Cultural Competency In Peer Support: What You Need To Know

Have you ever wondered what it truly means to embrace diversity and cultural competence in peer support? Well, your not alone. It is a complex topic and an important one as well.

Cultural competency in peer support goes beyond just accepting differences. It’s about creating a nurturing environment where every individual feels seen, heard, and valued.

So, let’s dive in and explore exactly what this means and why it’s important. We will cover how to incorporate cultural competency into peer support and create meaningful relationships.

Plus, we will give you a list of resources to help you continue learning.

Table of Contents

The Importance of Being Culturally Competent in Peer Support

Picture this: You’re going through a difficult time and reaching out to find some help. The only problem, everyone around you is dismissing your beliefs and traditions. 

Even worse, they are trying to push their own beliefs and ideas onto you.

How would you react in a situation like this?

Unfortunately, this scenario is not that uncommon. Luckily, this is where cultural competence comes in. It really is an absolute game changer and sets the stage for creating a place where everyone’s voice matters.

Moreover, it provides a refreshing change for the people who have only experienced the opposite.

Understanding Cultural Competence

Before we get into how to implement cultural competence in peer support, let’s look at some definitions.

Culture refers to the shared beliefs, values, traditions, customs, and behaviors that characterize a particular group of people. It covers a wide range of different aspects such as language, religion, art, cuisine, and social norms.

Diversity, on the other hand, recognizes the differences that exist among individuals based on factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and abilities.

Key Elements of Cultural Competence

Understanding culture and diversity is a must for developing cultural competence in peer support. Let’s take a look at some of the key elements and how to work on them.  

Self-Awareness and Personal Biases

Self awareness is where it all starts. The first step is reflecting on our own beliefs, biases, and assumptions about different cultures.

When we recognizing our own limitations and preconceptions, then we can approach others with an open mind and a willingness to learn.

Knowledge of Different Cultures

If you love to learn new things, then you’re in luck! Cultural competence involves learning about the traditions, customs, values, and historical context of diverse groups.

This knowledge helps us understand the unique experiences and perspectives of individuals from various cultural backgrounds.

Respect for Differences

Just because something is different, that doesn’t make it wrong. Respecting each other’s differences means valuing and appreciating the diversity of other backgrounds and experiences. More than than, it’s approaching situations with curiosity, respect, and inclusion, not judgement or discrimination.

This is how we create an environment where everyone feels respected and accepted.

Effective Communication

Effective communication makes a world of difference. Actively listening, using clear and respectful language, and being mindful of non-verbal cues are all part of the process.

By adapting our communication style to accommodate cultural differences, we enable understanding and connection.

Empathy and Understanding

Empathy is the foundation for effective peer support, and the key to cultural competence. We can practice empathy by putting ourselves in others’ shoes and seeking to understand their perspectives.

This means acknowledging the impact of cultural factors in people’s lives.

The Impact of Cultural Competence in Peer Support

The impact of cultural competency on peer support is huge.  First off, it helps build trust and strong connections between people. Like we said before, when you feel heard, understood, and respected, its easier to open up and connect with others.

We have become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.

But it doesn’t stop there! Cultural competence also helps address health disparities within peer support. This is because it not only recognizes but tries to understand the specific challenges that people from different cultures face. 

This way,  support can be tailored and just right for everyone.

This ensures that everyone gets fair access to resources and support.  Which, overall, can make a big difference in someone’s health and well-being.

Of all the different skills to learn in peer support, this is one is crucial. 

The Bigger Picture

And guess what? Embracing cultural competence doesn’t just benefit individuals. In fact, it makes our communities and social support networks stronger too.

When we bring together diverse cultures and celebrate our differences, it creates a vibrant community where everyone feels connected and valued. It’s like a big family that supports and uplifts each other.

So, by embracing cultural competence, we can make peer support networks inclusive, empowering, and making a real impact on people’s lives.

Becoming Culturally Competent in Peer Support

Before we start, I just want to say again that cultural competence is a life long learning process. That being said, there are a few things that will help you on your way. 

Getting Culturally Savvy

Cultural sensitivity training provides the knowledge and skills to navigate diverse cultures. This training raises awareness about different cultural nuances, helps break down biases, and encourages respectful interactions.

Workshops, seminars, or online modules are common ways to level up your cultural sensitivity skills.

Cross-Cultural Communication

Cross-cultural communication is a must-have for cultural competence in peer support. This training equips peer specialists with strategies to bridge communication gaps.

Moreover, it teaches them how to  interpret non-verbal cues, and adapt their style to different cultures. Role-playing exercises and practical scenarios can be super beneficial.  

This is because it makes communication flow and feel more natural

Dive into Different Cultures

Immersing yourself in different cultures is an exciting way to boost your cultural competence. Some ideas might include taking part in cultural events or visiting community centers.

Really, it can be anything that gets you engaged with different backgrounds and perspectives.

Chinese New Year-Attending events can improve cultural competency in peer support

Overall, the idea is to promote an understanding and appreciation of diverse traditions. The best part, these events not only improve cultural competency, but they are also really fun. You get to meet new people, learn new things, and sometimes you even get to try some really amazing food!

Overcoming Challenges in Cultural Competence

We have to be completely honest with you. Cultural competence is a complex topic and it comes with it’s own set of challenges. This is why training and continuous learning is so important. 

More than anything, it requires a willingness to look inward. 

Spotting and Tackling Biases and Stereotypes

Have you ever heard that all Asians are good at math? Or what about all Canadians being polite? Even stereotypes that seem harmless can have unintended negative consequences.

Stereotypes color our perception and can lead us to making assumptions about a person without having any evidence. More importantly, they can have a negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the people we serve.

It takes some soul-searching and an open mind to challenge our assumptions about different cultures. By making a real effort to understand and appreciate people’s uniqueness, we can break down barriers and create an inclusive environment.

Navigating Language and Communication Hurdles

Language and communication can sometimes trip us up in peer support, especially when people come from different linguistic backgrounds.

But fear not!

We can find ways to bridge these gaps and communicate effectively. 

diverse hands coming together

Using interpreters, offering translation services, or using visuals and gestures can help improve understanding. Better yet, take the time to learn a new language. 

It’s all about being patient, empathetic, and eager to learn from one another.

Handling Power and Privilege

Power dynamics and privilege can affect how people interact in peer support groups. Have you ever changed your tone when speaking to your boss? Or acted differently when getting pulled over for a traffic ticket?

These are examples of how power dynamics can affect behavior.

In health care settings, doctors and counselors are seen as having authority. It’s no different for those working in peer support, at least as far as their clients are concerned.

Whether you are working in a treatment center, a behavioral health clinic, or just facilitating a local peer support group, people can see you as having authority.

This dynamic gets even more complicated if the individual seeking support has had negative experiences with authority figures in the past. 

Because of this, it’s important to be aware of these dynamics and strive for fairness.

The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.

Everyone’s voice should be valued, regardless of their cultural background or social status. In peer support, we should work actively to even out power imbalances.

In other words, make a point to communicate that everyone stands on equal ground.

Resolving Conflicts within Peer Support Groups

When you bring diverse perspectives, beliefs, and values together, misunderstandings can happen. In truth, misunderstandings and conflicts are a natural part of any group, including peer support.

When they do come up, it’s important to handle them with cultural sensitivity and a commitment to finding a solution.

Active listening, empathy, and finding common ground can help us navigate conflicts in a way that respects everyone’s cultural identities. Remember, when handled correctly, these situations can turn into opportunities for growth and understanding.

Providing Culturally Competent Resources

Peer support groups and interactions should be safe and welcoming for everyone, regardless of their cultural background. One way to accomplish this is to provide culturally competent resources.

To put it simply, the goal to to provide resources that agree with a person’s cultural beliefs and traditions. At the very least, resources that don’t go against them. This can include everything from reading material and referral sources to the type of housing a person might need.

To be sure, this can be a challenge depending on where you live. This is why having a resource list is so important.

Overall, providing culturally relevant materials and signage can go a long way in making everyone feel welcome.

Benefits and Challenges of Online Cultural Competence

Digital platforms are creating new and exciting opportunities for peer support communities. There are more ways to connect with others and we should take advantage of the possibilities

Woman providing support over the computer- cultural competence on digital platforms

That being said, it has its own set of challenges when it comes to cultural competence.

On the one hand, online platforms allow us to connect with a wide range of people, no matter where they are in the world. It creates a sense of global community and breaks down geographical barriers

On the other hand, things like language barriers, limited access to technology, and the potential for misunderstandings, are more common. Simply being aware of these challenges is the first step.

From there, we can take steps to minimize them and make the most of digital platforms.

Final Thoughts on Cultural Competency in Peer Support

Hopefully now you can see the importance of cultural competency in peer support. While we covered quite a bit of information in this article, its really only the beginning.

As we mentioned before, learning cultural competency is an ongoing process and we encourage you to keep exploring the subject.

Partly, because as our societies become more diverse, the need for this skill will only continue to grow. Peer support programs who embrace this concept will be better equipped to meet the needs of those they serve.

To help you expand your knowledge on the subject, we will leave you with a few resources. That being said, while reading about cultural competence is a good thing, nothing beats real world experiences.

So get out there and meet new people. Explore new cultures and keep your heart open to the wonderful things they have to offer.

Additional Learning Material

Continuous learning is a big part of peer support. The following resources can provide further insight and guidance into the topic of cultural competency.


  • Tip 59 Improving Cultural Competence– This is a PDF published by SAHMSA (We definitely recommend checking this one out)
  • Cultural Competence in Health Education and Health Promotion” by Miguel A. Pérez and Raffy R. Luquis
  • “Cultural Intelligence: Living and Working Globally” by David C. Thomas and Kerr Inkson

Online Courses:

Websites and Organizations:


  • TED Talks: Explore TED Talks on cultural competence and diversity, featuring speakers who share their experiences and insights on embracing cultural differences and fostering inclusivity.

Please note, these resources have also been instrumental in the writing of this article. We encourage you to complete your own research and develop a deeper understanding of the toic. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is cultural competence in peer support?

Cultural competence in peer support refers to the ability to effectively navigate and embrace the diversity of cultural backgrounds within support communities. It involves understanding and respecting different cultural norms, values, and experiences to create inclusive and empowering environments.

Why is cultural competence important in peer support?

Cultural competence is crucial in peer support because it ensures that individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds feel understood, validated, and supported. It helps break down barriers, challenge biases, and promote respectful interactions, ultimately enhancing the effectiveness and impact of peer support.

How can peer support specialists develop cultural competence?

Peer support specialists can develop cultural competence through cultural sensitivity training, cross-cultural communication skills, cultural immersion experiences, and ongoing self-reflection. It involves actively seeking to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of individuals from different cultures.

How can cultural competence be implemented in online peer support communities?

Cultural competence in online peer support communities can be implemented by offering multilingual options, providing guidelines for respectful interactions, conducting cultural sensitivity training specific to online environments, and creating virtual spaces for sharing cultural traditions and resources.

Elijah Meason


Elijah Meason is a Certified Peer Support Worker in the State of New Mexico. He is a SMART Recovery facilitator and is working toward getting his Masters degree in social work. He is currently working at a dual diagnosis treatment center helping individuals overcome mental health and addiction challenges.

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