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Engaging and yarning

Respect is very important in every social structure in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Respect for Elders, the land, animals and ancestors is a fundamental aspect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.

How we work and engage with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person will determine how they engage with us. We need to be aware of the cultural differences, and how of how they see us in terms of the authority and power Child Safety holds.

We need to:

  • understand that families may have a mistrust towards us and resistance about engaging and working with us (as practitioners)
  • support people in exercising self-determination, and see them as the experts in their family
  • be flexible. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples may miss appointments, not because their child is not important to them or they are not interested but because they have family, cultural or community commitments which take priority. A call to talk with them about what is happening in their life to identify any potential barriers for them to attend appointments can help build a better understanding
  • keep in mind that relationship building is critical. Changeover of staff should be kept to a minimum, but where it cannot be avoided, a transition to the new worker should be undertaken gradually and sensitively
  • be accountable and follow through. If you tell someone you are going to do something, ensure you do it—or at least explain to them why it has not happened. Communication and transparency are crucial in building strong relationships
  • not jump to conclusions or make assumptions. Always ask the family to clarify if there is something that you do not understand so information is correctly recorded
  • give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people time to answer questions. Silence is not a bad thing. It does not mean they did not hear you—they may be thinking and considering their response. Allow time to answer and share stories. Do not rush the process
  • be aware of our body language. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will take notice of your body language more than your words. If there is incongruence between your body language (including your facial expressions) and your words, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will ‘listen’ to what they see more than what they hear.

Yarning with dignity and respect

Yarning is used among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to share information, stories, knowledge and traditions. It is less structured and less formal than what you may be used to. A forensic interview style is unlikely to help an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person tell you their story.

There may be protocols for yarning that you will need to find out about.

There are a variety of ways that yarning may happen, and each family and community may have their own rules of engagement and protocols for carrying out and maintaining the conversation.

Talk with the family, cultural practice advisors, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practice leaders and colleagues or local community partners who may be able to help you determine the best yarning approach.

The key to developing a good relationship with families is being genuine.

The following examples are for guidance only.  

Being culturally respectful What you can do and say
Be quiet and respectful at all meetings. Don’t talk too much or talk over people. Allow all participants in the meeting or discussion to speak.
Honour the autonomy of the family and community. Let them make decisions about what will be talked about and what will be of use.

What are the things that are important for you to talk about today?

How would you like to make use of the time we have today?

What is most useful, for you and your family, to talk about today?

Are there things happening in the community at the moment that you feel would be useful for me to know?

Acknowledge your cultural differences with families.

Invite family members to let you know when you say or do things that not okay with them.

It would be respectful to let families know your cultural background.

I’m mindful we have different cultural backgrounds, I have [your own cultural background] and there may be things that are discussed between us that I am not aware of or don’t have any understanding of.

When this is happening for me, am I able to ask you about it so I can understand?

Also, if there are things I say that aren’t clear or don’t make sense to you, can you please let me know? I’d be happy to talk about them more.
Ask the person how they would be like to be addressed. Don’t assume if the person is old that you can call them Aunty or Uncle. In the first instance, it would be respectful to call the person Mr or Mrs ... Hi Mr or Mrs… Are you ok if I call you that, or is there another name you would like me to use?

Continuously ask for permission about who and what to talk about as well as when and where.

The location of meetings and the people involved in discussions may change depending on different circumstances.

Where did you want to meet next time?

At our next meeting, we will need to discuss [topic]. Who are the people you think would be most useful for you to have there?

If I needed to know more about [topic], who do you think would be the best person to talk with? Who else needs to be involved in that conversation?
Make space for them to say no.

How will I know that you want to say no to something?

How would you like me to respond to that?

What does saying ‘no’ say about your ability to decide what’s going to happen?

Thinking about tonight, tomorrow and later.

How might you be feeling and thinking about what you have been telling me tomorrow?

How will you care for yourself today and tomorrow?

Who can be there to help care for you?

Give space for silence. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will not always respond immediately. There are times when they will quietly reflect and think.

Allow time for this.


Further reading

For more about respectful and culturally appropriate ways to talk and communicate with Aboriginal people and communities, read:

Yarning with parents

In more traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander areas, it may be best to avoid direct questions at first. A yarning approach can work better. You could suggest two alternative scenarios. For example, ‘Some people find parenting difficult and some people do not. What is being a parent like for you?’

You should also be aware that where possible, it is preferable for men to speak with men and women to speak with women, especially when you are not known by the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander parent or their community. If this is not possible, ask the person if there is someone else who can support them during the discussion, such an Elder, relative or community member. If they consent to the involvement of an independent person, ask them who they want as their independent person and arrange for the independent person's participation. 

Yarning with young people

Yarning with young people will take some planning, depending on why you are working with them and their family. You will need to think about what you represent and the purpose of your role. How can you gain credibility with them in order to have the necessary conversations?

You may need to consult with an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander colleague, or someone the young person is connected with, who can help develop the best approach to yarning with them.

Yarning with honesty

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents need to know they can rely on you to be upfront and honest about what is happening. There may be times you need to have uncomfortable and hard yarns. You need to participate in these conversations with compassion, curiosity and courage.

If you do not, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents could be left confused and may feel they cannot trust what you say or do. This echoes feelings about past injustices and has a rippling effect within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

Practice prompt

Consider the following conversations with parents:

  • What is important to you, so you can feel safe while we talk today?
  • How will you let me know if you feel like I am ‘using power’ over you?
  • It is important to me while we talk that I don’t offend you or say things that are culturally inappropriate. If this happens, how can you let me know?
  • Who can come and support you while we are here?
  • Who can we bring together to talk about where your child can stay while we work together?
  • I know this is not okay with you. How can we make it any less painful? Is there someone in your community, (an independent person or an Elder) you would like to bring here to talk with us about what is happening and what needs to happen?

If the decision has been made that a child cannot stay safely with their parent, how will you make sure your practice does not replicate or feel like past practices of forced removal for the parent? Refer to Part 3 of this practice kit for more on this.

Talk with the parents and any community members about the best way for the child to come into care. If the child is going to be placed with a foster carer not known to the family, ask the family about the best way for this to happen. Talk about the different options we have (plan what is appropriate before you go), such as:

  • Can the family, Elder or other community member assist with transporting the child or meeting with the carers?
  • How does a parent want to say goodbye at that moment? —at the home, at the car, or at an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander community centre/organisation (for example, a Family Wellbeing Service or Family Participation Program provider)?
  • How do the child and parents separate from each other? Do the parents want to buckle them into their seatbelt in the car, or do they want to say goodbye in the home or when the child is in the car? Can an Elder or trusted community member help support the child and parent?
  • Would having an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Child Safety worker present make it more or less distressing for them?

Yarning with the community

Seek consultation about how you can best engage with an Elder or a respected community member to help you work with a family. Community Elders, leaders and other community members will have a strong sense of what is taking place in the community and which children are at risk, and may be seeking community solutions to these issues.

Do not go into a conversation with community members already thinking or talking about solutions. Listen to what the community’s worries are, what their ideas and knowledge is about those worries, and how they would like to work to overcome them.


‘Resist the urge to propose solutions for Aboriginal issues, but rather listen deeply. Too many people have tried telling Aboriginal people what’s best.’

Respect for Elders and Culture, Creative Spirits (2019).

Further reading

Darlington (2007), Listening with Respect: Strengthening communication with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Queensland Health (2012), Communicating effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Practice Program.

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