Chapter 19: Yarning

Sue-Anne Hunter

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe the different types of yarning.
  • Discuss key considerations when undertaking yarning.
  • Describe the advantages of yarning.
  • Identify the challenges of yarning.


What is yarning?

Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars1 have maintained, for decades now, the need for First Nations representation in the creation of knowledge. Indigenous community viewpoints have historically been misunderstood, misrepresented in many cases ignored altogether. To achieve greater representation of Indigenous peoples’ live experiences, epistemologies and ontologies, Indigenous research methodologies are becoming more recognised. Yarning is one of these methodologies. In this chapter, yarning is discussed in the context of its use by Indigenous and Non-Indigenous researchers who are working with Indigenous peoples.

Yarning is an Indigenous cultural form of conversation.1 Yarning can involve just two people, or in the case of a ‘yarning circle’, can involve a group of people. Yarning creates a culturally safe space in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants have authority and ownership in the process of sharing information and places the researcher in the position of the learner.2 Yarning as a research method privileges Indigenous ways of knowing, drawing on Indigenous ontologies rather than Western social science ontologies.2, 3 For this reason, when research involves First Peoples, yarning is an effective alternative to traditionally non-Indigenous formal interview techniques.

Yarning in a semi-structured interview is an informal and relaxed discussion through which both the researcher and participant journey together visiting places and topics of interest relevant to the research study. Yarning is a process that requires the researcher to develop and build relationship that is accountable to Indigenous people participating in the research.4(p.38))

The four types of yarning described by Bessarab and Ng’andu1 are described here.

Social yarning – an informal and unstructured conversation with the intent of purposeful exchanges to build trust and relationship. Social yarning typically precedes research or topic yarning. While social yarning is led by both the research participant and researcher, it is the responsibility of the researcher to establish connection through authentic and meaningful interest in the participant’s life while also sharing information about themselves. Points of connection may stem from sharing of community news, advice and whatever else people feel like sharing that is not related to the topic of the research.1

Research or topic yarning – an unstructured or semi-structured conversation with purpose. The goal of research or topic yarning is to gather stories from the participant in relation to the topic while maintaining a relaxed and interactive style of interviewing.1

Collaborative yarning – an unstructured or semi-structured conversation with purpose. A method whereby two or more people explore research ideas and explanations of new concepts. The yarn may lead to new understandings and discoveries relevant to the research topic.1

Therapeutic yarning – a conversation in which the participant shares a personal story that includes memories of trauma or in some way evokes an emotional reaction. The researcher listens and provides space for the participant to give voice to their story and to make sense of it. Therapeutic yarning is not counselling; rather, it is the participant making meaning from the process of telling their story. Therapeutic yarning requires facilitation by a skilled professional who has both clinical and First Peoples cultural awareness knowledge. Therapeutic yarning can have empowering effects and enable participants to find meaning from the process of sharing their story and feeling heard.1, 5

The four types of yarning are inter-connected and can all be part of the one yarning session. See Figure 1 in the article ‘Decolonising Qualitative Research with Respectful, Reciprocal, and Responsible Research Practice’.3

Yarning is about relational connection with and between and with Indigenous peoples. It is about building and maintaining trusting relationships. Therefore, in the development phase of any research project, yarning in research with the Indigenous people or communities the research relates to, should start early, to ensure that the Indigenous participants are research partners, and have the opportunity to direct the research purpose, providing insights into local expectations and negotiating roles for the research. Yarning is flexible, adaptable and diverse, and hence starting the yarn in the early phases of the research is important in undertaking culturally safe and just research.4

Yarning with Indigenous communities with the purpose to establish an inquiry design was recently exampled by The Yoorrook Justice Commission, in Victoria, Australia. The Yoorook Justice Commission inquiry, ongoing at the time of writing this chapter, is the first formal truth-telling Commission inquiry into historical and contemporary systemic injustices committed against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in Victoria. In the period March to June 2022, in order to establish inquiry approaches, five Commissioners conducted 29 Yarning Circles involving 200 Elders across Victoria. The purpose of the Yarning Circles is described on page 18 of the interim report6(p18):

The primary purpose of the Elders’ yarning circles was to provide information to Elders about Yoorrook, to build trust in Yoorrook’s approach, and to hear from Elders their priorities for the Commission’s focus in the next phase of work. Elders also took the opportunity to share parts of their own experiences or stories of their families and ancestors. Many expressed frustrations with, and cynicism towards, prior government efforts and official inquiries, noting that nothing had changed as a result. Many Elders had questions about Yoorrook, such as how it would be different, or expressed concern about how it is distinct from the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria or government. These meetings were a powerful source of ideas and information that have informed and will continue to guide Yoorrook’s work.

Key considerations in yarning

  • All research that concerns or impacts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in any way should align with the principles of the AIATSIS Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research.7
  • Many of the logistics and practicalities of running yarning sessions should be discussed in partnership and collaboration with Traditional Owners and Elders of the community. This includes determining who is appropriate to facilitate the yarning sessions; for example, someone within the community, a First Nations person external to the community or a non-Indigenous person, and the appropriate customs and protocols to follow. Payment for running the yarning sessions and participating in the yarning should also be discussed with Elders and incorporated into the research protocol.
  • Before a researcher commences yarning, ways of providing a feedback loop for sharing research findings with the participating community, and especially the individuals who participated in the yarning, should be discussed and planned. When the yarning has finished and the research findings have been generated, this feedback loop should be enacted to ensure that the researchers’ interpretations and understandings accord with those of the individual and community participants. This process can mitigate against non-First Nations peoples’ worldviews being applied inappropriately to First Nations’ ways of knowing and being.
  • The use of culturally appropriate and respectful language is essential. There is great diversity across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia, and thus there is no single Indigenous identity. Consultation with Traditional Owners, Elders and community members is vital in ensuring that the preferences of the people involved are respected. Researchers should recognise that First Nations languages are firstly oral, and hence when written the language needs to reflect the spellings of local traditional owners, elders and community members. Language needs to be specific and strengths-based (focus on abilities, knowledge and capacities rather than what is lacking or deficits). If you are not sure, ask; for example, different individuals and communities may prefer to be named as Indigenous, Aboriginal, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, First Peoples or First Nations. The Australian Government’s Style Manual8 provides a good starting point for researchers to orient themselves to culturally appropriate and respectful language when writing with, for or about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; however, it cannot take the place of meaningful consultation.
  • When writing up yarning results, the elders and community members should be acknowledged in the report’s credits. Researchers should ensure they are quoting yarning participants with appropriate credits, including their names and Country, to demonstrate that the knowledge came from them and not from the researcher. The project report More Than Personal Communication: Templates for Citing Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers provides guidance on how to appropriately acknowledge Indigenous participants.9
  • Be mindful of the principles of Indigenous data sovereignty – contributions by Indigenous people are not just data, they are stories. The principles can be found on the webpage of Maiam Nayri Wingara Communique.10 These principles assert that control and accountability of the data rests with First Peoples and as such data should be contextualised and made accessible at an individual and community level. This approach is consistent with principles of self-determination. Culturally informed data management should be considered to be a process of protecting and respecting individual and collective interests. People who participate in one-to-one yarning sessions or yarning circles should be given the opportunity to indicate how they wanted their stories used, whether they wanted to be named and be informed of any other relevant contextual factors. This process will uphold the participants’ rights to their stories.
  • First Nations peoples worldwide are over-researched, with research done to and on them rather than for and with them. Therefore, it is important that researchers work with First Nations communities, and that the research is initiated and led by the participating community, to ensure that it will be relevant and of benefit to the community. Community-Led Research – Walking New Pathways Together, by Rawlings, Flexner and Riley, provides guidance on how to build relationships and collaboration with communities, and the appropriate protocols.11

Advantages and challenges of yarning

Yarning fosters connection, establishes trust and enables the researcher to explore the research topic in great detail. Yarning is an Indigenous way of doing things and recognises the importance of relationship, responsibility and accountability, to create cultural safety in partnership with the people who participate in the research.1, 4 A challenge of yarning is managing time. The unstructured nature of yarning, focus on relationship and rapport-building and the researcher being the listener, can lead to an endless discussion. Negotiating the time expectations for the research or topic yarn with participants through social yarning can help to address this challenge.1

Table 19.1 provides two examples of research in which yarning has been used as a data collection method.

Table 19.1. Examples of yarning in research

Title A multi-methods yarn about SMART Recovery: first insights from Australian Aboriginal facilitators and group members 12 Yarning about fall prevention: community consultation to discuss falls and appropriate approaches to fall prevention with older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people13
First author and year Dale, 2021 Lukaszyk, 2018
CC Licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 CC BY 4.0
Aim To explore ‘the cultural utility of SMART Recovery in an Australian Aboriginal context’ (abstract introduction) 1. Investigate the impact of falls on the health and wellbeing of older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people;

2. Assess the level of existing knowledge older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have on fall prevention; and

3. To identify desirable elements of a fall prevention program from the perspective of older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.’p2
Intervention SMART Recovery is a support group program for people seeking to recover from addictions to alcohol, illicit drugs or gambling. Not applicable
Method An Indigenous lensed, multi-method explorative design<
Incorporating yarning and quantitative (survey, program adherence check list) and qualitative (group observation) research methods.
Yarning circles conducted by an Aboriginal facilitator and trained qualitative researcher. Yarning circles started with morning tea to build rapport with participants. Discussions began with the project team and participants introducing themselves and sharing about their family origins.
Participants Five Aboriginal communities: 3 in New South Wales and 2 in South Australia.

Facilitators and group members of the SMART recovery groups
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 45 years and older from New South Wales.
Yarning Research topic yarning and social yarning;

An example questions for group members included:

‘How could SMART Recovery be better for Aboriginal people?’p1019

An example question for facilitators included:

‘How would you describe what it is like to be an Aboriginal person facilitating SMART recovery groups?’p1019

Social yarning occurred before and after the research topic yarning.
The questions for the yarning circle were:

1. Has anyone had a fall recently? Can you talk about what happened?

2. Is it important to find ways to prevent falling?

3. Are you aware of any fall prevention programs in your community?

4. Would you attend an Aboriginal-specific falls prevention program if it was available?

5. Are there any things that would or do stop you from attending a falls prevention program? Do you have any ideas about how these things could be addressed?

Laminated cards with pictures representing existing falls prevention programs were distributed.

Are there any parts of these programs that you would like to see incorporated into a falls program for Aboriginal people?

[Table 1, p3]
Data analysis Thematic analysis Conventional content analysis
Results Themes:

1. Integrate Aboriginal perspectives into the facilitator training

2. Create Aboriginal-specific program materials

3. Community engagement, marketing and networking

4. Establish an Aboriginal SMART recovery program

[Table 5, p.1024]
Themes and subthemes

Impact of falls on older Aboriginal people:p3-5

• Physical disability

• Loss of emotional wellbeing

• Loss of connection to family and community

Falls prevention in Aboriginal communities:p5

• Use of falls prevention programs

• Knowledge about falls prevention

• Interest in falls prevention

Desired attributes of a falls prevention program for Aboriginal people:p5-6

• Type of program

• Program delivery

• Accessibility of program


Yarning is a First Nations research method for sharing knowledge and is built on a foundation of relationship and collaboration. Yarning should be initiated and led by the participating community so that the research can be of benefit to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Working with Traditional Owners and Elders will help to ensure that the process of yarning is culturally appropriate and respectful, and recognises the diversity in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia.


  1. Bessarab D, Ng’andu B. Yarning about yarning as a legitimate method in indigenous research. International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies. 2010;3(1):37-49. doi: 10.5204/ijcis.v3i1.57
  2. Leeson S, Smith C, Rynne J. Yarning and appreciative inquiry: The use of culturally appropriate and respectful methods when working Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Australian prisons. Method Innov. 2016;9 doi: 10.1177/2059799116630660
  3. Kennedy M, Maddox R, Booth K, Maidment S, Chamberlain C, Bessarab D. Decolonising qualitative research with respectful, reciprocal, and responsible research practice: a narrative review of the application of Yarning method in qualitative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research. Int J Equity Health. Sep 13 2022;21(1):134. doi: 10.1186/s12939-022-01738-w
  4. Dean C. A yarning place in narrative histories. History of Education Review. 2010;39(2):6-13. doi: 10.1108/08198691201000005
  5. Atkinson J. Trauma trails, recreating song lines: the transgenerational effects of trauma in Indigenous Australia. Spinifex; 2002.
  6. Yoorrook Justice Commission. Yorrook with Purpose 2022. Interim Report. Accessed September 18, 2023. 
  7. AIATSIS. AIATSIS Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research. 2020. Accessed September 18, 2023. 
  8. Australian Government. Style Manual – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Accessed September 18, 2023.
  9. MacLeod L. More than personal communication: templates for citing Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers.  KULA: Knowledge Creation, Dissemination, and Preservation Studies. 2021;5(1): 1-5. doi: 10.18357/kula.135
  10. Maiam nayri Wingara, Australian Indigenous Governance Institute. Indigenous Data Sovereignty Communique. Accessed April 29, 2023.
  11. Rawlings V, Flexner, J, Riley, L. Community-Led Research – Walking New Pathways Together. Sydney University Press; 2021.
  12. Dale E, Lee KSK, Conigrave KM, et al. A multi-methods yarn about SMART recovery: first insights from Australian Aboriginal facilitators and group members. Drug Alcohol Rev. 2021;40(6):1013-1027. doi: 10.1111/dar.13264
  13. Lukaszyk C, Coombes J, Turner NJ, et al. Yarning about fall prevention: community consultation to discuss falls and appropriate approaches to fall prevention with older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. BMC Public Health. 2017;18(1):77. doi: 10.1186/s12889-017-4628-6