Yarning Circles: Indigenous Practices

A guide on using the UNSW Canberra Community Circle

Photo of National Reconciliation Week ceremonies at UNSW Canberra in 2023

The UNSW Canberra Community Circle is located in the Library (building 13).

A Yarning Circle is a significantly important process that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use to learn, share, build respectful and caring relationships, pass on cultural knowledge through narrative, and come together as a community.

The initial focus of the Yarning Circle is on Indigenous practices, messages, and ways of living; but it is not limited to this. The people present in the Circle have autonomy to discuss many different topics (within reason. Further details below). The Yarning Circle space encourages that people come with a mindful and caring demeanour towards themselves and each other during the yarn.

There are varying protocols for conducting Yarning Circles depending on the Nation Group or community. This document provides a generic overview of a Yarning Circle which, when undertaken in a culturally appropriate manner, is suitable for all peoples.

This Circle can be used for a range of purposes including teaching, learning, wellbeing matters and community gathering. It is not for studying or working individually or collectively on your laptop or other devices! This is not the purpose of the Circle. Examples of how to use the space are provided below.

  • Participating in a traditional Yarning Circle allows us to return to historical Aboriginal cultural practices of coming together as a community, sharing, and expanding knowledge.

    Entering a Yarning Circle should be viewed and recognised as a privilege for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples. Sitting in a Circle allows conversation and sharing to flow naturally - allowing all members of the group to be seen clearly, facing each other, and placed equally around the Circle.

    • Each participant brings with them their own story and lived experiences. Traditional Aboriginal knowledge holders often refer to a feeling of spirit, and the need to recall our own past and recognise the spirit of our traditional land, community or country.
    • A sense of presence and calmness is key when in a Yarning Circle. We encourage all people to be at ease with themselves – and one another – as this welcomes the spirit of their own and others story – whether from Australia or overseas.
    • Showing humility is paramount as things become easier to share when we do this. It demonstrates your authentic side and strength, allowing your ego to gradually drop away.
    • The Yarning Circle builds and strengthens respectful relationships by remembering, understanding, and celebrating what we have in common. Participants should suspend judgement and respect the knowledge of other Circle participants.
    • Listening is as important – sometimes more important – in life than talking. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason! Listening demonstrates respect and allows the sharing of information to be absorbed. We encourage Circle members to listen when others are sharing. Similarly, by looking at the speaker, you demonstrate to them you are engaged, which is typically reciprocated when you then speak.
    • Participants have an obligation to ensure that knowledge and information is shared in a culturally appropriate and respectful manner. Be mindful that stories or knowledge shared in the Circle may not be used for further discussion or shared beyond that point. It is highly recommended to seek permission or establish what is allowed to be reshared afterwards. Assuming is not advised.
    • Everyone in the Circle is encouraged to participate. It’s ok if someone prefers to sit back and choses not too – but be mindful of this approach and encourage others to contribute when they feel confident to do so.
    • The Yarning Circle is a safe space for all who enter it. Recognising this prior to any engagement sets the expectation for an authentic and meaningful experience. Make sure to set expectations and responsibilities before entering the Circle, as well as addressing ‘power dynamics’ or biases. There should be no hierarchy within the Circle – all are equal. This helps limit misunderstanding or ambiguity.
    • Sharing is one of the most common ways to building strong relationships. A Yarning Circle is the safest place to sit together, talk and share. It is also important to recognise this and treat it, as well as other Circle participants experiences, with respect.
    • When you tell your story or discuss your experiences, be mindful that it will become part of other participants experience, so it must be centred in truth. Ensure your story or experiences serve the wellbeing of the whole Circle as best you can, not a specific group, political standpoint, or past trauma. Other participants are not obliged to address or manage this content in a Yarning Circle.
    • The Yarning Circle will include a ‘Yarning Stick’. The stick signifies that the person who has it in their possession is the person who will speak. Other Circle participants observe and listen. When the person has finished speaking, they pass this on to another participant who has indicated they’d like to speak.
    • The Yarning Stick will be left in the Circle as a sign of trust due to its significance to Indigenous traditions.  When a Circle session has finished, the stick will remain in the circle and must not be removed.
    • It is the responsibility of each Yarning Circle participant to ensure cultural tools, resources and furniture used are maintained. Please keep food and drink (except water) off the chairs, ottomans, and mats. Please remove shoes in the Circle. If this is not possible, please keep feet off the chairs and ottomans (and the mats, if possible).
    • Devices can be used to record the discussion if necessary, and only if all participants consent beforehand.
  • The Circle typically commences with an Acknowledgement of Country – which can be facilitated by anyone present – or a Welcome to Country if a Traditional Owner of the Lands is present.

    Example Acknowledgement of Country can be found on the posters around the Circle.

    At the commencement of the Circle, participants are encouraged to share three things about themselves:

    1. Their name
    2. The country/land they’re from (whether Australia or overseas)
    3. One thing about themselves they feel comfortable sharing

    The Circle leader will play an integral role in steering the Yarning Stick throughout the Yarning Circle session. Nominate this person before commencing so they can take responsibility for ensuring all participants have an opportunity to share.

    How to create a Yarning Circle (11 mins)

    How to start a Yarning Circle (1:27s)
  • There are two packs of Yarning Cards available for participants to use. These are provided to give facilitators and participants ideas for commencing a Yarning Circle discussion.

    Once in flow, participants are encouraged to take the conversation in whichever direction they, and others, feel comfortable with. There is no set script for a yarn – go with what feels natural. There is no right or wrong way.

    That said, there will be topics of conversation that should be avoided. We are all adults within the UNSW CBR community, and recommend facilitators and participants take a sensible approach towards this and raise any topics they do not wish to discuss before commencing.

    If you prefer not to participate in a formal Yarning Circle with a Yarning Stick, the space may be utilised for other matters. Some include:

    • Social and informal comings together to discuss personal or other matters
    • Collaborating and brainstorming with colleagues or friends
    • Staff and student wellbeing check-ins with one-another

    The Circle is not for working, studying, or conducting formal team meetings. This is not the purpose of the space.

  • You must book the Circle through your MS Outlook calendar by creating a meeting. Select the date and time you would like the space and email: CAN.LIB.CommunityCircle@unsw.edu.au

    The meeting in your calendar will then be accepted or declined. If it is declined, please attempt to book a different date/time. 

    The space is available for up to 60 minutes per booking.

(For the purpose of this page and respect to Indigenous Peoples across Australia, we will only make reference to Yarning Circles here. UNSW CBRs Yarning Circle will formally be known as UNSW CBR Community Circle, to demonstrate that the Circle is a collective space for all the UNSW CBR community to share).