Unconscious Bias in the Therapy Room

Some thoughts about unconscious bias from a therapist’s perspective, with a handy resource list at the end of the article

In my recent article for Beyond the Binary, I wrote:

Many counsellors have a warm and fluffy idea in their hearts that they can just turn [empathy, congruence, and “unconditional positive regard”] on, pluck them out of the air and offer them to clients. But people in a majority or socially supported position, no matter how well meaning, are often so protected in their assumptions about the world that they don’t even know they are making assumptions.

How can you offer a non-judgemental approach if you are making assumptions you don’t even know about? Isn’t an assumption the basis of a judgement?

I will give an example. A non-binary person walks into a counselling room. The counsellor looks at them, and before they speak, the counsellor has already probably made the judgement we all are trained from birth to make about people – do I label them male or female? Do I call them he or she? Behind that assumption are a whole bunch of other assumptions that go with the labels – even the most feminist of us cannot fully escape the enormous web of ideas and stories that go with assigning a gender to a person. . . .

I have been trained from birth to judge them.

Unconscious bias

What I was talking about above is unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias is a good way of starting to think about the structures that create inequality. We often think about prejudice as “hate” – an active loathing of people or groups we don’t belong to, but we don’t manage to see this far more subtle process of stacking the decks against people, that even the best of us accidentally engage in.

In my recent workshop “Unconscious Bias in the Therapy Room”, we explored this process, and how it will cause us to judge our clients without realising we are doing so. This judgement will lead to failures in our empathy, and our lack of awareness will mean we are not fully congruent. In other words, unless we actively work to explore and uncover our conscious biases, we will fail to offer the Core Conditions to clients.

Where do these unconscious biases come from?

They are built one on top of the other by the stories people tell, and of course the people who get to tell the most stories, or control how the stories get told, will have the greatest influence over them – so, if we look at films and media, we see a bias in who gets represented and how. Often, even if we are hearing a story about a person from a minority background, the newsreader, story writer, documentary maker, is from a more socially supported position. That is, less likely to be working class, black or ethnic minority, LGBT+, a woman, disabled, fat, etc.

Studies show all sorts of unconscious bias against these groups such as hiring biases for jobs, and a disinclination to consume stories about or by these less favoured groups. Even by people from the groups themselves, because we internalise these biases even when we belong to that group. A process called “stereotype threat” can even make people from minority groups struggle and underperform in the face of bias.

But don’t all people have these biases? Isn’t it evolutionary?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because we do naturally favour and feel safer with the familiar over the unfamiliar, but no, because the scales are a bit more wonky than that. You see, black people are also quite likely to show a bias against black people, women against women, etc. That’s where it becomes more than just a thing people will do in a vacuum, and becomes about the social stories the dominant culture has built up over years and years.

So, as a white person I have been subtly programmed to block my ears to black voices, to treat them with slightly less generosity, and slightly more doubt. To make positive assumptions a fraction of a second more slowly, negative assumptions a fraction quicker.

If I ever doubted this was true, and I do think it has taken me a lifetime to even begin to open my eyes to my unconscious racism, I had it proved to me when I took the Harvard Implicit Association Test. I urge everyone to do this.

Sure enough, when I took the race test I showed a negative bias towards black people, much as I like to think I work hard to rid myself of racist ideas and thoughts.

What can we, as counsellors, do to address unconscious bias?

We can never fully overturn the weight of history and so many biased stories, but we can change a lot. All we need to do is have the humility to accept we are, like everyone else, influenced by social norms and ideas, and then start doing the work to question them and take our learning outside of them.

My own journey with this started when I did the diversity module of my counselling diploma. I received an excellent piece of advice.

It’s okay to be curious.

I now hold this idea close to my heart in the form of one of my favourite quotes, by Walt Whitman: “be curious, not judgemental”. In other words, discover. And to discover, we need to somehow find a way of letting go of everything we think we already know. We need to approach a subject fresh and humble, and willing to hear and learn.

This is not as easy as it may sound in a society that weighs some voices greater than those of others. For a person from a more dominant culture to approach a subject with a sense of “not knowing” requires a certain amount of deprogramming. We can often resist what we hear if it doesn’t fit what’s been unconsciously absorbed through our culture. It is likely a deep-down message will be telling us “I know better”, when we listen to people from less dominant groups.

And we are all in that dominant position, or outside of a marginal experience, in one way or another. For instance, although trans, queer and somewhat disabled, I am white, I am not poor, I am able to work.

Getting started on addressing unconscious bias

In a whole lifetime we can never uncover every assumption we unknowingly make about the world, or undo all our early social learning. And that’s okay, because we can still do some amazing work and it will inspire us, make us more creative, make us better listeners and better counsellors. All that’s required of us is to start reflectively interacting with what marginalised and minority groups have to teach us.

And accept we need to be taught.

The quality of humility, openness, curiosity, discovery is essential, but the medium can vary – travel, film, social media, books, blogs, comics. We just need to weigh what we consume – is the source generally respected by the group it claims to represent? Will it challenge us or simply comfort us?

Staying with the discomfort

A little discomfort is necessary for growth. When we leave our comfort zone we are going to experience shame we don’t want, and we are going to hear the righteous anger of people who experience systematic disadvantages. What we do with our shame and their anger is crucial.

It may be we are wise enough to realise the disproportionate emotional labour done by members of disadvantaged groups – explaining, educating, struggling and bearing. So perhaps we can try not to make them bear the burden of our shame or our discomfort with their anger. Instead, we take it to therapy, perhaps, or our reflective journal, or talk it through with others who have worked through the same issues.

We are there to listen. We have to hold onto our questions and our doubts. Sit with them and they may well resolve themselves, but if we mire people in our rookie questions we increase their burden to educate us individually, and reduce their opportunity for effective activism.

Of course, we have to accept the fact that we are a “rookie” here. If we are in the one-up position in society, the world grooms us to think our thoughts are wise and their explanations are in error. This is part of what we have to unlearn.

Never “getting there” and never giving up

This will never be over, and never cease to reward our labour with amazing discoveries.

We will keep making blunders on the way. It’s for us to dust ourselves down and accept the consequences of those blunders. To hold onto ourselves, and persevere.

As a consequence, life will be richer. It may also be significantly less comfortable. Trust me, though, it’s worth the work – for us, for our clients, and for this vulnerable little blue planet.

 

Some resources for the journey

Here are some of my favourite resources. They are far from comprehensive, and may well reflect my own unconscious biases – please let me know what’s missing, and share your own favourites!

To begin to look at your biases and explore your advantages, as well as the Harvard Implicit Association Test, there is:

Some eye-opening online articles:

Some important online videos:

Websites to browse or follow on social media:

On top of the people featured in the above articles and videos, here are some other people worth learning more about – and some surprising things still to learn about people we think we may already know.

Must-see films:

  • I, Daniel Blake
  • Two Spirits: an hour long must-see documentary about Native American people that makes us question culture, race, colonisation and what it is to be LGBT

Must-read Books:

  • Feminism is For Everyone by Bell Hooks
  • Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

 

 

 

 

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