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  • Ken Markwell

Non-Indigenous leaders: how to start a cultural conversation with Aboriginal staff

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

You’re a non-Indigenous leader and you want to engage with Aboriginal staff on cultural matters but you’re not sure how.

It’s one of the great communication challenges in an Australian workplace today: non-Indigenous people don’t want to offend Aboriginal people, and Aboriginal people don’t want to be offended.

But this hesitation leads to communication paralysis and becomes a barrier to creating culturally safe workplaces. It’s also a barrier to reconciliation.

For non-Aboriginal leaders (and other staff), there can be that sense of not starting the conversation because they don’t know what they don’t know. There’s a reluctance to feel they can speak on a cultural matter and be involved in a meaningful and respectful way.

So what’s the answer?

The first step is to stay out of our respective trenches and start talking, and this requires the right tools and the right conversations.

As a non-Indigenous leader, you can look to how you can improve your own leadership skills. What can you do to influence a relationship, your organisation, or the programs it has – or needs – in a cultural space?

What can you learn from Aboriginal ways of thinking? These ways are not just for Aboriginal people. They are driven by systems from time immemorial and are equally valid and important for non-Indigenous people to understand and use.

Yes, there are matters that are not appropriate for non-Aboriginal people, but there’s a difference between sensitive cultural practices and Aboriginal ways of thinking. Understanding Aboriginal ways, and how they add value in the workplace, will help build better relationships between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people.

How you communicate is key

It matters more how you say things that what you say.

There are a whole range of signs and cues – verbal and non-verbal – when non-Aboriginal people are trying to meaningfully support staff. But they can end up disengaging because they don’t feel comfortable to be able to ask a question. The key is to phrase those questions in terms of ‘Is it okay to…?’ Then you can navigate what’s important to that staff member.

Make sure your organisation has the right resources to support cultural capability. As well as supporting the needs of your Aboriginal staff, you should also ensure non-Indigenous staff have access to someone who can work with them around:

- building their knowledge of Aboriginal cultures

- understanding ways of thinking

- fostering more meaningful relationships.

This is something I can help with. I’ve been delivering government, commercial and corporate programs; I’ve owned a business; and I’ve worked at the senior executive level for major employers. I understand the nuances of what works when it comes to creating culturally safe workplaces for Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people.


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