Len Jennings is associate professor at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of St. Thomas. Growing up in a military family, he has lived in Germany and in various parts of the United States. This early exposure to other cultures instilled in him a love for travel and a curiosity about the other. Having graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Ph.D. in counseling psychology in 1997, he worked as an assistant professor for a new M.A. of Counseling program in Singapore. Upon returning to the United States, Jennings took a faculty position with the University of St. Thomas, but has since returned to Singapore several times to conduct research. Working alongside Jennings are St. Thomas doctoral students Michael Oien and Ashley Gulden.
Q: What sparked your interest in this research topic?
Jennings: As a doctoral student in counseling psychology in the mid-‘90s, I wanted to learn about master therapists, those who were considered the “best of the best” in our field. My main motivation was to learn about the characteristics of these well-regarded therapists to inform my practice as a psychologist. Now, my interests in both psychotherapy expertise and cultures have merged as I explore the cultural competence of expert therapists.
Oien: I was part of the group of students who studied in Singapore while Dr. Jennings collected the data we are using in our research. We students were lucky enough to have witnessed the interviews of the participants, and I can think of few other times where I have felt so challenged to think so flexibly about my own culture and society. I have always had a passion for cross-cultural and diversity research. I am interested in the human narratives we, as individuals, carry with us in everyday life.
Gulden: The Qualitative Methods course I took from Dr. Len Jennings during my first semester at St. Thomas led to my interest in multicultural qualitative research. The insight he shared in this course led me to explore this rich experience in hopes of enhancing my knowledge of qualitative methodology in the context of multicultural counseling.
Q: What have been some of the significant developments along the way?
LJ: What emerged from my early research was a well-accepted model that described the cognitive, emotional, and relational (CER model) characteristics of master therapists. Research on master therapists has grown since my original study with four more in-depth qualitative studies on the same 10 master therapists that I initially interviewed, another study on multicultural master therapists, and five international studies on master therapists in Canada, South Korea, Singapore, Australia, and Japan.
MO: I have been particularly struck by how the complexity of human factors can be synthesized, in part, into a research project. Although the research questions we are exploring appear to be relatively simple, the answers are complex and nuanced.
AG: The decision to conduct a research study within the large cross-cultural study to examine reflexivity as a means to increase cultural awareness could serve as a validity check for our multicultural, qualitative research.
Q: What insights have you gained, and how do you think they will be used in the future by you and others?
LJ: When we conducted a cross-cultural comparison between Minnesotan and Singaporean master therapists, we found a number of similarities between the two participant groups such as humility, a passion to learn, and an ability to be extraordinarily self-aware. In the current study, we are learning even more about how these characteristics actually serve the therapist when in session with a client from a different culture. Knowing what the experts are doing in therapy will hopefully inform our teaching and training of future culturally competent practitioners.
MO: Everyone, as products of some society and culture, has particular beliefs and attitudes. As a researcher, I have learned that I am not “asocietal” or “acultural”; our particular research design encourages us to embrace our biases and really consider how they affect our analysis. It is my hope that other researchers, not only cross-cultural or diversity researchers, will engage in the same self-exploration in the research process.
AG: I have gained insight about the conceptual framework of cultural competency, including the development of skills, knowledge, and awareness of one’s own personal beliefs and practices. I hope our research will encourage others to become more culturally competent and deepen others’ understanding of psychotherapy practices.
Q: What impact will your research have on your field and our community?
LJ: Once the current study is completed, I plan to conduct a qualitative meta-analysis of all the studies on master therapists with the goal of consolidating the findings. This compilation will hopefully highlight the universal and culturally specific characteristics of expert therapists from around the globe.
Q: Dr. Jennings, how have you engaged students in your research?
LJ: I prize working with and mentoring master’s and doctoral level students. The qualitative research method that I have come to embrace is called Consensual Qualitative Research. This method calls for multiple researchers to code the data independently and then work towards consensus as a research team. I believe students who work with me gain valuable research skills and learn to work as a colleague throughout the research process.
Q: What has been your experience as a graduate student involved in this project?
MO: As a student, I have always felt like an equal member of the research team. We have already had the opportunity to present our research at a professional conference and are scheduled to present again this summer at the largest annual conference in our field of psychology.
AG: My collaboration with Dr. Jennings has significantly enriched my graduate experience. I have had the privilege to present our research at professional conferences, be part of a scholarly qualitative data analysis team, and develop my writing skills on professional papers.
Q: What has been the most fascinating aspect of your research journey?
LJ: Conducting research is intrinsically rewarding because it places me on the cutting edge of knowledge in my area, and this in turn inf≠orms my teaching and practice. The most fascinating and humbling aspect of my research is learning from the master therapists how to tolerate and even embrace great ambiguity when working with the complexities and unknowns of the human condition. As one master therapist stated, “The more you know, the more you know that you don’t know.”
MO: In truth, I have appreciated the collegiality that has arisen through this research experience. Working with Dr. Jennings and Ashley has been so rewarding.
AG: I have been fascinated with my professional growth, awareness, and development as a new researcher and professional in the field of psychology. It has been an invaluable experience as a graduate student.