Cultural Competence in Crisis Intervention

January 18, 2012
Hands clasped together

Cultural competence is defined as a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enable that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross–cultural situations (King, 2009).

Operationally defined, cultural competence is the integration and transformation of knowledge about individuals and groups of people into specific standards, policies, practices, and attitudes used in appropriate cultural settings to increase the quality of services; thereby producing better outcomes (King, 2009).

“Culture” in Cultural Competence

To understand cultural competence, it is important to grasp the full meaning of the word culture first. According to Chamberlain (2005), culture represents “the values, norms, and traditions that affect how individuals of a particular group perceive, think, interact, behave, and make judgments about their world.”

In the field of human services, cultural competence is important because it can provide a framework for connecting with others in a genuine way, as well as providing services to clientele in an authentic, respectful, and truthful manner that assists in establishing a foundation of trust.

This is particularly true of crisis management in human services.

The Role of Culture in "Crisis"

Given the immediate demands placed upon the professional during a crisis situation, factors of culture and cultural identity are often neglected. Yet, the professional and client in crisis often come from different cultures, i.e., age, gender, race, ethnicity, language, nationality, religion, occupation, income, education, mental and physical abilities.
To this end, crisis intervention often requires an immediate development of trust between two people from different cultures for purposes of restoring the client’s coping mechanisms to a pre-crisis level of functioning. The quick development of rapport and trust between people of different cultures often requires the professional to communicate, both nonverbally and verbally, a demeanor that one is knowledgeable about and accepting of cultural differences (Dykeman, 2005).

Most professionals in the field of human services would agree that this is a task that is often easier said than done during a crisis situation. Most professionals in the field of human services have witnessed the potent power of cultural competency in action when observing a colleague de-escalate a client whom no one else could assist. More often than not, cultural competence can account for many of the powerful connections we have witnessed between professionals and clients.

As human beings, it is important for us to feel validated and respected. This is particularly true in crisis situations. It is important to note that a professional’s lack of cultural competency is not indicative of lack of validation and respect of his or her client, but rather a lack of a repertoire of skills that allow professionals to genuinely and effectively communicate this validation and respect to the clients they serve. When professionals in the field of human services lack cultural competency, limitations and boundaries may be placed on the level of connectedness and trust the client has toward the professional serving them.

In an article written by James Cunningham (2003), it is suggested that culture, socialization, and race impact our thinking, feelings, and behavior during crisis intervention by playing an integral role in determining what a crisis is, and how, when, and if we intervene in a crisis situation. Cunningham (2003) explains that professionals who are not aware of these critical variables risk failures in cross-cultural interactions. These failures can be defined as a series of crisis situations that result in negative outcomes.

Issues of Diversity That Impact Crisis Situations
As professionals work with people in crisis, it is extremely crucial that they are aware of their own issues, and when intervening in cross-cultural situations, it is important that they ask themselves silent questions (Cunningham, 2003). “What am I feeling now?” (Cunningham, 2003). Additionally, when professionals intervene during a crisis situation, it is paramount that they develop an awareness of their own prejudices around cultural diversity.

This can present challenges for professionals. Self-awareness work around issues of culture diversity requires a willingness to engage in deep reflection regarding how prejudice can manifest in one’s work during crisis intervention. For example, if you believe your clients of Latino heritage only respond to Latino professionals, it is likely that you will take this belief into a crisis situation and that this belief could possibly impede your ability to effectively serve the client during the crisis.

Cunningham defines this awareness and recognition as “recognizing the dynamics of difference.” He describes the dynamics of difference as a fruitful way to conceptualize the components of cultural competence (Cunningham, 2003).

The dynamics of difference encompass three principle objectives for professionals to embrace when working from a framework of cultural competence during crisis intervention. First, professionals must seek to increase their self-awareness by becoming comfortable with their own issues around diversity. Additionally, agencies must examine their past histories with diverse cultures and consider how culture may impact the manner in which staff are hired and services are delivered.

Second, professionals must gain an accurate and working knowledge of their clients’ cultures thus acknowledging they have taken time to learn about them, while simultaneously communicating a willingness and openness to continually learn. Finally, professionals should be able to adapt their skills to different cultures, refraining from a one-size-fits-all approach to crisis intervention.

If professionals are willing to engage in the necessary work required in practicing from a culturally competent framework, such as developing self-awareness of their own cultural biases, they assist clients in feeling validated and respected during crisis situations. Providing services from a framework of cultural competency may also assist professionals in helping clients reach their pre-crisis state after intervention.

Cultural competence is a value that must be embraced by both professionals and the agencies they work within in order to effectively manifest at a level that will be meaningful to clients during crisis intervention. Effective crisis intervention practiced with cultural competence results in positive outcomes for all involved in the crisis intervention.

About the Authors
Dr. Nasiah Cirincione-Ulezi holds a Master’s degree in Special Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from Loyola University of Chicago. Currently, Dr. Cirincione-Ulezi is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Chicago State University.

Dr. Angelique Jackson holds a Master’s degree in Urban Education and Accelerated Brain Based Learning from Cambridge College and a Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from Loyola University of Chicago. Dr. Jackson is an Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at Chicago State University.

Cunningham, J. (2003). A “cool pose”: Cultural perspectives on conflict management. Reclaiming Children and Youth: The Journal of Strength-based Interventions, 88-92.
Dykeman, B. F. (March 2005). Cultural implication of crisis intervention. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 45-48.
King, M. A. (2009, January 21). How is cultural competence integrated in education. Retrieved from 
Lopes, A. S. (2001). The student national medical association cultural competency position statement. Atlanta, Georgia: Student National Medical Association.
Sullivan, M. A., Harris, E., Collado, C., & Chen, T. (2006). Noways tired: Perspectives of clinicians of color on culturally competent crisis intervention. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 987-999.

Originally published in the Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior, March 2010. © 2010 CPI.

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