We all want to deliver fair outcomes to clients who trust us to understand their needs, values and aspirations. And while there are helpful general frameworks and guidelines we can refer to, we still face all sorts of unique challenges to meeting these goals.

This can be especially true when your clients come from another culture or you need to communicate via an interpreter. In these cases, hard-to-see cultural complexities can influence how clients respond to our services and how they view and understand our roles at work. When these cultural complexities are managed poorly they cause discomfort and emotional triggers that distort communication flow between workers and clients.

So what does this mean for workers in a country like Australia with so many cultures?

The first thought is to learn about the cultures of all of our clients, but workers who attempt this quickly learn that it’s impossible to learn the sensitivities of 200+ cultures. 

So what can you do? 

There are some obvious starting points like slowly building your knowledge of the cultures, language groups and customs of people who use your service. Or using the excellent SBS cultural atlas to learn some basic cultural knowledge that shows clients you’re interested in their culture.

These are good starting points. But to really work effectively with migrant and refugee clients, you need to interact so you’re less likely to approach sensitive topics inappropriately.

Let’s zoom in on how you can do this. 

All cultures have topics that are linked to stigma, shame and or that are private and delicate. 

Some common examples are:

  • Sexual and reproductive health
  • Mental health,
  • Caring for a family member with special needs, 
  • Drug and alcohol addiction
  • Gender roles 
  • Financial independence 
  • The power balance within a family structure

The strength of these already sensitive topics can even be amplified if they intersect with strongly held spiritual beliefs.

When you’re discussing these kinds of topics with a client from another culture, you’re an outsider. The only way to competently manage these sensitive topics is to become an insider. The only way you can do that is to let your client lead the way, telling you who they are, what they care about and how they understand the situation. Once you know how they see it, their concerns and their priorities you’ll start to better understand how to help. 

So, what can you do?

  1. Acknowledge that you’re used to working in a certain way and ask if that will be okay for your client
  2. Ask questions that give you a sense of your client’s cultural context 
  3. Creating a comfortable environment for your communication
  4. Let the clients speak in a language they are comfortable with and using their own words to describe what’s going on
  5. Say less and listen more

If you want more detail on how you can better ‘ask questions on sensitive topics’ Click here to watch our FREE recent webinar where myself and Tapuwa Bofu, Community and projects officer at Multicultural Health & Support Service (MHSS) share our experiences.