Incidence of Intentional Nondisclosure in Clinical Supervision by Prelicensed Counselors

Ryan M. Cook, Laura E. Welfare, Connie T. Jones


This study examined the incidence of intentional nondisclosure by postgraduate, prelicensed counselors receiving supervision as they pursue licensure, which has not been previously examined. Examining the responses of 107 prelicensed counselors, we found that 95.3% reported withholding some degree of information from their supervisors, and 53.3% completely withheld a concern from their supervisors. Participants completely withheld supervision-related incidents (e.g., negative reactions to supervisor, questioning supervisor’s competency) more frequently than they withheld client-related incidents (e.g., clinical mistakes, personal issues). We offer strategies for prelicensed counselors, supervisors, counselor educators, and counselor credentialing bodies to reduce intentional nondisclosure. These strategies include creating a collaborative environment, developing supervision contracts, and attending to power differentials in supervision.

Keywords: intentional nondisclosure, clinical supervision, prelicensed counselors, supervisors, counselor educators


Counselors who desire licensure as full, independent professional counselors must complete a postgraduate supervised field experience (Henriksen et al., 2019). The primary purpose of postgraduate supervision is to ensure that prelicensed counselors provide counseling services that are in accordance with legal, ethical, and professional standards as they begin their professional careers (Borders et al., 2011; Magnuson et al., 2000). Unlike university-based supervision, to which prelicensed counselors are more accustomed (Magnuson et al., 2000), postgraduate supervision requires prelicensed counselors to regularly self-direct their supervision experience. That is, in postgraduate supervision, prelicensed counselors are called to more autonomously self-identify their clinical concerns and developmental needs, and to convey this information to their supervisors (Cook & Sackett, 2018).


Although supervisees’ self-reports can enrich the supervision process (Noelle, 2002), relying on prelicensed counselors to self-select information to share with their supervisor may be problematic (Ladany et al., 1996). While supervision is intended to facilitate supervisees’ professional development, there also is an evaluative component inherent in the supervisory relationship (Borders et al., 2011). The supervisor’s evaluations of the supervisee’s clinical performance are tied to their professional progress (i.e., obtaining full, independent licensure; Magnuson et al., 2000). As such, it benefits supervisees to present themselves in a manner that will yield positive evaluations from their supervisors and to withhold information that could result in their supervisors developing a negative perception of their clinical competencies (Cook, Welfare, & Romero, 2018; Ladany et al., 1996).


Supervisees withholding information from their supervisors is a well-established phenomenon in supervision literature (Cook, Welfare, & Romero, 2018; Gibson, et al., 2019; Hess et al., 2008; Ladany et al., 1996). Termed supervisee nondisclosure, researchers have shown that the frequency of supervisee nondisclosure in clinical supervision is high—ranging from 60% to 97.2% (Cook, Welfare, & Romero, 2018; Ladany et al., 1996; Mehr et al., 2010). But these studies were based on samples of counselors-in-training (CITs) or trainees in allied professions such as psychology. To date, only one qualitative study has examined the phenomenon of nondisclosure in a sample of postgraduate supervisees. Sweeney and Creaner (2014) found that counseling psychology graduates in Ireland (N = 6), like supervisees in mental health training programs (Cook, Welfare, & Romero, 2018; Ladany et al., 1996), commonly withhold information from their supervisors.


What seems most problematic are the instances in which a supervisee identifies a concern or perceives an issue and decides to withhold it from their supervisors anyway (Cook & Welfare, 2018; Yourman & Farber, 1996). These instances are known as supervisee intentional nondisclosure. Ladany and colleagues (1996) suggested that the information being intentionally withheld by supervisees is likely to be the most important information to their clinical and professional development. As such, supervisees who withhold information may inadvertently undermine their own professional growth.


Supervision scholars (Cook, Welfare, & Romero, 2018; Gibson et al., 2019; Hess et al., 2008; Ladany et al., 1996) have found that the types of information withheld by supervisees can be broadly categorized into supervision-related incidents (e.g., negative reactions to a supervisor, evaluation concerns, fears of correcting a supervisor, concerns about the process of supervision) and client-related incidents (e.g., clinical mistakes, general reactions to clients, concerns about lack of professional competencies). The reasons for these intentional nondisclosures most often point to issues in the supervisory relationship (e.g., supervisory working alliance; Cook & Welfare, 2018; Hess et al., 2008), supervisee personality traits (e.g., attachment styles; Cook & Welfare, 2018), and supervisor–supervisee power differentials (e.g., fear of negative evaluation concerns, desire to present oneself favorably to the supervisor; Hess et al., 2008; Ladany et al., 1996). In total, the types of information being intentionally withheld by supervisees, as well as the reasons for their nondisclosures, reflect issues that are inherent in a hierarchal and evaluative relationship such as the supervisory relationship (Hess et al., 2008; Mehr et al., 2010; Sweeney & Creaner, 2014).


Prelicensed counselors, like CITs and supervisees from allied professions, experience similarly high stakes in clinical supervision. However, as described in detail below, postgraduate supervision differs from university-based supervision (Magnuson et al., 2000), and prelicensed counselors are more advanced in their professional development as compared to CITs (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). For these reasons, the salient issues that prelicensed counselors are hesitant or unwilling to discuss with their supervisors might differ from those of CITs. Relatedly, the degree to which they fail to disclose information might also differ. Thus, in our investigation we examined the types of information being withheld in postgraduate supervision by 107 prelicensed counselors and the degree to which they were unwilling to discuss their concerns with their supervisors.


Postgraduate Supervision for Licensure


Postgraduate supervision is required for counselors who desire licensure as full and independent professional counselors in all 50 states in the United States as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. The specific requirements of postgraduate supervision differ in each licensing jurisdiction (e.g., frequency of supervision, hours of required supervision; Henriksen et al., 2019). Although prelicensed counselors often are more self-aware of their client needs and developmental concerns than CITs (Loganbill et al., 1982; Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003; Stoltenberg & McNeill, 2010), prelicensed counselors also are facing new challenges as counselors such as managing more complex caseloads (Freadling & Foss-Kelly, 2014) and possibly questioning their own clinical competencies (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). Thus, a supervised field experience is critical to helping prelicensed counselors transition from CITs to professional counselors (Henriksen et al., 2019).


As compared to university-based supervision, there are unique features of postgraduate supervision for prelicensed counselors (Magnuson et al., 2000). Namely, prelicensed counselors engaged in postgraduate supervision are tasked to self-direct their supervision experience (Cook & Sackett, 2018) more than they were during university-based supervision. For example, prelicensed counselors may have less access to their supervisors than they did during their graduate training. Henriksen et al. (2019) conducted a content analysis of supervision requirements for postgraduate supervision. Based on their findings, no jurisdiction required supervisors and supervisees engaging in postgraduate supervision to meet at a frequency that equaled the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs’ (CACREP) required averages of an hour of individual supervision or 1.5 hours of group supervision per week. It is important to note that it is certainly possible for prelicensed counselors to meet with their supervisors more than is required, but these standards provide a useful benchmark. Prelicensed counselors also may have fewer opportunities than CITs for their clinical work to be directly observed by their supervisors (Magnuson et al., 2000), which could perpetuate the supervisors’ reliance on supervisees’ self-report in supervision (Cook & Sackett, 2018) and unintentionally encourage supervisee nondisclosure (Ladany et al., 1996). For example, Fall and Sutton (2004) found that prelicensed counselors used self-report in their supervision sessions 80% of the time. Comparatively, other methods to monitor supervisees’ work, such as direct observation of a counseling session, audio and video recording, or live supervision, were used far less often (each used 10% of the time).


In addition, the interpersonal dynamics between supervisor and supervisee in postgraduate supervision may differ from those experienced during university-based supervision. Unlike the development-oriented process of university-based supervision, Magnuson et al. (2000) poignantly described postgraduate supervision as a “business relationship” (p. 177). Some prelicensed counselors pay for supervision from someone who does not work at their place of employment, while other prelicensed counselors work with a supervisor at their place of employment (Magnuson et al., 2000). In the latter situation, the supervisors providing clinical supervision also can be evaluating the prelicensed counselor as an administrative supervisor. Although the dual roles may be logistically advantageous for agencies, having combined clinical and administrative supervision could be problematic (Borders et al., 2011; Magnuson et al., 2000). In sum, as compared to university-based supervision, the businesslike nature of postgraduate supervision as well as the heavy reliance on prelicensed counselors to self-direct their supervision experience can change how these counselors utilize intentional nondisclosure in postgraduate supervision.


The degree to which prelicensed counselors are willing to disclose information to their supervisors has implications for clinical supervisors as well. Clinical supervisors assume legal responsibility for the quality of services rendered to their supervisees’ clients (Magnuson et al. 2000). With the dependence on prelicensed counselors to self-report information in clinical supervision (Fall & Sutton, 2004) and the potential absence of regular direct observation (Gray & Erickson, 2013; Magnuson et al., 2000), supervisors are reliant on prelicensed counselors to accurately recall details of their counseling work and to honestly discuss their developmental needs. If prelicensed counselors, like CITs, were to feel unsure about presenting themselves honestly to their supervisors, their decision could unintentionally undermine the work of their clinical supervisors, who have a legal duty to their supervisees and the supervisees’ clients (Magnuson et al., 2000).


No study has examined what prelicensed counselors perceive as salient in their clinical supervision experience and the degree to which they are willing to discuss concerns with their supervisors. Postgraduate supervision is critically important to a counselor’s developmental growth (Henriksen et al., 2019). Prelicensed counselors are mandated to receive clinical supervision (Henriksen et al., 2019), which means that supervisee intentional nondisclosure is a relevant issue. As such, an investigation of supervisee intentional nondisclosure in a sample of postgraduate, prelicensed counselors is needed. Therefore, the aim of our study was to examine prelicensed counselors’ self-reported incidents of intentional nondisclosure in clinical supervision. Specifically, our investigation was guided by two research questions: (a) What is the frequency of intentional nondisclosure in clinical supervision as reported by prelicensed counselors, and (b) Which concerns do prelicensed counselors find most difficult to discuss with clinical supervisors?




Participants and Procedures

Participants in the current study were prelicensed counselors pursuing full, independent licensure as professional counselors. We aimed to recruit a nationally representative sample, so we obtained mailing addresses for persons pursuing licensure in two states in each of the five Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES) regions. Specifically, we solicited participation from prelicensed counselors in Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, and Washington. We randomly selected up to 150 names from each state. After eliminating and replacing unverifiable mailing addresses, we identified 1,347 potential participants. We first received IRB approval and then solicited participation by mailing paper-and-pencil survey packets to the potential participants. We asked participants to anonymously respond about their current, licensed clinical supervisor. Participants returned the surveys to the authors using a prepaid envelope. Of the 1,347 mailed packets, 330 packets (24.5%) were “returned to sender” and never received by the potential participants. Of the remaining 1,017 packets distributed to potential participants, 109 survey packets were returned. However, two participants’ responses were incomplete and subsequently removed. The number of usable packets was 107, resulting in a response rate of 10.5%. This response rate, although low, is consistent with previous survey research employing a mailing recruitment strategy (Barden et al., 2017). Because data collection was anonymous, we are unable to identify the state of origin for participants included in our sample.


The age of participants ranged from 24 to 67 (M = 38.79, SD = 11.20). The majority of participants identified as White (83.2%), while eight participants identified as Hispanic (7.5%), five participants identified as African American/Black (4.7%), two participants identified as Asian (1.9%), two participants identified as Multiracial (1.9%), and one participant did not respond to this item (0.9%). Eighty-five participants identified as female (79.4%), 21 participants identified as male (19.6%), and one participant identified as non-binary (0.9%). The demographic characteristics of the participants in the current study are comparable to counseling professionals in general (CACREP, 2018). On average, the participants received 64.73 (SD = 29.79) minutes of clinical supervision per week. Finally, 56 participants were assigned a supervisor at their job (51.4%), 28 paid for supervision from someone who did not work at their employment site (26.4%), 17 chose a supervisor at their place of employment (15.9%), and six participants indicated other (5.6%; e.g., free supervision from someone outside their job).



Supervisee Nondisclosure Scale (SNDS)

     The SNDS is an instrument designed to capture the degree to which participants disclosed or withheld information to their supervisors (Ellis & Colvin, 2016; Siembor, 2012). Siembor (2012) developed a pool of 30 items, informed by prior research on nondisclosure (Hess et al., 2008; Ladany et al., 1996). Participants indicate their level of disclosure using a 7-point Likert scale with three defined levels: (1 = fully disclosed, 4 = sometimes disclosed, 7 = decided not to disclose). Higher scores indicate higher levels of nondisclosure. Participants are given the option to select not applicable for items describing incidents that have not occurred during their supervision experiences. The items include information related to the supervision experience (e.g., “Negative reactions that I had about my supervisor’s behavior or attitudes”) and items related to the supervisee’s clinical work (e.g., “Clinical mistakes that I did make”). Abbreviated item stems for all 30 SNDS items are presented in Table 1. The internal reliability of all 30 items was strong (α = .88, n = 107) and consistent with prior research (α = .84; McKibben et al., 2018).


Demographic Survey

     We created a survey to collect self-report demographic data for both the supervisee and supervisor (e.g., gender, race). We also asked participants to share about the details of their supervision experience (e.g., time in supervision, administrative versus clinical supervision, selecting a supervisor).




Across all 30 SNDS items, 95.3% of the participants reported some degree of intentional nondisclosure (i.e., partially or fully withheld) for at least one item. The number of incidents of intentional nondisclosure endorsed by participants ranged from 0 to 26 (M = 10.68; SD = 6.62). Also, 53.3% indicated that they fully withheld information from their clinical supervisor for at least one item. The range of incidents completely withheld by participants was 0 to 14 (M = 1.73, SD = 2.6). This finding suggests that intentional nondisclosure by prelicensed counselors in clinical supervision is quite common.


The Frequency of Intentional Nondisclosure in Clinical Supervision

To address the first research question, we examined the frequency of participants who responded that they utilized intentional nondisclosure on each item (i.e., what percent withheld information?). To do so, we analyzed the self-reported responses on each item using the four groups: not applicable, fully disclosed, sometimes disclosed, and decided not to disclose (see Table 1). For each item, participant responses of not applicable were categorized in the not applicable group, responses of 1 were categorized in the fully disclosed group, responses of 2 to 6 were categorized in the sometimes disclosed group, and responses of 7 were categorized in the decided not to disclose group. The incidence of partial or complete nondisclosure per item ranged from 69.2% (“disagreement with one’s supervisor”) to 1.9% (“supervisor attraction issue”), and the average incidence across the items was 35.6% (SD = 15.8%). After “disagreement with one’s supervisor,” the items with the highest incidence rates were “negative reaction to supervisors’ behavior or attitudes” (66.3%), “perceived that my supervisor is wrong” (60.7%), “personal issue” (49.6%), and “personally identifying with a client” (e.g., countertransference; 48.6%). In addition to revealing what supervisees chose to withhold, the results indicated issues that did not emerge in supervision and those that emerged but were fully disclosed. For example, items frequently marked not applicable were “supervisor attraction issue” (97.2%), “client attraction issue” (86.9%), “unsafe in supervision” (86.0%), and “supervisors’ attire and/or appearance” (84.1%). In contrast, “client information” and “clinical mistake” came up often and were fully disclosed.

Table 1

Incidence of Intentional Nondisclosure by Prelicensed Counselors in Clinical Supervision for State Licensure as Professional Counselors

Incident of Potential Intentional Nondisclosure N M (SD) Not Applicable
Fully Disclosed

n (%)

Sometimes Disclosed

n (%)

Decided Not to Disclose

n (%)a

Negative reaction to supervisors’ behavior or attitudes SRI 106 3.49 (2.71) 29 (27.1%) 6 (5.6%) 47 (43.9%) 24 (22.4%)
Supervisors’ competence SRI 107 2.16 (2.87) 63 (58.9%) 2 (1.9%) 24 (22.4%) 18 (16.8%)
Needs not being met in supervision SRI 107 2.22 (2.83) 60 (56.1%) 4 (3.7%) 27 (25.2%) 16 (15.0%)
Supervisors’ display of stereotypes or bias SRI 106 1.85 (2.54) 63 (58.0%) 2 (1.9%) 30 (28.0%) 11 (10.3%)
Supervisors’ attire and/or appearance SRI 106 0.99 (2.37) 90 (84.1%) 0 (0.0%) 6 (5.6%) 10 (9.3%)
Consult with peer and/or another supervisor SRI 105 1.62 (2.19) 45 (42.1%) 26 (24.3%) 24 (22.4%) 10 (9.3%)
Supervision process concerns SRI 107 1.85 (2.42) 56 (52.3%) 9 (8.4%) 33 (30.8%) 9 (8.4%)
Power differentials SRI 106 1.25 (2.35) 76 (71.0%) 6 (5.6%) 15 (14.0%) 9 (8.4%)
Focus of supervision SRI 107 1.86 (2.50) 58 (54.2%) 9 (8.4%) 32 (29.9%) 8 (7.5%)
Unsafe in supervision SRI 106 0.78 (2.09) 92 (86.0%) 0 (0.0%) 6 (5.6%) 8 (7.5%)
Perceived that my supervisor
is wrong SRI
106 2.78 (2.42) 30 (28.0%) 11 (10.3%) 58 (54.2%) 7 (6.5%)
Disagreement with one’s supervisor SRI 106 2.92 (2.01) 13 (12.1%) 19 (17.8%) 68 (63.6%) 6 (5.6%)
Supervision format issues SRI 106 1.79 (2.36) 56 (52.3%) 10 (9.3%) 34 (31.8%) 6 (5.6%)
Personal issue CRI 107 2.22 (1.82) 9 (8.4%) 45 (42.1%) 48 (44.9%) 5 (4.7%)
Personally identify with client (e.g., countertransference) CRI 106 2.08 (1.74) 9 (8.4%) 45 (42.1%) 47 (43.9%) 5 (4.7%)
Evaluation concern SRI 106 1.75 (2.03) 38 (35.5%) 29 (27.1%) 35 (32.7%) 4 (3.7%)
Client attraction issue CRI 106 0.43 (1.48) 93 (86.9%) 5 (4.7%) 4 (3.7%) 4 (3.7%)
Client attracted to counselor CRI 107 0.70 (1.49) 74 (69.2%) 17 (15.9%) 13 (12.1%) 3 (2.8%)
Positive reaction to supervisor SRI 107 1.87 (1.50) 3 (2.8%) 63 (58.9%) 38 (35.5%) 3 (2.8%)
Issues with colleague SRI 107 1.68 (1.75) 27 (25.2%) 40 (37.4%) 37 (34.6%) 3 (2.8%)
Positive reaction to client CRI 106 1.62 (1.47) 11 (10.3%) 59 (55.1%) 33 (30.8%) 3 (2.8%)
Feeling inadequate CRI 105 2.09 (1.59) 6 (5.6%) 50 (46.7%) 47 (43.9%) 2 (1.9%)
Clinic setting concerns CRI 107 1.88 (1.62) 12 (11.2%) 51 (47.7%) 42 (39.3%) 2 (1.9%)
Supervisor attraction issue SRI 106 0.13 (0.96) 104 (97.2%) 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%) 2 (1.9%)
Unprofessional behavior with client CRI 107 1.13 (1.75) 62 (57.9%) 15 (14.0%) 27 (25.2%) 2 (1.9%)
Future clinical mistake CRI 107 1.89 (1.37) 63 (58.9%) 20 (18.7%) 43 (40.2%) 1 (0.9%)
Clinical mistake CRI 106 1.65 (1.31) 3 (2.8%) 71 (66.4%) 31 (29.0%) 1 (0.9%)
Unfavorable client–counselor
interaction CRI
107 1.78 (1.88) 41 (38.2%) 17 (15.9%) 48 (44.9%) 1 (0.9%)
Client information CRI 106 1.36 (1.15) 8 (7.5%) 77 (72.0%) 20 (18.7%) 1 (0.9%)
Negative reaction to client CRI 107 1.79 (1.35) 6 (5.6%) 58 (54.2%) 42 (39.3%) 1 (0.9%)


Note. Percentages may not equal 100% for each item because of rounding.

SRI = Supervision-Related Incident

CRI = Client-Related Incident
a = Items are ranked based on incidence of total nondisclosure (i.e., score of 7).




The Most Difficult to Discuss Items

In addition to the per-item incidence rates, we also calculated which concerns were most often totally withheld from supervisors. We hoped to understand what items participants might be completely unwilling to discuss in supervision. Interestingly, we ranked all 30 SNDS items by the number of participants who reported using total nondisclosure, and this revealed that the 13 items with the highest endorsement were all supervision-related incidents. There were 24 participants (22.4%) who reported completely withholding their negative reaction to their supervisors’ behavior or attitudes. Relatedly, 18 participants (16.8%) did not discuss their concerns about their supervisors’ competence, and 16 participants (15.0%) did not tell their supervisors that they believed they were not getting enough out of supervision. Regarding client-related incidents, the highest-rated total nondisclosure was personal issues related to work with clients, which was reported by five participants (4.7%). The full results regarding the most difficult to discuss items are presented in Table 1.




     Our study examined the incidence of intentional nondisclosure by prelicensed counselors receiving postgraduate supervision for licensure as professional counselors. We found that 95.3% of prelicensed counselors in this study reported they withheld some degree of information from their clinical supervisors. This was comparable to the rates of intentional nondisclosure by trainees from allied professions (Ladany et al., 1996; Mehr et al., 2010). On average, participants reported 10.68 of 30 (SD = 6.62) intentional nondisclosures in clinical supervision, which also is comparable to the 8.06 nondisclosures reported by psychology trainees in the study by Ladany et al. (1996), although we should acknowledge that Ladany et al. used a different measure to capture incidents of nondisclosure in their study. Like allied professions, intentional nondisclosure by postgraduate, prelicensed counselors appears to be routine in clinical supervision. Further, we surmise that even though postgraduate, prelicensed counselors are more developmentally advanced than CITs (e.g., self-aware, motivated; Stoltenberg & McNeill, 2010), in a hierarchical and evaluative relationship such as clinical supervision, they too will withhold information. This suggests that prelicensed counselors, who are empowered to self-direct their postgraduate supervision experience, are doing just that—they are self-directing their supervision experience, including editing or concealing concerns about their clients and supervision experience from their supervisors. As such, supervisors who are reliant on supervisee self-report may not be getting a full picture of supervisee concerns or needs. This finding reveals implications for prelicensed counselors and supervisors alike. Delving further into the types of incidents being withheld in postgraduate supervision, as well as the frequency of these incidents, can help tell a more complete story of supervisee intentional nondisclosure by prelicensed counselors.


Overall, we found that participants were more willing to discuss commonly occurring client-related incidents than they were to disclose supervision-related incidents. However, the participants still reported hesitancy in disclosing many of their client-related concerns. This is evidenced by participants identifying client-related issues as salient issues to their supervision experience, and although they withheld some degree of this information from their clinical supervisors, they did not completely withhold the information. Although prior research has found that supervisees are less apprehensive to discuss client-related issues with their clinical supervisors (Ladany et al., 1996; Mehr et al., 2010; Yourman & Farber, 1996), there may be unique differences for prelicensed counselors that help to explain the findings from the current study. Notably, it is possible that as theorized (Loganbill et al., 1982; Stoltenberg & McNeill, 2010), prelicensed counselors are better able to self-monitor their own needs. As prelicensed counselors gain more clinical experience, they are able to autonomously address their client-related concerns (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003) and do not need to fully elaborate on their client-related concerns to their supervisors. However, when prompted by a survey such as this one, they recognize that there is more information to share about the incident (i.e., some degree of nondisclosure). Also, given the limited time in supervision for licensure, prelicensed counselors appear to need to prioritize specific information about their clinical work and seek guidance about their most pressing clinical needs (Cook & Sackett, 2018). Thus, at times they are unable to fully discuss the intricacies of their client caseloads.


We also found that prelicensed counselors are most hesitant and sometimes unwilling to discuss supervision-related concerns with their clinical supervisors. In the current study, the most common nondisclosures included disagreements with one’s supervisor, negative perceptions of one’s supervisor, and believing one’s supervisor was wrong, all directly pertaining to the supervisor. High levels of nondisclosure in relation to these types of incidents have been reported in prior research with psychology trainees (Mehr et al., 2010). Prelicensed counselors are likely to have started to develop their own counseling style (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003), which may or may not align with their supervisors’ approach to counseling. As such, it is likely that supervisees sometimes disagree with their supervisors or believe that their supervisor handled a situation poorly (Magnuson et al., 2002). It is possible that supervisees’ concerns about voicing dissent to their supervisors could reflect a weak or insecure supervisory relationship, which has been found to be a significant predictor of nondisclosure (Cook & Welfare, 2018; Mehr et al., 2010).


A little more than half of the participants (53.3%) reported that they completely withheld information from their supervisors. That is, these participants recognized something as being salient in their clinical supervision but refrained from disclosing any information about their concern with their supervisor. Perhaps most startling, the top 13 items (out of 30 items total) were all supervision-related incidents and some of these incidents occurred with staggering frequency. For example, a number of participants completely withheld their negative reactions to their supervisor’s behavior or attitudes (22.4%), never disclosed that they questioned their supervisor’s competence (16.8%), and declined to discuss that their needs were not being met in supervision (15.0%). These findings underscore the inherent power imbalance between supervisees and supervisors (Cook, McKibben, & Wind, 2018; De Stefano et al., 2017; Ladany et al., 1996). Although prelicensed counselors perceive concerns about their supervisor or their supervision experience, they are unwilling to broach these topics with their evaluative supervisors (Gibson et al., 2019).


It is difficult to say why the participants in the current study felt unfulfilled by their supervision experience or wondered about their supervisors’ competencies. We must exercise judgment before assuming that the supervisors of the participants in the current study were providing substandard supervision (Ellis et al., 2014). However, it also seems important that supervisees perceive their postgraduate supervision experience as a meaningful one, given the stakes associated with clinical supervision (Magnuson et al., 2000). For example, many prelicensed counselors pay for supervision, which can be a substantial financial investment for new prelicensed counselors. Relatedly, in situations in which prelicensed counselors’ clinical supervisors also are their administrative supervisors, sustained employment may depend on the supervisor’s favorable review. Regardless, these findings highlight the importance of outlining clear expectations of clinical supervision for supervisees (Magnuson et al., 2002) and developing a quality supervisory relationship in order to mitigate supervisee nondisclosure (Cook & Welfare, 2018; Mehr et al., 2010). In sum, these findings offer insight into the experiences of prelicensed counselors in postgraduate supervision, which can yield lessons for prelicensed counselors, supervisors, counselor educators, and counselor credentialing bodies in order to mitigate the occurrence of intentional nondisclosure in the future.


Implications for Prelicensed Counselors

Prelicensed counselors need to take an active role in their postgraduate supervision experience. Learning to navigate the nuances of supervision in addition to learning to be a practicing counselor early in one’s career is a daunting task (Freadling & Foss-Kelly, 2014). Prelicensed counselors who are contemplating withholding information from their clinical supervisors should consider their ethical and professional responsibilities to clients (American Counseling Association, 2014). Counselors who are starting postgraduate supervision may find it helpful to consult resources to help acculturate them to the specifics of postgraduate supervision and to explore strategies other than nondisclosure for addressing their concerns in supervision (Cook & Sackett, 2018; Magnuson et al., 2000; Pearson 2001, 2004).


Also, prelicensed counselors should consider which of the incidents described herein could be most relevant to their postgraduate supervision experience. Specifically, our prelicensed counselor participants were most apprehensive to discuss supervision-related concerns with their clinical supervisors. Unlike clients, who have the freedom to choose a different counselor if they are dissatisfied with their counseling services, supervisees likely have limited options when it comes to changing supervisors (De Stefano et al., 2017). Many of the concerns expressed by our participants reflect the inherent power differential between supervisors and supervisees. As such, prelicensed counselors who are dissatisfied with their supervision experience can find it helpful to broach some of these commonly reported issues with their clinical supervisors (Cook, McKibben, & Wind, 2018). The Power Dynamics in Supervision Scale was designed to operationalize supervisees’ perceptions of power and to aid in the discussion of power dynamics in clinical supervision (Cook, McKibben, & Wind, 2018). Prelicensed counselors may find such an instrument a helpful way to invite these discussions in an objective and nonthreatening manner with their supervisors. Such discussion between supervisors and supervisees can make it easier for supervisees to disclose more honestly if that issue arises (Knox, 2015).


Finally, some participants perceived their supervision experience as substandard, while a few more participants reported feeling unsafe in supervision or recognized power differentials between themselves and their supervisors. Although uncommon, our study is not the first one in which supervisees in the counseling profession report substandard or harmful experiences (Cook, Welfare, & Romero, 2018). Furthermore, no one should endure supervision that they perceive to be inadequate or harmful (Ellis et al., 2014). Supervisees can find it helpful to consult with a trusted colleague or another supervisor. For more egregious issues, prelicensed counselors may seek help from a professional association ethics consultant or a representative from their state licensing board (Cook, Welfare, & Romero, 2018). For those supervisees who are paying for supervision (26.4% in the current study), finding another supervisor may be the most viable solution.


Implications for Supervisors, Counselor Educators, and Counselor Credentialing Bodies

Addressing supervisee intentional nondisclosure must be a priority for clinical supervisors who are providing postgraduate supervision. If supervisors are to rely on supervisee self-report (Fall & Sutton, 2004), it will benefit supervisors to create a safe and open supervision environment that invites supervisee disclosure (Cook & Welfare, 2018; Gibson et al., 2019; Mehr et al., 2010). Encouragingly, prelicensed counselors appear more apt to discuss client-related incidents than supervision-related incidents; however, it also seems that clinical supervisors are not getting the full picture of their supervisees’ clinical work because there is some degree of nondisclosure. Notably, prelicensed counselors reported hesitancy in fully discussing their personal issues related to their work with clients, clinical mistakes, and reactions to clients. As prelicensed counselors continue their professional development, they can desire to try new interventions in their counseling work or have novel insights into how their personal experiences are impacting their clinical work (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). Understandably, they might be apprehensive about discussing these issues with their evaluative supervisors. Supervisors will find it helpful to facilitate a discussion with their supervisees about the lifelong journey of being a professional counselor (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003) and the normality of sometimes feeling stuck in one’s clinical work with clients (Cook & Sackett, 2018) or going through stages of feeling stagnation, confusion, and integration, as discussed in the foundational model of Loganbill et al. (1982).


Prelicensed counselors’ unwillingness to discuss their supervision-related concerns, particularly those incidents that are commonly occurring such as negative impressions of one’s supervisor, negative reactions to a supervisor’s competence, and the belief that one’s needs are not being met in clinical supervision, seems to be most problematic. There are infrequently occurring issues that supervisees are completely unwilling to discuss (e.g., romantic attraction to one’s supervisor) that can lead to ruptures in the supervisory relationship (Nelson et al., 2008). Prior research suggests that supervisees who possess a favorable impression of their supervisory relationship are less likely to withhold information from their supervisors (Cook & Welfare, 2018; Gibson et al., 2019; Mehr et al., 2010). As such, supervisors need to take steps during formation of the supervisory relationship and throughout the supervision experience to create a safe and open environment that invites supervisee disclosure. Supervisors will find it helpful to specifically attend to the issues identified in our study such as how to professionally address disagreements between supervisors and supervisees, and to discuss supervisees’ personal expectations of clinical supervision.


Counselor educators can play a critical role in helping CITs learn strategies to navigate postgraduate supervision and understand the concept of intentional nondisclosure. For example, counselor educators can better prepare CITs for some of the nuanced differences of postgraduate supervision (Magnuson et al., 2002) versus the supervision they receive in their training programs. Counselor education programs can share resources (Cook & Sackett, 2018; Magnuson et al., 2002; Pearson, 2001, 2004) with CITs before they graduate to teach them about postgraduate supervision and help them learn about the experiences of prelicensed counselors. Further, counselor educators can teach CITs to be their own advocates in postgraduate supervision because they will be expected to self-direct their supervision experience (Magnuson et al., 2000). Advocacy in this context can include teaching soon-to-be graduates the importance of utilizing supervision contracts and training them to prepare their own supervision contracts to use with their postgraduate supervisors. These supervision contracts should outline key information to conducting adequate supervision (Ellis et al., 2014), including but not limited to (a) the frequency of clinical supervision (e.g., weekly individual or triadic supervision sessions), (b) the modalities to be utilized in supervision (e.g., self-report, audio or video recording), (c) the relevant ethical and professional guidelines that will guide the supervision experience, and (d) the roles and responsibilities for both the supervisor and supervisee. Preparing these documents prior to graduation can ensure that supervisees are well-informed of their rights as supervisees (Munson, 2002) and help easily identify signs of substandard postgraduate supervision (Ellis et al., 2014).


Counselor educators might also share the findings from this study with their CITs and facilitate a discussion about the concerns identified by the participants. Educating CITs on the concept of intentional nondisclosure is important, as it can aid CITs in identifying what influences their own intentional nondisclosure. With greater self-awareness, they may be able to identify the temptation if it ever presents itself. Counselor educators also can teach CITs about the potential harm to clients when supervisees choose to engage in intentional nondisclosure. For example, if supervisees purposefully withhold about the triggers they experience when working with a client, they run the risk of not providing effective counseling services and, even worse, harming the client (Hess et al., 2008; Ladany et al., 1996).


Finally, given that our study was the first study to examine supervisee intentional nondisclosure in a sample of prelicensed counselors, it is important to offer recommendations for state licensure boards and nationwide credentialing bodies that may improve the supervision experience for supervisees and supervisors. These prelicensed counselors withheld specific supervision-related concerns, including the belief that their expectations of clinical supervision were not being met and that they disapproved of their supervisors’ behaviors. Unlike university-based supervision in which supervision requirements and supervisors’ training and credentials (e.g., time in supervision, required supervision training, direct observation) are clearly outlined by accreditation bodies (CACREP, 2015), the supervision requirements for those pursuing state licensure vary from state to state (Field et al., 2019; Gray & Erickson, 2013; Henriksen et al., 2019). Some scholars have questioned if the supervision being provided is minimally adequate, or if supervisors are aware that they are providing inadequate or harmful supervision (Ellis et al., 2014). It is unclear how many supervisors in our study had received clinical supervision training or were providing supervision in accordance with professional standards (i.e., Borders et al., 2011). For example, only six of the 10 states that we sampled had licensure board requirements for clinical supervisors to have completed supervision training (Field et al., 2019), and none required a supervision credential such as the Approved Clinical Supervisor (issued by the National Board for Certified Counselors). It is important for all state licensure boards to require supervision training in order to best position supervisors to provide quality supervision. Relatedly, Field et al. (2019) found that only 47.1% of states require supervisors to complete a supervision contract or supervision philosophy prior to conducting postgraduate supervision. At a minimum, all licensure jurisdictions should require these documents as a part of the application packet for prelicensed counselors when they register their supervisor with their licensing board. By requiring these documents, state licensure boards and credentialing bodies can encourage a dialogue between supervisors and supervisees about some of the concerns identified in our study.


Limitations and Opportunities for Future Research

     Like in all studies, there are limitations that need discussion. We aimed to collect data from a nationally representative sample; however, our findings could have been impacted by the varying licensure regulations in each state. As such, future research could benefit from a retest of the incidence of nondisclosure by prelicensed counselors in other states. Relatedly, although our response rate was consistent with prior counseling research that collected data via mailings (Barden et al., 2017), future researchers could explore other data collection methods (e.g., electronic survey) to increase participants’ responsiveness. Also, it is possible that the topic of nondisclosure was acutely salient to the persons who chose to participate in the current study, which could have influenced our findings. Future scholars are urged to examine more demonstrable factors of the supervisory relationship that may help to explain intentional nondisclosure by prelicensed counselors such as the incidents of inadequate and harmful supervision, which appear to influence supervisees’ willingness to disclose in supervision. Finally, future researchers should explore if nondisclosure occurs less frequently in supervision dyads that regularly use one of a number of supervisory relationship inventories (Tangen & Borders, 2016) to assess the perceived quality of their supervisory relationship.




In sum, postgraduate supervision has important implications for prelicensed counselors and supervisors alike. Thus, it behooves both prelicensed counselors and clinical supervisors to mitigate supervisee intentional nondisclosure. The findings presented in this study provide insight into the type of information being withheld by supervisees and the degree to which they are hesitant to discuss certain concerns. Clinical supervisors who hope to create an environment that promotes supervisee disclosure will benefit from specifically targeting some of the issues identified herein.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
This research was funded by the Southern
Association for Counselor Education and Supervision.





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Ryan M. Cook, PhD, ACS, LPC, is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. Laura E. Welfare, PhD, NCC, ACS, LPC, is an associate professor at Virginia Tech. Connie T. Jones, PhD, NCC, ACS, LPCA, LCAS, is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Correspondence can be addressed to Ryan Cook, 310 Graves Hall, Box 870231, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487,

Experiences of Cross-Racial Trust in Mentoring Relationships Between Black Doctoral Counseling Students and White Counselor Educators and Supervisors

Eric M. Brown, Tim Grothaus


The literature is replete with research and references to racism experienced by Black faculty and students in counselor education. Although explorations of the mistrust in relationships between races is extant, empirical investigations into trusting cross-racial relationships in counselor education have been scarce. To address this void, the researchers conducted a phenomenological qualitative study with 10 Black doctoral counseling students concerning their experiences of cross-racial trust with White counselor educators and clinical supervisors who were mentors. Researchers identified three superordinate themes during data analysis: reasons for trust, reasons for mistrust, and benefits of cross-racial mentoring. The researchers also identified several themes and subthemes that delineated the interpersonal and intrapersonal factors that helped generate cross-racial trust, despite participants’ ubiquitous experiences of racism. The participants’ experiences are discussed, and implications are offered for enhancing trust in cross-racial relationships in mentoring, supervision, counseling, and training programs.


Keywords: cross-racial, trust, supervisors, mentors, counselor educators



The counseling profession purports to value racial inclusivity, cultural competence, and social justice (e.g., American Counseling Association [ACA], 2014; Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs [CACREP], 2015; Ratts, Singh, Nassar-McMillan, Butler, & McCullough, 2015). Yet, this vision remains unrealized. Black counselor educators and students report that White racism is pervasive (Baker & Moore, 2015; Brooks & Steen, 2010; Henfield, Woo, & Washington, 2013; Holcomb-McCoy & Addison-Bradley, 2005). Although empirical studies have documented the negative experiences of Black people within counselor education because of the prevalence of racism (Baker & Moore, 2015; Cartwright, Avent-Harris, Munsey, & Lloyd-Hazlett, 2018; Haskins et al., 2013; Henfield et al., 2013), research regarding positive interracial relationships, specifically involving successful Black–White mentoring connections, has been scarce (Fleig-Palmer & Schoorman, 2011; Leck & Orser, 2013). Our study sought to address this inequity and incongruence by using a strength-based lens to explore successful, trusting, cross-racial mentoring relationships.


Racism in Counselor Education

     Baker and Moore’s (2015) qualitative study examined the experiences of 19 ethnic minority doctoral students in counselor education, 12 of whom were Black. The student participants voiced their frustrations with the pressures they felt to suppress their ethnic identity and to act in ways aligned with White cultural standards. Although Henfield et al.’s (2013) phenomenological study of 11 Black doctoral students found a desire for mentoring from faculty members, the students shared similar conclusions regarding their isolation and disconnection from the faculty in their programs. This appeared to mirror the experiences reported by Black faculty. Holcomb-McCoy and Addison-Bradley (2005) found Black counselor educators did not feel included as valuable assets by their White colleagues. Finally, a study of 11 Black doctoral counseling students by Henfield, Owens, and Witherspoon (2011) revealed that despite feeling marginalized, their participants used relational resources, such as peer support, race-based organizations, and personal and professional advisors, to promote their success. Together, these studies expose a pernicious incongruence between what the counseling profession champions and what Black students and faculty are experiencing. One promising means of ameliorating these concerns could be culturally responsive cross-racial mentoring, which may assist in bridging this gap (Alvarez, Blume, Cervantes, & Thomas, 2009). In particular, cross-racial mentoring has been viewed as an avenue to enhance the recruitment and retention of counselor education faculty of color (Borders et al., 2011; Butler, Evans, Brooks, Williams, & Bailey, 2013).


Cross-Racial Mentoring

Blackwell (1989) defined mentoring as “a process by which persons of superior rank, special achievements, and prestige instruct, counsel, guide, and facilitate the intellectual and/or career development of persons identified as protégés” (p. 9). Positive mentoring can be an asset and also an antidote to the bigotry and marginalization often experienced by students of color (Luedke, 2017; D. L. McCoy, Winkle-Wagner, & Luedke, 2015). Effective mentoring also can enhance students’ likelihood of academic and career success and professional growth, along with increasing self-efficacy, mental health, and social and cultural capital (Chadiha, Aranda, Biegel, & Chang, 2014; Chan, Yeh, & Krumboltz, 2015; Gaddis, 2012; Hurd & Zimmerman, 2014).


Although students of color often desire mentoring from ethnic minority faculty, there is a need for cross-racial mentoring because of the lack of faculty of color (Brooks & Steen, 2010; Ortiz-Walters & Gibson, 2005; Patton, 2009). Yet, some scholars (Johnson-Bailey & Cervero, 2004) note that cultural mistrust may hinder the forming of these beneficial interracial relationships, thus denying many Black graduate students the professional and psychological benefits associated with mentoring.


Cross-Racial Trust and Mistrust

For successful mentoring, a trusting relationship appears to be vital (Chan et al., 2015; Chun, Litzky, Sosik, Bechtold, & Godshalk, 2010; Eller, Lev, & Feurer, 2014; Gaddis, 2012; D. L. McCoy et al., 2015; Merriweather & Morgan, 2013; Rademaker, Duffy, Wetzler, & Zaikina-Montgomery, 2016). Yet, in the United States, the largest gap in cross-racial trust is between Black and White people (S. S. Smith, 2010).


As a result of both the long history and current experiences of racism in America, cultural mistrust, or the mistrust of White people by ethnic minorities, may serve a psychologically adaptive function in affording self-protection (Bell & Tracey, 2006; Terrell & Terrell, 1981; Whaley, 2012). Black people rate highest in cultural mistrust of all major ethnic minority groups, which may be a result of the particular history of slavery and the oppressive practices that continue to this day. Although cultural mistrust can serve as a protective factor, Bell and Tracey (2006) found that Black patients with higher levels of cultural mistrust suffered psychologically. Another effect of high levels of mistrust may be a lack of desire for Black people to build alliances with White professionals of goodwill who can assist with their professional development (Johnson-Bailey & Cervero, 2004). Although additional studies examining racism and its impact on the professional development of students of color are needed, the more conspicuous gap in the literature is with regard to cross-racial trust and positive cross-racial relationships.


With the disproportionate underrepresentation of Black faculty in counselor education, it is likely that some Black graduate students will need to connect with White mentors (Brooks & Steen, 2010; Haizlip, 2012). Although multiple studies have examined the challenges experienced by Black students in counselor education programs (Baker & Moore, 2015; Haskins et al., 2013; Henfield et al., 2013), there is a dearth of explorations of trust in the counseling literature, especially cross-racial trust. Our phenomenological study addresses this omission by investigating successful Black–White trusting mentoring relationships in counselor education.


The goal of our study was to examine Black doctoral counselor education students’ experiences of cross-racial trust with White mentors in the counseling profession. The results of this study may encourage Black students to consider seeking mentoring relationships with White individuals, given the relative shortage of racial minorities within the profession, and also help White people of goodwill to mentor and aid Black students in achieving their academic and professional goals.




In order to explore and represent the lived experiences of Black students’ successful cross-racial mentoring relationships in the counseling profession, the first author conducted a qualitative study in the tradition of transcendental phenomenology with Black doctoral counseling students who had trusting relationships with White mentors in the profession (Moustakas, 1994). Phenomenological research focuses on the lived experiences of people, amplifying their voices as it seeks to ascertain the meanings they give to their experiences (Adams & van Manen, 2008). Through this lens, we examined the experiences of 10 Black doctoral counseling students who participated in at least one trusting cross-racial relationship with a White mentor.


Our study was guided by the following research question: What are the lived experiences of Black doctoral students who have participated in or are currently in trusting relationships with White mentors within the counseling profession?


Researcher Bias

Researcher bias may threaten the validity of qualitative research conclusions. All research team members bracketed their assumptions through recording their expectations before the interviews and via ongoing conversation throughout data analysis (Gearing, 2008). The primary researcher was a Black middle-class male doctoral counselor education student who conducted this study for his dissertation. His ethnicity and student status qualified him as an insider in relation to the participants (Tinker & Armstrong, 2008). His a priori assumption was that participants would be more inclined to trust White people who acknowledged present-day racial injustices. The research team included two doctoral counselor education students, a White female and a White male, who had each completed at least one doctoral-level qualitative research course. Both research team members believed Black students would trust White people who showed unconditional positive regard. A White male counselor educator with a record of published qualitative research served as the independent external auditor. The research team also utilized reflective journaling and consensus coding to manage and reduce researcher bias.



The purposive sample of participants was recruited from the lead researcher’s informal network of doctoral counselor education students and faculty (who recommended possible participants). Selection criteria included being a Black doctoral counselor education student who had one or more trusted White mentors within the counseling profession. Each participant was given the definition of mentoring used by the primary researcher (Blackwell, 1989). A total of 10 doctoral students in counselor education expressed interest, met the criteria, and were interviewed for our study. This falls within the range of three to 10 participants recommended by Creswell (2014).


Five participants identified both a White professor(s) and a clinical supervisor(s) they trusted. Three identified at least one professor, and two identified at least one supervisor. See Table 1 for demographic information regarding the participants and the role of their mentor.



Table 1

Participant Demographic Information

Gender Age Range


Level PhD




How Many

Position of

Male 20s HBCU 2 Urban/
FGG One for 3 years Professor
Male 20s PWI City/
FGG Five between
1–5 years
Male 20s PWI 3 Urban/
CGG Two for 2
Male 20s PWI 1 Urban/
CGG Two for
3–4 years
Female 50s HBCU 2 Suburban/
FGG Two for 3 years
One for 10+ years
Female 20s PWI 2 Urban/
FGG Three for 2–3 years Supervisors
Female 30s PWI Suburban/
FGG One for 8 years Professor
Female 20s PWI 2 Suburban/
CGG Three for 1–2 years Supervisor/
Female 20s PWI 2 Appalachian/
Poor FGG One for 1 year Professor
Female 30s MSI 2 Suburban/
FGG One for 10 years
One for 1 year



Note. CGG = Continuing Generation College Graduates MSI = Minority-Serving Institution
FGG = First Generation College Graduates PWI = Predominately White Institution
HBCU = Historically Black College/University



Subsequent to receiving IRB exempt approval from the authors’ college review board, the primary researcher sent an introduction letter explaining the study via email to counselor education faculty and doctoral students with whom he was familiar through professional networking. Once consent was obtained, the lead researcher sent the demographic questionnaire and the interview questions to participants 48 hours before their interviews in order to provide time to reflect about their experiences (James, 2014). The protocol was constructed by the authors based on pertinent literature related to trust and ethnic minority experiences and reviewed by a team of three counselor educators. The primary researcher then conducted semi-structured interviews focused on the participants’ experiences of cross-racial trust. Interview questions included: (a) Can you please describe experiences in your past that enabled you to trust a White person as a mentor? (b) What did you experience within this cross-racial relationship(s) that enabled you to trust this White mentor? and (c) Can you share the differences between the Whites you chose to trust and those that you trusted less? Initial interviews ranged from 30 to 60 minutes and were conducted by the primary researcher either face-to-face or via a secure connection on Adobe.


A professional transcriptionist confidentially transcribed each interview. Each participant received a copy of the transcript for member checking (Creswell, 2014). The lead researcher also conducted a follow-up interview to allow participants to add or revise anything that was said in the initial inquiry. Eight of the 10 doctoral students participated in follow-up interviews, which lasted between 10 and 20 minutes. The two participants who declined stated they had nothing further to add.


Data Analysis

The research team employed Moustakas’ (1994) data analysis process for each transcript, beginning with horizontalization, which included noting individual meaning units and holding them with equal importance. The team then engaged in reduction and elimination of meaning units based on redundancy, and also whether they were “necessary . . . for understanding the phenomena” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 120). The team members individually categorized remaining meaning units related to the phenomena and identified clusters and themes from the data. After independently analyzing transcripts, the research team met after the first two interviews to ensure fidelity in the coding process, and again after the eighth and 10th set of interview transcripts were coded. They came to a consensus regarding whether each code had sufficient support based on textural descriptions; then they created a final code book (Hays & Singh, 2012). The research team also engaged in a deviant case analysis to honor the diverse phenomena represented amongst participants. Next, the team utilized textural-structural descriptions from the transcripts to illustrate codes and themes identified in the data.


Trustworthiness refers to the accurate reflection of the participants’ voices and perspectives (Given & Saumure, 2008). In this study, trustworthiness attributes included credibility, confirmability, transferability, and dependability (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). In an effort to secure trustworthiness, the research team utilized Moustakas’ (1994) process of analysis, reflective journals, consensus coding, member checking, follow-up interviews, use of an external auditor, and providing thick descriptions of the research process and participants.




     The research team identified three superordinate themes from the data: reasons for trust, reasons for mistrust, and benefits of cross-racial mentoring.


Superordinate Theme One: Reasons for Trust

     All 10 of the participants identified factors that fostered their willingness to engage in a cross-racial trusting relationship with White mentors, which provided the basis for this superordinate theme. We identified four themes from the participants’ data: past experiences, trusting by proxy, personal attributes, and the necessity of White people.


     Past experiences. Data from nine participants supported this theme and its two subthemes: experiencing positive relations with White people and experiencing rejection from Black people.


     Experiencing positive relations with White people. Half of the participants shared experiences illustrating how White people had proven themselves to be trustworthy. For example, participants spoke of experiencing White people who married into the family or who were part of their experience being raised in a multiracial church, and of having White coaches and teachers who invested in them personally during key developmental stages in their life. The investment of time and emotional resources from these White people established a sense of safety and trust during their younger years. These relationships helped to provide the experiential and emotional base for the risk of cross-racial trust.


     Experiencing rejection from Black people. Four participants shared negative past experiences with Black people, involving peers, professors, supervisors, or former employers, which led them to be hesitant to trust Black people—opening the door to choosing White people as possible mentors. One female participant shared that she had not felt welcomed by some Black women in the profession. A male participant spoke of being mocked in childhood for not being “Black enough” and his subsequent struggles: “It was actually heart-wrenching for me to recognize that I’m not comfortable being in a room full of Black people. . . . I was always worried about being, even in a professional setting, being outed as, ‘Oh well, he’s Black, but he’s not really.’” All four participants exhibited reticence about sharing these experiences and the accompanying feelings of frustration, shame, and isolation.


     Trusting by proxy. Half of the participants shared that they would consult with Black colleagues when discerning whether a White person may be trustworthy. These students trusted their Black peers, seeking their opinions concerning which White professors and clinical supervisors could be trusted. One shared the importance of having friends indicate, “You can trust this person…they get it.”


     Personal attributes. This refers to personal attributes or qualities of the participants themselves that enabled trust in White people. The two subthemes identified were being generally trusting and being courageous.


     Being generally trusting. Five participants shared that they were generally trusting and therefore willing to give all people a chance. These students believed their generally trusting nature helped them be open to the possibility of a cross-racial trusting relationship.


Yet, not all participants described themselves as generally trusting. One doctoral student shared his cautious and guarded nature toward people regardless of race. He indicated that he chooses to observe people over time in order to discern whether they are trustworthy.


     Being courageous. Two participants noted that courage is needed to engage in cross-racial trust. They were cognizant of the vulnerability that interracial trust entails for the protégé and spoke to the emotional resilience needed for a Black person to pursue and then persist in a Black–White mentoring relationship. All 10 participants spoke of the reality of racism in their lives and in their counselor education programs. Therefore, Black students who attempt to develop a cross-racial trusting relationship are exposing themselves to the possibility of further injury and experiences of bigotry and marginalization.


     Necessity of White people. Four participants shared their understanding from a young age that Black people would likely need relationships with White people if they were to succeed academically or professionally. White mentors can help serve as a guide to navigating predominately White systems. Therefore, achieving success as a Black person necessitated placing oneself in a precarious position. These students believed that one must have positive relationships with White people even though most White people are not trustworthy.


Superordinate Theme Two: Reasons for Mistrust

All 10 participants spoke about reasons they had for mistrusting White people. Four themes describe the various causes for Black mistrust of White people: receiving family messages, experiencing overt racism, experiencing tokenism, and experiencing dissonance.


     Receiving family messages. Participants spoke of learning cross-racial mistrust through observation and receiving direct messages from family members. There were two subthemes under family messages: overt messages and White voice.


     Overt messages. Half of participants shared that they heard messages since childhood from family members that White people are untrustworthy. One interviewee’s parents told him he could not have White friends; other participants were explicitly told by family members that White people were not to be trusted. Yet, this was not true for all participants. One student recalled “I was constantly told ‘you can have people around you, but just don’t trust the White people that are around you’ . . . [but] some Whites are trustworthy.” Yet, as he grew older, his parents began to discuss the realities of racism and navigating life as a Black male.


     White voice. Two participants shared implicit messages they witnessed while growing up, such as noticing that Black people would change their dictation and mannerisms when interacting with White people. One participant shared that “we used to just call it the White voice . . . around professional people who they weren’t super comfortable with.” As children, these participants observed their families codeswitching and understood implicitly that Black individuals cannot be themselves around White professionals.


     Experiencing overt racism. Five participants described past racist experiences with neighbors, educators, and police that hindered their willingness to engage in cross-racial trust. Some students shared stories from childhood; others noted more recent occurrences. One male interviewee reported that he had been pulled over several times by White police officers as a teenager but only received one ticket, which he believed showed the lack of justification White police had for pulling him over. He also told the story of a police officer pulling a gun on him and his friends while he was in his car. All such experiences confirmed the explicit and implicit messages they received from their families concerning White people being untrustworthy.


     Experiencing tokenism. Five participants stated that they were suspicious of White counseling professionals’ motives for desiring a relationship. One female student stated she wonders if White people are trying to make up for a racial injustice they committed in their past, stating, “I definitely am a little hesitant to see what’s your true motive.”


Other participants questioned the motives of White people who want to build a professional relationship with Black people. One interviewee said he felt “commodified” by White counseling professionals. He reported feeling put in a box as “the Black male counselor” who works with trauma. Another participant felt used by a White professor who she believed wanted her participation to give validity to a presentation on a multicultural topic at a conference.


     Experiencing dissonance. Several participants spoke about internal conflicts that stemmed from their experience in the predominately White field of counseling. Four subthemes emerged from this data: internalizing racism, feeling isolated, questioning one’s perception, and considering White trust.


     Internalizing racism. Two male participants shared distressing thoughts about their place in the counseling program, which stemmed from internalized racism. One participant shared that at times he did not feel equal to his White peers although objective measures demonstrated they were not superior to him intellectually or clinically. Although both Black male participants who shared these insecurities seemed poised and self-confident, they experienced self-doubts they attributed to internalized oppression.


     Feeling isolated. Three participants shared that they felt isolated, either in their master’s or doctoral programs. One participant noted, “I’m that one student who brings up race, and who brings up people of color, and anybody who’s not White, and our issues in counseling, and none of my cohort does that.” These participants expressed frustration with fellow students, including people of color, who were unwilling to share their experience in class.


     Questioning one’s perception. Two participants discussed periodically questioning their perceptions of racism, whether it actually occurred or if it was their own issue that they were imposing on White faculty and students in their department. One participant shared this process of questioning with two Black alumni from his program and was reassured “It’s not just you. It’s not in your head. You’re not wiling out.” He believed that this reflexive process of questioning one’s perception is a burden that Black people often carry in White settings.


     Considering White trust. Two participants believed it was important for trust to be mutual. One participant questioned whether White people would trust her as a Black person. These participants recognized that they could not trust White people who would not trust them.


Superordinate Theme Three: Benefits of Cross-Racial Mentoring

The final superordinate theme was voiced by nine participants and contained two themes: benefiting from networks of privilege and disconfirming over-generalizations of White individuals.


     Benefiting from networks of privilege. Five participants noted that White mentors had helped them make professional connections or hoped that they would do so. They believed that White mentors have access to social networks that some Black faculty and supervisors do not and believed their White mentors could use their privilege and cultural capital on their behalf.


     Disconfirming over-generalizations of White individuals. Finally, four participants shared that trusting their White mentor helped them to trust other White people. One participant shared, “It helps me as a Black woman not to make these gross over-generalizations about White people, about White men in academia, about White counselor educators.” A few participants indicated the cross-racial trust emboldened them to branch out into new areas professionally and personally as a result of being more willing to build relationships with White people of good will.




To help diversify the counseling profession, scholars have noted the importance of mentoring students from underrepresented groups (Fleig-Palmer & Schoorman, 2011; Leck & Orser, 2013). Considering the disproportionately low representation of counselor educators and supervisors of color and the numerous benefits of mentoring (Chadiha et al., 2014; Chan et al., 2015; Hurd & Zimmerman, 2014), interracial mentoring provides a viable pathway to increasing access to this valuable resource and enhancing inclusion and diversity (Brooks & Steen, 2010; Patton, 2009). One significant hindrance to interracial mentoring relationships is cultural mistrust, which is a result of historical and present experiences of racism and marginalization (Johnson-Bailey & Cervero, 2004). This study addressed a gap in the literature regarding cross-racial trust by examining the experiences of Black doctoral counseling students who were successful in establishing trusting relationships with White mentors, providing a complementary perspective to the literature that details reasons for and costs of the mistrust of White people by Black people in counselor education.


Our results shed light on the perilous nature of interracial trust for these Black participants. Trust by its very nature entails vulnerability (Eller et al., 2014; Merriweather & Morgan, 2013). Furthermore, the misuse of power intrinsic in White racism makes interracial trust risky for Black students desiring mentors in predominately White institutions (D. L. McCoy et al., 2015). For example, despite the success that led them to their doctoral student status, the themes of internalizing racism and questioning one’s perception speak to the added vulnerability involved in interracial trust. In Gildersleeve, Croom, and Vasquez’s (2011) article, “Am I Going Crazy?!,” the authors found that questioning one’s perception of racism may be characteristic of the experience of many doctoral students from underrepresented ethnic groups. Given documented experiences of racism within counselor education (e.g., Baker & Moore, 2015; Henfield et al., 2013), the questioning of one’s experience of marginalization is compounded within counseling programs, despite the profession’s claims to have a multicultural and social justice emphasis. Unless we are ready to actively examine privilege and bias in our programs and enact effective, substantive, and systemic actions to address and remediate the embedded inequities, our profession’s aspirational language will be revealed to be hollow and hypocritical.


Despite experiencing racism in their counseling programs, these participants did co-create successful and beneficial cross-racial relationships. Participants shared factors that encouraged them to engage in trusting relationships with White mentors. Having a generally trusting nature, and also prior positive experiences with White people, may be intuitive findings, but experiencing rejection from Black people as an impetus for interracial trust appears to be unique to this study. Participants also discussed White allies being needed for success, with systemic issues of racism hindering Black people from relying solely on resources from their own community both in counselor education and outside the profession.


Our findings also highlight the collectivist sensibilities that influenced participants’ decisions to trust White people. Participants confirmed S. S. Smith’s (2010) description of cultural mistrust being taught to Black children by their parents as a protective factor to equip these students to deal with the racism experienced both within counselor education and in society. Despite experiencing the veracity of these familial warnings, some students engaged in trust by proxy, itself a collectivist practice, in order to lessen the risk of interracial trust.


Scholars have proposed the need for cross-racial mentoring because of the lack of faculty of color (Brooks & Steen, 2010; Haizlip, 2012; Ortiz-Walters & Gibson, 2005). Yet, even when faculty and supervisors of color are present, some Black students may desire to connect with White faculty or supervisors. Although Patton (2009) found that Black women preferred faculty mentors who shared their race and gender, four participants of the current study, two males and two females, experienced rejection from Black people, which opened the possibility of a White mentor. Though some doctoral students and faculty can view this as a form of internalized racism, the narratives shared spoke more to a fear of being rejected by one’s racial group. Although discouraging encounters with other Black people occurred in their past, participants spoke of negative experiences with Black supervisors or faculty within their counseling programs and clinical settings. Therefore, one should not assume that Black faculty or supervisors will be inevitably preferred as mentors by Black doctoral students and supervisees.


The themes of the necessity of White people and benefiting from networks of privilege captured participants’ beliefs that cross-racial mentoring helps Black students advance academically and professionally. Borders et al. (2011) suggested that women and people of color may need several mentors to help them meet the unique challenges of their professional and psychosocial development in a context that is often White- and male-dominated. This study’s participants were cognizant of the numerous benefits of mentoring (Bynum, 2015; Gaddis, 2012) and, more specifically, the particular benefits of having a White mentor (Ortiz-Walters & Gibson, 2005).


Implications for Counseling Training Programs

Racism continues to inform exploitive institutional and systemic norms, values, and policies ensuring that the privileged preserve their advantages (DiAngelo, 2018). While there has been a recent resurgence of more flagrant forms of racist expression in these tumultuous times, the insidious effects of less egregious forms of racial bias, such as blindness to or avoidance of the topic, are still prevalent (Oluo, 2018). In the academy, and in counselor education specifically, despite our aspirations to embody and enact cultural responsiveness and social justice, Black doctoral students continue to be subject to oppressive individual and institutional bias in terms of treatment, climate, and policies (ACA, 2014; Baker & Moore, 2015; CACREP, 2015; Henfield et al., 2013; S. Z. McCoy, 2018; Ratts et al., 2015).


One example or result of racism in graduate education is students of color having less access to the mentoring and social connections that positively impact educational and career opportunities (Rudolph, Castillo, Garcia, Martinez, & Navarro, 2015). An additional pernicious contributor to this inequity is the prevailing deficit narratives White faculty often hold about the abilities of students from non-dominant statuses (D. L. McCoy et al., 2015; S. Z. McCoy, 2018). Given the benefits of positive, trustworthy mentoring experiences and the disproportionately large representation of White counselor educators, cross-racial relationships hold promise if trust can be established (Baker & Moore, 2015; Cartwright et al., 2018; D. L. McCoy et al., 2015).


To generate conditions for more equitable and trusting mentoring relationships, our profession needs to vigorously promote the cultivation of cultural humility, signified by actions and attitudes reflecting respect, openness, genuineness, and curiosity (Davis et al., 2016; Hook, Davis, Owen, Worthington, & Utsey, 2013). This should be reflected in our standards for accreditation of training programs and licensure as counselors and supervisors. Specifically, White counselor educators and supervisors need to continuously examine and actively address their own, often implicit, racial biases (S. Z. McCoy, 2018). In addition, the existing oppressive climate in our profession, our preparation programs, and the society at large needs to be met with active social justice advocacy for, by, and with our students, protégés, and clients. These efforts will include addressing racism and microagressions promulgated by people and policies (ACA, 2014; Davis et al., 2016; Ratts et al., 2015). As has been noted, if we are not actively advocating for solutions, we are promoting the inequitable status quo.


In addition, we need to seek, invite, and include extraordinary strengths, wisdom, and capital possessed by students and clients of color in our programs and counseling and supervision sessions. Appreciation and incorporation of these assets would invite more reciprocal and culturally responsive relationships (Butler et al., 2013; Chadiha et al., 2014; Rudolph et al., 2015). Finally, specifically with mentoring relationships, being open to a more holistic relationship including important personal (e.g., experiences of oppression) and professional concerns is supported in the literature (e.g., Chan et al., 2015; Henfield et al., 2011). White mentors are invited to be proactive in seeking and cultivating relationships in which mutual learning is expected and discussion about racism and oppression is safe and welcome (Luedke, 2017; D. L. McCoy et al., 2015).


Transformational efforts should include encouraging and expecting culturally relevant pedagogy that fosters critical thinking and reflexivity, integrates cultural strengths as valued resources, and promotes proficiency for effecting social change (Gay, 2018; Motulsky, Gere, Saleem, & Trantham, 2014; Spanierman & Smith, 2017). For example, recognizing oppression at a structural level is associated with enhanced social justice commitment and less blaming of oppressed individuals and groups (L. A. Goodman, Wilson, Helms, Greenstein, & Medzhitova, 2018; L. Smith & Lau, 2013; Swartz, Limberg, & Gold, 2018). Also important is the creation of a program-wide safe space to foster frequent conversations regarding biases, microaggressions, positionality, benefits accrued from dominant statuses, and responsibilities to use privilege for community enhancement (in a culturally humble fashion), both at the individual and program levels (Davis et al., 2016; D. J. Goodman, 2011). Finally, service provided to the community in a collaborative fashion by both students and faculty has been shown to help build cultural responsiveness and advocacy skills (L. A. Goodman et al., 2018; Midgett & Doumas, 2016; Toporek & Worthington, 2014). The desired effect of the examples shared above is not only to increase cultural and social justice competence of individuals, but also to build a culturally responsive learning community in which reasons for mistrust are diminished, experiences of trust increase, and accessing beneficial mentoring can flourish.



     Despite efforts to conduct a rigorous study, the research team acknowledges our limitations within this phenomenological study. Researcher bias had the potential to influence our study at several stages. In an attempt to ameliorate bias, we followed several practices associated with enhancing trustworthiness such as keeping a reflective journal, using consensus coding, member checking, providing thick descriptions, and having an external auditor.


Social desirability was a potential limitation, as participants’ answers to questions could have been influenced by what they felt would be more acceptable in either Black academic circles or the counseling profession. To address this, the primary researcher withheld probing questions when participants told narratives that were emotionally powerful and salient. That some of the participants informally knew the primary researcher (e.g., from conversations at professional conferences) might also have influenced what was shared.


Future Research

     This study highlights several possibilities for further research on trust within the counseling profession. As noted, the counseling literature lacks empirical studies on trust, despite its importance for both the supervisory and therapeutic relationship. There is a dearth of instruments measuring interpersonal trust in counseling. Creating such an instrument may be beneficial for a profession that is essentially relational.


Further inquiries into cross-racial mentoring may prove beneficial for our understanding of its benefits and perils, such as the effects of cross-racial mentoring on the racial identity development of both the mentee and the mentor. Future studies might also examine the perspectives of the White mentors involved in cross-racial relationships with students or supervisees. In addition, researchers could examine cross-racial mentoring relationships in which the mentor is Black and the mentee is White, examining the benefits and challenges experienced in these dyads. Investigations of interpersonal trust between dyads or groups comprised of marginalized and privileged people will be beneficial to the profession and those we serve. Finally, research is needed on the boundaries within the counseling profession. Most of the participants of this study believed that their relationship with their mentor needed to be more informal and less rigid (see Alvarez et al., 2009; Luedke, 2017). It may be beneficial to examine how much of one’s perspective of professional boundaries is culturally conditioned.


Summary and Conclusion


In our study, 10 Black doctoral counseling students shared a range of experiences related to cross-racial trust with White mentors, along with their perspectives about succeeding in a profession that is predominately White. Their lived experiences entailed both racial stress and cross-racial support, cultural isolation within their departments, and empathic encouragement from their mentors. The research team identified three superordinate themes related to cross-racial trust in mentoring relationships: reasons for trust, reasons for mistrust, and benefits of cross-racial mentoring. We also identified several themes and subthemes that delineated the interpersonal and intrapersonal factors that helped generate cross-racial trust, despite participants’ ubiquitous experiences of racism.



Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of interest

or funding contributions for the development

of this manuscript.



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Eric M. Brown is an assistant professor at Wheaton College. Tim Grothaus is an associate professor at Old Dominion University. Correspondence can be addressed to Eric Brown, 501 College Avenue, BGC, Wheaton, IL 60187,