling is a fundamentally positive approach focused on exploring a person’s strengths (Pope, 2003). For diverse populations who receive systematic negative messages from the dominant society, dialogue around cultural identity is an essential source of strength and resilience (Freire, 1970). Questions of culture, status, and belonging are highly relevant to career counseling, and with diverse populations, exploring these issues can be essential to a client's career development. Career counselors can be advocates for social justice, much like the father of vocational psychology, Frank Parsons (O’Brien, 2001). Yet career practitioners often overlook cultural issues, due both to the brief, goal-oriented nature of career work and, in some cases, practitioner discomfort. In this article, we present a model for utilizing cultural humility and narrative approaches to facilitate strengths-based, culturally relevant career counseling with diverse populations.


From Multicultural Competencies to Cultural Humility

Multicultural awareness and sensitivity is a core requirement of several counseling programs, and it also comprises a section in the NCDA Code of Ethics. Sue, Arredondo, and McDavis (1992) spoke about the importance of counselors developing multicultural competencies (MCC) when working with clients from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. MCC focuses on building knowledge areas related to clients from different racial and ethnic backgrounds (Sue et al, 1992). While Sue was instrumental in bringing the topic of multiculturalism in clients to light, there is a present need to move beyond MCC to best serve the career development needs of individuals and groups in today’s society.

Cultural Humility (CH) is an open and humble approach to different cultures that recognizes no culture is superior to another (Hook et al, 2013). Using CH, counselors attempt to understand a client’s culture from the client’s own perspective (Hook et al, 2013). While knowing basic concepts of different cultures can be beneficial in working with clients of color, attempting to understand a client solely through knowledge areas is an unattainable task (Ridley et al, 1994). CH allows practitioners to simultaneously understand a client’s cultural context and to view the client as an individual, rather than simply as a representative of a homogenous group. CH focuses on:

  • Intrapersonal and interpersonal humbleness
  • Shift from awareness of to openness to culturally different clients and their experiences
  • Respect and a lack of superiority when cultural issues arise
  • Self-reflection and self-critique in lieu of building knowledge areas
  • Recognition that one client’s background does not represent all clients from this background.

CH is an attempt to understand clients from their unique, individual worldviews. Career practitioners attempting to use CH with clients may find narrative approaches useful.


Narrative Approach

The narrative approach to career counseling is a natural fit with CH. The goal of narrative approaches is not to interpret or judge a client’s narrative, but to enter a client’s story to better understand their perspective on a presenting issue. In working with culturally different clients, narrative approaches have proven effective (McClure & Russo, 1996; White & Epston, 1990). Through sharing stories, clients can better understand and express who they currently are, how they came to be, and where their lives are moving (McAdams & McLean, 2013; Savickas, 2011). Stories allow clients to understand what has, and currently is, happening in their lives, how these events came to be, and construct meaning from these events (Madigan, 2011). This allows clients to re-author self and shape future narratives (Savickas, 2011).


University of New Mexico Workshop Series

The University of New Mexico (UNM) is a diverse, Hispanic-serving institution. Many of the clients who come into the Office of Career Services are first-generation students of color. In partnering with UNM’s ethnic centers, a workshop series was offered where participants could talk openly about concerns regarding entering the work force. This workshop series took place in African American Student Services, El Centro de la Raza, and Student Support Services (a UNM TRIO program). Two career counselors facilitated the workshop in an open group format and encouraged the participants to share and talk openly. Prompts used during the initial workshop included:

  • My biggest concern about my upcoming employment is…
  • My other concerns about career and school are…
  • What does the term “workplace culture” mean to you?

Through these open-ended questions, participants could voice concerns related to their culture and identity not being accepted in the workplace. Some common themes that arose included:

  • Fears about discrimination, values, and workplace culture
  • Worries about the future of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and their immigration status
  • Fear of failure, letting family down
  • Concerns around graduating and transitioning to the workforce.

During the second workshop, a three-question modified version of the Career Construction Interview (CCI) was distributed to group participants. The career counselors introduced each question and a companion worksheet. The CCI questions asked were:

  • Who did you admire while you were growing up?
  • What are your current favorite entertainment shows, podcasts, or apps?
  • What is your current favorite saying or motto?

Upon completing the worksheet, group members were invited to share their individual stories. This was a powerful and uplifting experience for participants. Frequently during sharing, group members reaffirmed other participants’ stories, helping that person to solidify sources of strength and inspiration. After sharing their stories, a modified version of the Life Script created by Savickas and Hartung (2012) was distributed for participants to document:

  • The strengths and values they possessed
  • The ideals they were striving to reach
  • Motivation and interest in working environments
  • Self-advice to persevere through difficult times and transitions.


Move Beyond the Traditional Scope of Career Work

Cultural identity is an important factor in of career development, particularly for diverse populations. Through inviting students of color to share their stories using a stance of CH, sources of strength and inspiration were uncovered. Participants reported a greater sense of self-efficacy, connection to the university, and clarity regarding academic and career goals. Some common inspirational themes among groups were:

  • Strong sense of cultural pride
  • Giving back to community and family
  • Using education to further self and community
  • Drawing upon role models for inspiration.

Our experience facilitating group career counseling utilizing CH and a narrative approach illustrates the need to move beyond the traditional scope of career work to include a full exploration of cultural identity. We hope this article provides career practitioners in a variety of settings with tools, questions, and ideas they can utilize to empower and validate their clients along their career development journeys.



Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 65-80.

Hook, J. N., Davis, D. E., Owen, J., Worthington Jr, E. L., & Utsey, S. O. (2013). Cultural humility: Measuring openness to culturally diverse clients. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 60(3), 353.

Madigan, S. (2011). Narrative therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233-238.

O'Brien, K. M. (2001). The legacy of Parsons: Career counselors and vocational psychologists as agents of social change. The Career Development Quarterly, 50(1), 66-76.

Pope, M. (2003). Career Counseling in the Twenty‚ÄźFirst Century: Beyond Cultural Encapsulation. The Career Development Quarterly, 52(1), 54-60.

Ridley, C. R., Mendoze, D. W., Kanitz, B. E., Angermeier, L., & Zenk, R. (1994). Cultural sensitivity in multicultural counseling: A perceptual schema model. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 41(2), 125-136.

Russo, T., & McClure, B. (1996). Finding the self: Approaches to narrative investigation. Guidance and Counseling, 12(1), 3-7.

Savickas, M. L. (2011). Career counseling. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Sue, D. W., Arredondo, P., & McDavis, R. J. (1992). Multicultural counseling competencies and standards: A call to the profession. Journal of Counseling & Development, 70(4), 477-486.

White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.



Marty Apodaca 2018Marty Apodaca, LMHC, CCC, NCC, is a CDF 2 at UNM Career Services, holds an LMHC in New Mexico, and carries a devotion to Career Counseling and Supervision. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Counselor Education and previously earned his MA in Counseling from UNM. Marty supervises and trains master’s level interns at UNM Career Services. A past president of NMCDA, he is an active member of NCDA, ACA, and NMCA. He recently graduated from the NCDA Leadership Academy class of 2017. Marty’s passion is in the training and facilitation of the Career Construction Interview. He was recently a faculty member at the Kent State and Albuquerque Career Construction Institutes. He may be contacted at rapodaca@unm.edu.


Shalom Leo BondShalom Leo Bond, LMHC , GCDF, holds a Master's in Counseling and a BA in American Studies from The University of New Mexico. Shalom is a CDF 1 at UNM, writes for the UNM Career Services blog, and conducts the online career advising walk-in hours. Shalom is passionate about social justice, mental health, and the community and natural beauty of New Mexico. His interests include LGBTQ issues and mindfulness-based approaches to counseling.  He may be contacted at sbond89@unm.edu.


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Cynthia Scanlon   on Thursday 05/03/2018 at 10:28 AM

Excellent article - you both are doing "good works"!

Marty Apodaca   on Thursday 05/03/2018 at 01:31 PM

Thank you very much for your support Cynthia! I hope you are doing well and can't wait to see you at NCDA!

Paul Timmins   on Tuesday 05/08/2018 at 09:59 PM

I love your practical suggestions for helping students identify sources of strength and inspiration!

Larry Robbin   on Tuesday 05/15/2018 at 10:35 PM

Thanks for the very good post. I would add two things. One is to investigate cultural norms. A great resource is https://geert-hofstede.com/countries.html to understand more about the cultural norms of over 100 countries. Remember not every individual follows the cultural norms! The second thing is to learn more about your own cultural norms. Here are some assessments that can be of help in this process.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.