How to Create Therapeutic Rapport With Newcomer Families

Marwa Fadol

The importance of therapeutic rapport is commonly understood to be a cornerstone of successful helping relationships. And when counselling immigrant and refugee families, we recognize that factors that influence the counselling relationship are amplified. Newcomer families often come to us when they experience low moments in their lives, and they are often quite vulnerable. In addition, there is an inherent power dynamic that often comes into play in counsellor–client relationships, whether we recognize it or not. 

The importance of therapeutic rapport is commonly understood to be a cornerstone of successful helping relationships.

There May Be Stigma Against Counselling in Some Cultures

For newcomer families, counselling may not be a familiar experience, and the notion may not have even existed in their countries of origin. In some cultures, if counselling exists, there can often be strong shame and stigma attached to those who seek it. It is important to honour the family’s concerns and dedicate some time to putting them at ease. By the time many of these families make it to a counselling office, their need to address the issues has become more important than their discomfort and hesitation, but those feelings have not gone away.

Creating Attachment Is Key to Counselling Newcomer Families

Gordon Neufeld (2016) writes about the importance of parents and children “being in right relationship” with each other. He shares that “children must be deeply attached and in a state of trustful dependence in order to have a deep and systemic desire to be good. When this attachment is lacking, children will instinctively resist and oppose when they feel coerced” (para. 9). This concept translates to the counselling setting and is important to take note of.

If newcomer families are feeling coerced or reluctant about being there, they will likely resist change and movement. This is particularly relevant to the refugee population who, due to their life experiences, may have lost a lot of agency in their journey. In keeping with trauma-informed care, it is critical to ensure that these clients have a voice and choice during the counselling process. It is our job to take the time to address this, and we can do so overtly – in fact clients often appreciate when counsellors discuss the client–counsellor relationship openly, rather than assuming a comfort or familiarity with the process.

Practice Trustful Dependence When Counselling Newcomer Families

It is also important to take note of the idea of trustful dependence. Newcomer families need to feel that the counsellor hears them and understands the unique and diverse contexts they come from. In order to achieve this, counsellors need to work at not being strangers and allow those who are not familiar with the counselling paradigm to familiarize themselves with it. As a result, the family will be more likely to settle into the counselling experience and more willing to hear the counsellor’s opinions without resistance.

Newcomer families need to feel that the counsellor hears them and understands the unique and diverse contexts they come from.

Counselling Strategies

Invite the family to share their culture
  • Assume a position of not knowing. Invite the family to share about where they’ve come from, how families exist in that culture, and how their particular family lives that experience today. Be curious about the parts of their cultures that are important to them and influence how their family functions. One way to do this is to say, “In different parts of the world, families can sometimes function very differently. I’m curious about your family. I don’t want to make any assumptions, so can you tell me a bit about your culture, about how your family embodies that culture? What parts of the culture are most important to your family?” Drawing from trauma-informed care, this allows for clients to have a voice in this process and also to establish a sense of psychological safety and comfort.
  • Be sure to ask the different members of the family for their input as they may have different answers. There may be generational differences regarding what is viewed as culturally relevant, as well as differences depending on the role each member plays in the family. You can explore these differences by asking, “As parents, what aspects of your culture do you find most important?” and “Younger people can sometimes experience their culture differently than their parents. Tell me more about how you experience your culture.”
Self-reflect and recognize your own judgements and biases
  • Before we can be effective in our work with families from different cultures, we must take the time to become aware of our own cultural heritage. As I mentioned earlier in the chapter, my identities as a Muslim, a Sudanese Canadian, and a refugee will all, in some way, influence my approach to my work. It is important for me to continue to reflect on this so that I have awareness of what this influence looks like and how I can mitigate it if necessary. As a helping professional, be sure to prioritize self-awareness and introspection to help identify if and how your cultural heritage is playing out in the counselling relationship. Being more cognizant of our own background will help us identify where we may have values, beliefs, judgements, or biases that may influence how we help others, positively or negatively. Some questions to guide your self-reflection are:
    • How do I define family? Where did I learn that from?
    • What are my beliefs about how families should function?
    • What is that belief rooted in?
    • What are my beliefs and values around how people change?
  • Recognize your own judgements. We all make some judgements when we hear and see things; what those judgements are depends on how closely what we hear or see aligns with how we view the world. Take some time before and/or after your session to engage in some mindful reflection. Notice what thoughts you may have had upon hearing different parts of your clients’ stories. Notice whether your thoughts were positive, negative, or neutral. Be curious about why that is and what your thoughts are rooted in.
  • Develop your awareness and understanding of different worldviews, acknowledging the different attitudes about families, parenting, health, and mental illness in different cultures. As you continue to work with these families, I encourage you to critically consider any alternate sources of information that you may use to learn about their cultures. Many of us rely on news, social media, pop culture, and personal connections as our sources of information. However, when it comes to learning about other cultures, there may be a lot of misinformation – be cognizant, thoughtful, and critical when consuming this information.
    • Ask families if they have someone they trust in the community who you can ask questions of to learn more.
    • Approach community organizations that represent certain cultures. Build relationships with people and engage in conversation and dialog.
    • Be thoughtful and critical as you read and watch books and documentaries. They may offer helpful information, but be sure to consider the author’s perspective – are they part of the culture they are describing? If not, how did they get their information? What was the purpose of the book or documentary? Was there an agenda or did it offer a neutral perspective?
  • Counsellors may also be from the same culture as their clients. That might help with rapport building, but I would also caution counsellors in this position from assuming that the client’s experience of the culture is the same. Be curious about your shared experiences as well as the ways in which your experiences are different. Also be aware that some families worry about confidentiality more when counsellors are from the same cultural background. Do they know the same people? Will the counsellor share their personal information? What happens if they run into one another in the community? If this is the case, be sure to address these points proactively.
Identify accepted ways of seeking help and, if possible, incorporate them into your work
  • Invite the family to share where families with their cultural background commonly turn to for help. For example, “Jameela, you mentioned that you don’t understand how coming to a stranger will help your family. Can you tell me, in your culture, where do people usually turn to for help when they’re having family struggles?”
  • Invite the family to share what acceptable help-seeking behaviours are in their culture. For example, ask, “Can you tell me a bit more about how it’s acceptable for you to ask for help?” or “If you had a friend whose family was struggling in the same way yours is, how would you advise them to get help? How would they ask?”
  • Explore how the family has addressed past issues. It would be helpful for you to know how they’ve had success in the past, and their thoughts on why those ways are not working for them presently. For example, “Sahar, how have you all dealt with issues in the family when they’ve come up in the past? Did those strategies work?” or “You’ve mentioned the ways you’ve addressed things in the past, ways that your family is comfortable with (list them here). What do you think is different this time?”
  • Be intentional in adopting a trauma-informed lens and recognize that by identifying accepted help-seeking behaviours and pathways, you will be enacting the principles of collaboration and empowerment that will lead to enhanced engagement, an increased sense of safety, and a reduced likelihood of re-traumatization.

As helping professionals, we must take the time to build a solid attachment relationship with the families we work with. In turn, families need to be in right relationship with the counsellor they are trusting to help them. When they are, they will be more inclined to positively engage in the process.

As helping professionals, we must take the time to build a solid attachment relationship with the families we work with.

This is an excerpt from our book, Counselling in Relationships –  Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections.


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Author: Marwa Fadol (MA, RPsych)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Marwa is a co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling in Relationships –  Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The book is available to order on our website.

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