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Communicating in a culturally sensitive way

Good communication with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (as well as with children from different cultures) includes checking that both parties understand each other. The use of language can cause problems, especially when jargon or unfamiliar words are used.

It is important to gain an understanding of what is valued in relational, physical and legal permanency in different cultures. If you are unsure of the cultural importance, ask for guidance or clarity from a specialist, a cultural advisor, a community Elder or one of the child’s family members. For example, a child being a part of a religious group or church may be important to physical permanency for some families, whereas other families will not hold the same values.

If you are unsure if a child is understanding what is being said, ask family members, Elders, or community members from the child’s language group.

Consider different ways to communicate. Written, verbal and visual methods, including diagrams and pictures, can assist with getting a message across and can cater for different understandings in language and cultural meanings.

It is important to remember that there are cultural differences between regional and remote areas, language and community groups.

Examples of Aboriginal communication styles

Communication style Comment
Providing space and time for the use of silence

In Aboriginal culture, extended periods of silence during conversations may be considered the norm and valued as an opportunity for reflection.

Silent pauses may be used to listen, show respect or consensus. Silence itself may be part of the response and should be allowed to take its course. Be mindful not to fill silence because you feel uncomfortable.
Making minimal eye contact

For Aboriginal people, a gesture of respect would be to avoid eye contact that can be perceived as challenging.

It may be useful to ask the person where they would like you to sit. It is important to not be offended if someone does not look at you when they are speaking. They may be processing what they are being asked or how they would like to respond.
Relying on body language to understand what is being said.

Be aware of your body language and think about the messages you are sending through your non-verbal communication.

Are you expressing that you are open to engagement? Interested in the speaker? Paying attention?
Only revealing part of the problem or story until trust has been gained.  Ask open-ended, non-judgemental questions to invite the person to tell you their story.
Using he/she (and other pronouns) interchangeably.

This is common in Aboriginal English (AE), which is a dialect of English that is spoken in different ways by Aboriginal people and that differs from Standard Australian English in systematic ways.

It is not lazy or poor English, but rather its own distinct dialect. 
Saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, which could mean many things, including not understanding the question.

Aboriginal peoples may say yes or no to avoid conflict or disagreement, rather than truly agreeing with your proposal.

Open-ended questions such as, ‘What do you think about... ?’ ‘How would you …?’ may be more effective than questions limited to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.
Preferring to engage in a non-confrontational manner, such as standing side-by-side or sitting together, rather than facing each other directly.

Yarning circles are a great example of an engagement method that allows everyone to be on the same level, not be placed in the spotlight, and to participate equally.

It may be useful to ask the person where they would like you to sit.

Adapted from Commissioner for Children and Young People WA (2018). Engaging with Aboriginal Children and Young People Toolkit. Commissioner for Children and Young People WA: Perth, pp. 26–27

Further reading

For more information on communication, engagement and culture, see the practice kit Safe care and connection: Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

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