Sonia Vignjevic – Settlement Services International


You’re listening to Communicate with Zen and John from Empower Your English.


Zen:                 Hi, I’m Zen Fong.


John:                And I’m John McKenna.


Zen:                 We are the co-founders of Empower Your English.  This is our podcast called Communicate.  The Communicate podcast is all about how we express ourselves and how we understand one another.  During our conversations with our guests we focus on important areas such as listening, empowerment and humanity.  When we communicate we connect. 


            In this episode we are chatting with Sonia  Vignjevic, who is the Victorian state director of Settlement Services International in Australia.  During our conversation Sonia  shares with us her different approaches, communication styles and experiences in working with refugees, asylum seekers and recent migrants from diverse backgrounds.  This episode goes for about 30 minutes. 


                        We are very grateful to have our guest today, Sonia .  Welcome Sonia .


Sonia :             Hi, thank you.  I’m excited to be here.


Zen:                 Sonia , would you like to do us a favour?  How do you pronounce your surname and would you like to tell more about yourself?


Sonia :               Yes, absolutely.  So as you’ve mentioned, my name is Sonia  Vignjevic and I work for Settlement Services International as the Victorian state director.  So our organisation is a not-for-profit social business working with newly arrived migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and people that might be vulnerable at a particular time in their life.  We work with them to reach their full potential.


Zen:                   So in my understanding, you work a lot with migration and refugee, and also you work with different stakeholders as well.  Would you like to give us some tips or your approaches, the things that you have learnt, or some things that haven’t worked when you are working with them or supporting them in some way?


Sonia :               Absolutely.  So we do work with, as I mentioned earlier, with community members, government, as well as other stakeholders and service providers.  So there is similar approaches but there is some differences in how we actually engage or how we communicate with those particular stakeholders.  We deliver services to refugees through settlement, disability programs, youth programs, social enterprise, entrepreneurship, employment.  So we’ve got a varied pool of stakeholders that we work with.  So the approach is we need to be empathetic, we need to listen, we need to see what individuals needs and wants are, and aspirations.  Then we work towards achieving that goal together with them.  We work from a skills based approach, rather than telling people what to do.  We actually work with individuals and see what they actually want and take that approach.  With some individuals it might take a bit longer, depending on their life experience, what trauma and torture they’ve been exposed to, their migration journey.  So there’s a lot of variables that need to be taken into consideration when you’re working with newly arrived migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.


John:                  Sonia , if I can just be a bit of a jargon-buster, which means you just used lots of great words but I just want to go back to one word you mentioned around empathy.  So let’s just unpack, I know we all talk about empathy, what’s it mean to you?  What does empathy look like?


Sonia :               Well to me it means how do you actually talk to someone and find out genuinely where they’re placed, what their interests are and what their thinking is.  What does a certain situation mean to that individual?  And everyone actually approaches things differently and responds differently.  So it is about really taking time, listening to them, genuinely and actively listening, and trying to read their body language.  If they’re emotive or not.  Just because they’re not emotive doesn’t mean that it’s actually having a difficult impact on them personally.  So it is very much being there in a moment where you are wanting to support them through a particular situation or issue.


John:                  If you know you’re going to meet with someone from a different country, a different culture, are you ever inclined to go and do a little bit of research about that country or the culture?


Sonia :               Oh absolutely.


John:                  That then helps you to communicate?


Sonia :               Absolutely.  All the time.  So we’re working with diverse communities and it is absolutely crucial to find out a little bit more about the cultural practices of that particular country, of that particular individual in order to be able to respond more effectively, to be more compassionate.  Also important to ensure that you are reacting and responding in a culturally sensitive way.  So we’ve all got our own biases, stereotypes, nuances.  So it is about preparing yourself in talking to that individual and engaging with that individual in the most appropriate way. 


                          So for example, something that I learnt and I was conscious of in my earlier days when I was a younger case worker, I was dealing with an individual where he didn’t understand what I was saying.  So I automatically started raising my voice, thinking “okay, if I speak louder that means he may understand me”.  Then a little voice inside me sort of went, “hang on a minute, it’s not that he can’t hear you, he can’t understand you”.  So it’s about being conscious of that, expressing yourself with basic language skills, speaking a bit slower and ensuring that the person you are talking to actually understands what you’re saying and what you’re suggesting.  How to actually work effectively with that individual. 


John:                  Zen, you may remember where we’ve done past workshops with Empower Your English, the importance of doing research, even when going for a job.


Zen:                   Yes, that is very important.  And also, myself.  My background is from Hong Kong as well, so I totally agree with Sonia , that plain English or the basic English is very important to build up the rapport with the person.  That one is a really great approach to [00:07:39.2] with them.  And also touch on the skill, you used the skill base empowerment or encouragement when you work with your clients or stakeholders before.  How does is that approach beneficial to the person?


Sonia :               Well you need to develop relationships with all your stakeholders in order to have the best possible outcome for your clients, or the community that you’re serving.  So having a trusting relationship, building rapport with the individual.  Going back to you, John, when you said, “you used jargon”.  Absolutely.  So being conscious of not using jargon with individuals that might not understand the concepts within our cultural context, within an Australian context.


John:                  Because even jargon, what does jargon mean? 


Sonia :               Exactly.


John:                  We’re using it now in this conversation and people say, “okay, what’s jargon?”


Sonia :               Or using acronyms, I suppose.


John:                  What’s an acronym?  ABC, PR, all that.  So this is where you always be mindful about, jargon is basically something that doesn’t make sense to everybody.


Sonia :               Absolutely.


John:                  So why aren’t we coming back to the basics?  Yes, no, I’m happy, I’m sad.


Sonia :               Well that makes sense.  I think humans are complex individuals so we do naturally go down that pathway, which we need to be a bit more mindful of when we’re communicating with stakeholder professionals as well.  Just because they’re a professional working in a particular industry doesn’t necessarily mean that they understand your industry or the work that we’re actually doing with our cohorts as well.  So it’s being really mindful of that and building rapport, building relationships is absolutely crucial.  How do you do that?  You spend time with individuals.  Going back to the basics.  Being polite, being understanding, giving people an opportunity to speak out, just so people actually understand who you are and where you’re coming from will actually embrace and from my experience, has enabled me to build some really strong relationships.  I give time, I put in a lot of emphasis on relationships because I think it’s absolutely crucial in order to have a well-oiled program or machinery and response for helping our people.  So as I said already, I think it’s really crucial to actually have those strong relationships with individuals to be able to respond to the needs of our communities, or respond to the program that you’re wanting to achieve as well.


John:                  Zen, we often talk about feelings and I think after a conversation, you might have passed on a bit of advice or told some good news or bad news, to follow up say, “how are you feeling about that?”  Have a pause.  Allow the body language to step in.  These, once again you’ve said Sonia , these are basic stuffs but we do forget to say “how are you feeling right now about what’s happened?”


Sonia :               And sometimes you might actually, someone will respond using their body language, their hands, as I do a lot of the time, but other times people may not respond and then you need to look at, did they understand me, how do I actually reframe the question, how do I re-engage with this conversation?  Just ensure that the person that I’m speaking to understands where I’m going as well.  So there’s all these techniques that you need to apply in order to really ensure that what you're trying to communicate is actually received by the end user, or the person that we’re actually talking to.


John:                  For sure.


Zen:                   Sonia , do you have any experience that you are talking with the person, maybe based on some sensitive topics?  I guess that you may find that challenging.  How do you use the language or your communication to touch on that topic?  Would you like to tell us more about in that situation or in that environment, how do you modify your communication style or uphold your techniques?


John:                  And perhaps if I can just add to that, Zen.  Give an example, if you can, on a type of sensitive topic, just because I think it’s nice to hear your approach.


Sonia :               So when it becomes a personal sensitive topic it is quite challenging to communicate that and try and do it in a sensitive way so you’re not hurting or harming that person even further.  Where I have been able to do that is where I’ve developed strong relationships and trust and rapport with clients.  So when I was working with clients I was working with the refugee communities that were coming from war torn countries.  A lot of them have experienced torture and trauma, and then they’ve come to a new country where they’ve needed to integrate, adapt, acculturate to the Australian way of life.  But at the same time dealing with their trauma, their survivor guilt, they’ve left family back home, they need to establish themselves in Australia, they need to potentially provide financial support to people that are left in third world countries of refuge.  So in those circumstances where I’ve been able to approach some of those sensitive topics it has been not in the initial engagement with the client.  So initially it has been on a more of a practical response.  So the Maslow hierarchy; making sure that there’s …


John:                  Whoa.  What’s that?


Sonia :               Maslow hierarchy.  [laugh]


John:                  Jargon, jargon.


Sonia :               Food, shelter, basic protection needs are in place.  And then when they’ve actually seen that you’ve provided these practical solutions and practical supports, the relationship has been built and you have more of a trust with the individual and then you’ve been able to ask the question, the sensitive question to them.  And I have had the experience that I’ve been able to have the individual respond to me and unpack those situations a bit further.  Some of the issues have been around their experiences in concentration camps, for example.  Or women that have been in family violence situations.  So it has been quite traumatic experiences that people have been able to tell their deepest secrets or things that have been hurting them to an individual.  But that takes time.  It can’t happen – it can’t be scripted, it can’t be happening here and now.  You need to take a long time and engage with the individual to see are they ready to have that conversation and how do you actually broach that conversation with them.  Going back to how they’re engaging; their body language, their emotional reactions to the conversations and the questions that you’re posing to them.


John:                  We were talking about language.  People will sometimes just do their head nod to say “I know what you’re saying but I’m not actually understanding every word”.  Could I suggest that’s also a bit of a skill to reinforce that they are understanding?  Because people can be quite proud, not to want to have to say “I don’t understand, would you please repeat that”.


Sonia :               Yes.  And I mean there’s strategies that we can apply as well.  So you can do reframing.


John:                  Reframing means?


Sonia :               Going back to the individual and asking them.  What did they have as takeaways from the conversation.  Is there anything else that they want to add to what you were actually just talking to them about.  So it is about a two-way conversation.  It’s not just someone talking at the other person but it’s having that genuine conversation, and going back to your research, understanding cultural nuances.  So with some cultures you don’t look at people in the eyes of the opposite gender.  Being aware of those things also assists in your analysis and whether that individual actually understands what you’re saying.


Zen:                   I have heard from your conversation that actually is about a power balance as well.  When we build up the relationship with each other and they will be equal.  Like the person may feel more empowered themselves and then open their heart or open their mind to share their stories.


Sonia :               Absolutely.  But then that’s true, but in the same vein, you do try to ensure that there’s as much as possible an equal balance but at the end of the day if someone’s coming to us, for example to our organisation or to myself, I’m still in a position of power, given that I’m a service provider and someone is coming to me for help.  So it’s how do you actually manage that is really crucial, and it has to be respectful.  But it is a challenging environment that you need to be working in and ensuring that it is respectful and not elitist, I suppose, as well.


John:                  Elitist?  Please explain that.


Sonia :               Well being, feeling that you can resolve all the issues and all the problems of the individual.  I think that’s really unfair because people have got a lot of resilience.  It might be just that they’re vulnerable for a particular period at that point in time, that they are seeking some support and we just need to be acknowledging that, and working with individuals to empower them to be able to be the voice for themselves rather than having another person advocating or raising issues and concerns on their behalf.


John:                  Advocating.  An important word.  It’s a really big one isn’t it.


Sonia :               Absolutely.


John:                  Your definition of an advocate?


Sonia :               Well there’s different levels of advocacy, I suppose.  I see advocacy as raising issues and concerns to influences and decision makers, to hopefully reframe their thinking and introduce new ways of thinking and new responses to individuals that I’m supporting.  It’s a long winded way but there’s advocacies at different levels I suppose.  You can advocate at counters with government departments by supporting individuals and being a support worker with them.  But then there’s the higher level advocacy as well where you try to influence policy, law reform, because you’ve seen it broken down on the ground.  I think the role of the advocate, it also could be supporting that individual because their confidence is a little bit lower or they don’t understand the system.  They may have language barriers.  So the advocate may be from a bilingual or bicultural background, so they could actually support in raising that issue or concern and raising it to the individuals that actually have power to make changes. 


Zen:                   Some people may have self doubt [00:20:22.6] inside themselves.  Like as you said, not feeling confidence in themselves.  So how do we encourage them you think, in our language or communication?


Sonia :               I think by lowering their expectations and encouraging them to do their best.  With some people they’re so self-critical about their capability in the English language, which astounds me at times because I think, “wow you speak so well, you communicate so well in English”, but they have got such low confidence in communicating.  So where I encourage them to do that is to listen to podcasts, to do some reading, to engage in social activities where there is people not just from their own background.  So they are actually practicing their language skills, to raise their confidence.  Doing professional development activities, encouraging them to push themselves a little bit further, so that will actually increase their confidence to be able to speak out, or raise their own issues or concerns to people that they want to engage with. 


John:                  Is it fair to say, it’s always a hot topic with regards to social media and texting, and Facebook and all of that, is that making life hard for these people who are trying to become assertive, but a lot of the communication with the text?


Sonia :               I’m probably not an expert in that area.  Well I’m clearly not an expert in that area.  So you would assume there is a challenge.  Particularly if people are trying to navigate a new country, learning new language, and then you’ve got all these social norms associated with communication through social media.  But I think younger people are more inclined to embrace technology and use different forms of technology to communicate, which is a good thing.  But I do think that there’s a cohort of middle aged to older people that are further disadvantaged by our progressive and fast paced development in the IT, social media aspects.  So that’s where it’s really important to keep going back to basics.  It is always important to actually speak to someone, have that face-to‑face communication.  There could be tools that are translated in different languages, information that’s translated in different languages but the personal engagement, I am a strong believer, is absolutely crucial and these other types of tools and resources are important but you can’t take the human out of the picture.


John:                  I love those words.  Definitely so true.


Sonia :               So you’ve got, even if we do translations, for example, of important documentation or fact sheets or information, there’s massive social reform happening.  So like in the NDIS disability space, just by rolling out translated materials around fact sheets of what does NDIS mean isn’t sufficient.


John:                  And for those people listening overseas, that stands for the National Disability Insurance Scheme in Australia.


Sonia :               Thank you, John.  Again here we go, jargon.  [laugh]


John:                  Oh no.  [laugh]  We’ve got some lovely people listening around the world, to us.  So that’s a big issue for people with disabilities who is receiving that type of funding.


Sonia :               Absolutely.  And it needs to be bilingual, face-to-face, translated documents, telephone as well, engaging professional interpreters.  But having the information and resources available in different modalities is really crucial in order for people to not be left behind.


John:                  So based on your experience, there are people listening to you right now and yes, they’ve got issues with communicating and it may be English, or it may be another language, and then on top of that we’re saying, also there are times you need to become assertive.  How do you balance that?  What tips can you share with us in doing both of that?  To be your inner assertiveness, whilst you’ve only got these limited words to use.  Tough question.


Sonia :               Absolutely.  And I need to be succinct.  [laugh]


John:                  Succinct means exact.  [laugh]


Sonia :               Again, we can’t put everyone in the same boat.  So everyone is different.  So our responses need to be individual based on individual needs and aspirations.  So I am a true believer that you need to work with the individual to identify what their aspirations are, what do they want to achieve and how is the best way of getting to that end goal for them.  And that’s, I think you need to have that one-on-one relationship with individuals to be able to do that.  As well as the broader, you need to build strong trust, empathy.  You need to respond to individuals as well.  You can’t just say, “we’ll do this or we’ll do that” and not actually follow through.  So you need to ensure that you actually support that individual in achieving their outcome and close the loop for them.  How do you build that?  Positive reinforcement, giving them strategies of how to actually improve their confidence and give them strategies and tips on how to actually improve their assertiveness.  If it’s through individual one-on-one coaching, mentoring, attending some professional development training, exposing them to different environments, encouraging them to participate.  They’re all the things that I think are really important to ensure that people are feeling that they’re part of this society and can contribute to our society.


John:                  I must go back to those words, ‘follow up’.  Because I think how often do we hear that I’ve sent the email, I’ve made the phone call, I heard nothing.  So it gets back to, is it about being assertive or is it just good practice to follow up.  Give them another call.  You’re not being rude.


Sonia :               Absolutely.


John:                  You need an answer. 


Sonia :               Absolutely.  And sometimes no excuse for service providers or professionals to be a bit relaxed or not respond, that’s no excuse and I won’t condone that or encourage that.  But it is about saying it to people, to individuals that you’re working with, that it’s okay to do that follow up.  All you can do is ask the question and that’s it.  You might get, what’s the worst that can happen?  A yes or a no answer.  But at least you’ll feel like you’ve pursued that and have done everything in your power to try to get a response to what you’re needing a response to.


Zen:                   So what I heard, Sonia , is that our communication is back to the basic.  Be respectful and involve their humanity, being inclusive and also based on how do we communicate as a human being, as a person, as an individual rather than something else. 


Sonia :               And we just need to empower people.


Zen:                   Thanks Sonia , from Settlement Services International, coming to the Communicate podcast today.  This was such a great conversation and contribute your views as well.


Sonia :               Thank you.  And I want to actually thank Communicate for your drive and your innovation in developing these podcasts.  I think it’s a really good way of getting people in and to talk about experiences.  So I want to actually thank you both, Zen and John, for inviting me here today.


John:                  Thanks, Sonia .  It is important.  When Zen and I started doing this we felt that there was a need that people could listen to different people’s thoughts on what different types of empowered communication looks like.  So thank you.


Zen:                   Thank you.  See you next time.


Sonia :               See you!



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