Building up a trusting relationship across language and cultural barriers

Talking about sexual health requires a safe environment in which people can speak openly and feel respected. That is why people should speak as professionals in a positive manner, from their own individual role and independently of cultural background. For instance: as a concerned father who assumes his responsibility, as a young woman who wants to properly care for her health, etc.

Increasing pressure or saying that you know how what the “culture” of your client is like can be offensive. It is better to avoid words such as “culture” and “religion”.

In addition, not all people from the same national or religious background are the same. Factors such as socio-economic status, level of education and political affinity also have a great influence.

One pitfall in doing this as a health professional is that you see your client from an us/them perspective. This makes it extremely difficult to have a real meeting and build up a trusting relationship.

However, it does not mean that ethnic, national or religious background do not have any influence. For instance, it can be extremely important to understand that in families with a migrant background, another person in the family (father, mother, brother or sister) plays an essential role in decisions for a younger daughter or son. However, when you are building up a trusting relationship, it is best to referring to the other person’s ethnic or religious background.

A few tips

  1. Take the time necessary. Health professionals sometimes feel that they should immediately give an answer to questions asked by a client. However, you usually need time and various meetings to build up a trusting relationship and provide further help to someone.
  2. Explain the role of the health professional and what your client can expect and cannot expect from you.
  3. Explain the purpose of the meeting. Explain that you will firstly provide information in the meeting, which may be useful for him/her.
  4. Using languages other than Dutch. Even if your French, English or Spanish is not perfect, it can sometimes make communication a bit easier. Use the translation dictionary and the reader function on for assistance.
  5. Build your meeting in 3 steps: first acknowledge, for instance, the concern or responsibility of the client or the love of a parent for his/her children. Then listen. Finally, give specific information.
  6. If you feel that the presence of a figurehead (for instance: father, mother, spouse) is creating tension, talk to this person, acknowledge them and listen to them. Allow the person to participate in the conversation and give him or her the specific information that you want to give to your client. A little later in the meeting, say that you want to speak alone with, for instance, the son, daughter or spouse for a while.
  7. At the end of the meeting, ask the client what was the most important part of the meeting. Then make a summary of the meeting together. At the end of a meeting where the parents are present, ask the son or daughter “What do you think now?”, “How do you feel when you hear this?” and “Do you have any questions?”.

Read more about intercultural communication in Edwin Hoffman’s book “Interculturele gespreksvoering”.

You can also find training courses on intercultural communication in Flanders and Brussels.

Dictionary and translations

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