Cultural competence: An essential skill in an increasingly diverse world
With each passing day, the legal profession becomes ever more diverse. That diversity brings challenges and opportunities. LAWPRO turned to diversity specialist Ritu Bhasin, Founder and President of bhasin consulting inc., for practical advice about the steps that lawyers and firms can take to welcome lawyers regardless of their personal and cultural identity characteristics, and to foster productive and creative collaboration.
What is cultural competence?
Bhasin defines cultural competence as “how we connect with people who are different from us.” Cultural competence is the ability to relate to others comfortably, respectfully and productively. Being able to effectively connect with people who are different from us – not only based on our similarities, but also with respect to differences – is the hallmark of cultural competence, and requires, as a prerequisite, the building of “cultural awareness.”
When asked what someone’s “culture” is, most people think of ethnicity. But when speaking in terms of cultural competence, culture is defined much more broadly and describes those aspects of a person’s values and behaviour that are connected to his or her personal identity characteristics. Beyond ethnicity, these characteristics may include gender, sexual orientation, age, religious beliefs, physical and intellectual abilities, and other characteristics.
While a firm can encourage lawyers to increase their cultural competence, success will depend on each lawyer increasing his or her own cultural awareness. Bhasin explains that most Canadians have been raised to intentionally ignore culture differences and to “treat everyone the same.” This “minimization” approach to culture, she notes, is less effective than approaches that strive for conscious acceptance of cultural differences, and active adaptation. The Intercultural Development Inventory, or IDI, developed by Mitchell Hammer, Ph.D., is a cross-culturally validated assessment of intercultural competence that measures cultural competence across five primary mind/skill sets that range from denial, through polarization, minimization, acceptance and adaptation.
When asked to explain what cultural competence looks like in practice across this continuum, Bhasin describes a lawyer who can identify, understand, and adjust to cultural dimensions of others’ behaviour. Learning how to do this requires not only knowledge of behavioural predictors, but also a willingness to actively learn and adapt.
Instead of trying to be “culture-blind” (a common strategy of minimization), a culturally competent lawyer should strive to build a working knowledge of behavioural predictors: cultural dimensions of behaviour that are shared by the majority of individuals within a cultural identity. Unlike stereotypes, behavioural predictors are grounded in science (for example, anthropology or sociology) and allow the user to assess a person’s behaviour against cultural generalizations.