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Lived experience engagement guidance for government workers

A practical guide to support you to engage with people with lived experience of family violence.

For many people in government as well as victim survivors, working together to design policy and services is new. For government workers, it can bring fear and uncertainty around managing risk and re-traumatisation. For people with lived experience, there is uncertainty around stepping into environments that can be rigid and hierarchical, managing trauma and being exposed to unfamiliar jargon, concepts, and processes. Having opportunities to contribute in ways that go beyond recounting stories and experiences is important and healing.

Family Safety Victoria (FSV) and the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council (VSAC) worked together to understand what is important for engaging with people with a lived experience of family violence. Based on these insights, FSV and VSAC co-designed practical guidance for government staff that supports them to engage with people with lived experience of family violence in a purposeful way.

The aim of this guidance is to enable reflection, build confidence and support cultural change. It provides practical advice for government staff to be sensitive to victim survivors’ trauma, as well as building on strengths and upholding agency.

The guidance includes:

  1. Personas – examples of the type of government worker who would benefit most from this guidance, and the type of person with lived experience who will engage with government.
  2. A pre-engagement tool to help government staff clarify the purpose and context of the engagement and ensure the engagement is trauma-informed and inclusive.
  3. A self-reflection tool to assist government staff to challenge their assumptions and biases so they can understand how they might unconsciously contribute to power imbalances with the people they are engaging.
  4. Advice to acknowledge and manage power dynamics.
  5. A guide to communicate effectively during engagements with people with lived experience.

Examples of the type of government worker who would benefit most from this guidance

Public service persona

  • I have been a public servant for over 10 years with experience across a range of portfolios.
  • I am used to consulting with colleagues in the community sector and across government to develop policy and write briefs for my department and for the Minister.
  • I am in a position of authority and have a lot of expertise in particular subjects, but I have a lot on my plate and don’t have much spare time during my day.
  • I know how to work within government to get my policy work approved. I often use acronyms and technical terms in my communications as my colleagues and I share and understand this language.
  • I have good intentions and I'm passionate about ending family violence.
  • I believe government has an important role in improving the family violence system.
  • I’m interested in working with people with lived experience to understand the issue and relate it back to my policy area, but I feel nervous about how to do this well. I’ve never worked directly with people with lived experience of family violence.
  • I want to know how we can work together to positively influence the family violence reforms and how we can support each other to do this.

Example of a person with lived experience engaging with government

Victim survivor persona

  • I have a lot on my plate, including managing my triggers and navigating support services.
  • If I don’t show up to the engagement, it may not be because I couldn’t be bothered. The engagement might not have felt safe or accessible. It may be that I work with multiple different organisations to make up the hours and accepted other work.
  • I want to feel like the engagement is accessible to me, which means it is ok to be vulnerable. I also want to feel like you understand that if I’m not speaking up, that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to say.
  • I find it hard to be involved if I don’t understand and I feel like the odd one out. I don’t want you to assume that I know what you’re talking about.
  • I want you to acknowledge there is a power imbalance and not make me feel privileged just to be in the room. It’s difficult when you make me feel like my lived experience isn’t good enough, I don’t belong, and I’m not valued in the same way as professionals.
  • It makes me feel like you are excluding people when you only acknowledge and validate women’s experiences of family violence. For children and young people, men, older people, LGBTIQ communities, gender diverse, non-binary people - we don’t see ourselves in this narrative.
  • Sometimes I feel like I have to share my story, which makes me uncomfortable. If I over-share, I feel very vulnerable afterwards, regret that I have said too much and need to cope with feelings of shame, guilt and blame for many days afterwards. I’m still bringing my lived experience into the work, even when I’m not sharing my story. It’s my choice whether I want to talk about it or not.
  • I have been a client of many services. They didn’t want to listen then. What makes them want to listen now? The person engaging might have been my worker and read my case file. I don’t know anything about you. It feels uncomfortable to provide feedback.
  • ‘I don’t want the voice of lived experience at the centre–I want it at the start, in the middle, infused.’

    This tool will help you to plan your engagement with people with lived experience and to do it well. It will help you to engage with people with lived experience in a way that is tailored, meaningful, inclusive and trauma aware.

    1. Understand the purpose, context and value exchange of your engagement

    People with lived experience of family violence have told us how it feels when they have participated in engagement activities that do and don’t feel purposeful and meaningful.

    ‘I had a very clear understanding of what was required of me and was given preparation time and materials ahead of engagement. It was helpful to know what I was engaging on, to feel supported, to build positive beginnings with people I’m working with.’

    ‘I want to use my experience and knowledge to make change.’

    ‘They do not consult, they only present. They believe we are just a tick box for them to use later to say ‘people with lived experience support this work.’

    ‘I feel apprehensive about becoming tokenistic or being railroaded by other priorities.’

    ‘I felt that I didn’t add much value’

    To help you to plan your engagement:

    • Define the purpose of your project: outline the problem you are trying to address, including up to two questions on which you need advice from people with lived experience.
    • Define the purpose of your engagement: clarify how your project can benefit from the expertise of people with lived experience, how it can meaningfully help inform your project purpose, and what you would like the engagement to achieve. This will help to define who you need to talk to incorporate a particular perspective in the engagement.
    • Consider the value exchange for the person with lived experience in participating in the engagement: including whether it will help with the development of skills or knowledge; networking, leadership opportunities or improving the system for future victim survivors.
    • Clarify timelines: early engagement with people with lived experience in a project’s life cycle is best practice.
    • Research previous engagements with people with lived experience: clarify how participants can build on advice to date and consider how their expectations might align with the engagement purpose.
    • Identify the negotiable and non-negotiable elements of your engagement: including what participants can influence and what has already been decided and be clear on this with participants.
    • Determine how you will close the feedback loop: provide written or verbal feedback to explain the changes made to policy design or service delivery following the advice of people with lived experience, including the rationale for advice that was not able to be accommodated.
    • Consider remuneration: ensure the remuneration process is fair and transparent and recognises people’s time and expertise.

    2. Ensure that your engagement is inclusive

    People with lived experience of family violence have told us how it feels to be included and how it feels to be excluded.

    ‘Diverse and marginalised communities are often not thought about at the start of processes. It’s almost like an afterthought –oh, we’re going to this meeting and representatives from diverse communities are going to be there and we haven’t thought about them, so let’s throw something together so we can avoid their criticism. We need to keep asking, who are we forgetting and why are we forgetting them?’

    ‘You’ve got to look after each part of the acronym LGBTQI. We are people who sit under each of those letters. And we have very different needs.’

    Everybody Matters: Inclusion and Equity Statement is the Victorian Government’s 10-year vision for a more inclusive, safe, responsive and accountable family violence system, and its principles and approach need to be considered in designing an inclusive engagement.

    To design an engagement that is inclusive and gathers information that properly reflects the range of experiences of family violence:

    • Consider how to ensure the engagement approach is inclusive for Aboriginal communities and refer to DFFH’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Safety Framework guidelines.
    • Ensure that your engagement activity includes the perspectives of diverse communities, including ways in which intersecting factors contribute to disproportionate rates and different experiences of family violence, as well as greater barriers to safety, support and justice seeking. These factors include: sex, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, language, religion, class, socioeconomic status, gender identity, ability or age.
    • Acknowledge how people from some diverse communities might have previously had challenging relationships with government that may impact on engagement, for instance criminalised women within the justice system, LGBTIQ communities with Police or children and young people with Child Protection.
    • Consider how to include the perspectives of children and young people in your engagement. This is in recognition of the critical importance of ensuring that the voices of children young people are heard so that laws, policies and services can be designed according to their needs.
    • Consider how to ensure the engagement approach is inclusive and accessible, for instance consider interpreters, accessible venues and additional support for digital engagement.
    • Acknowledge how the experience of this policy or service might be different for people from diverse communities, including work to date to ensure an inclusive and accessible approach.

    3. Use a trauma-aware engagement approach

    People with lived experience have told us that we need to approach engagements with care when we ask them to access their expertise

    ‘There are some engagement pieces you just don’t want to do. You need to be able to excuse yourself, say you don’t want to engage, without feeling like you’re letting someone down.’

    ‘As people with lived experience, we aren’t on the payroll. We are often given timelines that are difficult for us to meet. This can be because we have a lot of other things on, and sometimes it’s because the work is triggering so it might take us longer to do something.’

    ‘Engagement isn’t good when I feel rushed.... It takes time for me to come in, sink in and reflect. Rather than being asked to give, give and give.’

    ‘It is a tough gig to dip into your trauma. People don’t always appreciate what they are asking of you’.

    ‘It is easy to feel you’re failing. Why do I bother? Where is change happening? It is important for VSAC to have feedback on the work they are doing. This is what we contributed to. This is how it helped to improve that service, that program. It is easy to feel exploited or that you haven’t been heard or feel resentful.’

    Once you have decided who will be involved in your engagement, consider how you can design an engagement which seeks to make the environment feel safer for people with a lived experience of trauma.

    Prior to your engagement

    Ensure information about the engagement is provided in advance to participants. This gives people time to reflect on issues they may find difficult to talk about.

    Provide materials in as many formats as possible, considering accessibility.

    Beginning an engagement

    • Acknowledge Country
    • Acknowledge victim survivors of family violence and express an appreciation of the expertise they offer.
    • Ensure people know that participation is voluntary, they can leave at any time and should share only what they want to share.
    • Encourage people to practice self-care during the engagement and outline supports on offer.
    • Introduce all attendees and ensure they all clarify their role in the project and reason for attending.

    During an engagement

    • Do not expect participants to share experiences from their lives, but if they do choose to share personal experiences give them the room to do so. People tend to share personal experience to help illustrate a point they are making. It can on occasion compel others to share their experiences. Thank the person who has shared but be clear with the group that there is no pressure to share.
    • Let people know in advance if they will be called on to speak and then call on them by name when it is their turn to speak.
    • Ensure everyone has an opportunity to have their say; give people a choice of activities, including options for working alone, writing, small group discussions and larger group discussions, video on or off and chat options if the engagement is online.
    • Incorporate regular breaks given the nature of the discussions may bring up strong emotions.
    • Incorporate active feedback throughout the engagement by repeating what you have heard. You might do this by asking questions like, “What I heard was… have I got that right?”, “That insight will help us with…”, “Does that feel complete for you?”, “Have I missed anything?”
    • When concluding the session, clearly articulate next steps in your process and how you will close the loop.
    • Remain available following the meeting to provide opportunities for participants to talk about their experience in the meeting or to provide feedback in person.
    • Provide an option for formal debriefing.

    Closing the loop

    Outline and summarise what you heard at the engagement verbally at the end of your engagement.

    Outline key feedback items with corresponding actions that were taken as a result of your engagement. If actions were not taken, government staff will outline why. Send the template back to participants within a timeline of two weeks.

    • 'You shouldn’t ask a victim survivor to speak unless you are willing to radically listen.'

      Understanding the power and privilege you hold as an individual and as a public servant can support you to work with people with lived experience in respectful and meaningful ways.

      This tool helps you to challenge your assumptions and biases so you can understand how you might unconsciously contribute to power imbalances with the people you are engaging with.

      You do not need to share your insights from this tool with anyone, however it may be useful to discuss your reflections with another person:

      • What forms of power and privilege do you hold and exercise as an individual? (Think about: your race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, age, socio-economic class and education).
      • What forms of power and privilege do you hold and exercise as a public servant?
      • How do you think people with lived experience of family violence would perceive the power and privilege you hold?
      • Do you have any biases or assumptions about people with lived experience of family violence? How might you overcome these assumptions?
      • People with lived experience of family violence may challenge your thinking during your engagement. How will you prepare to respond to this?
    • For people working within government who are planning to engage with people with lived experience of family violence, it is important to reflect upon and address inherent power imbalances.

      Victim survivors of family violence have experienced unequal power relationships, control and dominance. It is important to ensure that any engagement with government is respectful, safe and empowering for participants.

      This tool helps you to reflect on the impact of power differences between people with lived experience, and you as a professional and public servant. It helps you to design an engagement where power is acknowledged, and victim survivors are respected and heard.

      People with lived experience of family violence have told us how it feels when they engage with people who do and don’t recognise their power.

      ‘I have had some great experiences of people who really understood the fear and cost for me. When I went to court, the judge came down and sat across the table from me and did an Acknowledgement to Country. She sat and talked with me. I broke down in tears [because I felt understood].’

      ‘My first experience in the service system was at the local police station. I was just a scared person telling the police officer I needed support and protection. The police officer just stayed behind the Perspex glass screen, listening to me. It felt so cold. I wished she had come out and sat next to me.’

      ‘Professionals introduce themselves and talk about their work and their titles, and then when I introduce myself I don’t know what to say.’

      ‘In the paper, they had biographies of presenters, photos names and a blurb about what they’d done in the past. I found this useful, and made the engagement more human, and put me at ease.’


      A helpful way to begin thinking about power dynamics, biases and assumptions is through using a Pre-Engagement Reflection Tool, which will help you embed this process into your day-to-day work.

      In planning for your engagement, you should reflect on power dynamics. Consider people’s level of influence and power in your engagement. To help you with this exercise you could think about:

      • how the engagement findings will inform outcomes, acknowledging the power of the person who makes the final decision.
      • where the engagement activity is held, noting that power imbalances can be created by holding it in a government meeting space as opposed to a neutral, community setting.
      • the accessibility of the engagement, noting that power imbalances could be created through limited digital literacy, the physical accessibility of a venue or language barriers.
      • the composition of the group attending, noting that minimising numbers and avoiding having too many government attendees is desirable: everybody who attends should have a role, such as presenting, note taking or listening to advice
      • reflect on how to choose a facilitator that will work best for their engagement and has experience in working with people with lived experience.


      In preparing for your engagement, the steps below will help you minimise the impact of any power imbalances that you have identified.

      Talk to someone who is part of or familiar with the communities you want to engage with, or consider jointly designing the engagement with a person with lived experience. Ask them what protocols shift power when working with that group, for example:

      • How they recommend acknowledging country
      • Recognising history and colonisation
      • Acknowledging lived experience of family violence, or noting when you don’t have lived experience (for instance, as a non-Aboriginal person engaging with Aboriginal communities)
      • Acknowledging and using preferred pronouns

      Think about how you plan and commence your engagement.


      • Setting up your space in a way that does not reinforce hierarchical structures, for instance if meeting in person, consider a circle if meeting in person, and if online, creating a process to ensure everyone can have their say.
      • Using plain language and effective communication [See A guide to communicate effectively during engagements with people with a lived experience of family violence].
      • Introducing yourself, asking each person to say something at the start and end of the engagement, for instance, sharing something about themselves and their interest in the engagement –to ensure everyone equally participates.
      • Government staff showing vulnerability, empathy or sharing something about themselves –to build trust and break down silos.
    • Effective communication involves being sensitive and tailored to the audience.

      People with lived experience of family violence have told us about the difference between effective and ineffective communication in the context of engaging with government staff.

      ‘When people use jargon or acronyms you don’t understand, it makes your brain stop rather than continue listening to the context.’

      ‘You needed a law degree to understand what they were talking about. I felt a bit silly because I am not educated in that type of thing.’

      ‘She didn’t push me or give me a whole lot of information at once. She provided chunks of information in small amounts. It was slow, sensitive and at my pace.’

      ‘It’s hard to be the person that stops the conversation to say, ‘I don’t understand.’


      The checklist below can assist to communicate in a sensitive and clear way.

      • Ask people how they want to receive information.
      • Keep your content and messages brief and simple, using plain English.
      • Ensure that communication is accessible for people with disabilities and follows accessibility guidelines for government communication (link here).
      • Spell out and explain any acronyms and provide an accompanying glossary of terms if technical language or acronyms cannot be avoided.
      • Be clear on how the work fits into a broader context, including existing policies.
      • If you use jargon or loaded phrases like “cultural safety” or “embedding voices of young people”, explain what this means in plain language and in the context of your work.
      • Keep any presentations simple, visual and brief.
      • Invite people to take care of themselves and mention supports on offer if conversations become difficult.
      • Be honest about what you don’t know.


      To improve clarity, sensitivity and understanding, you may want to consider:

      Informal conversation: Beginning an engagement with informal conversation can ease people into the engagement.

      Sharing: Sharing something about yourself and your professional journey may build trust and help people feel more at ease to participate and share during your engagement.

      Listening: Active listening ensures that people with lived experience feel heard and believed. Consider listening to the words participants are using and reflect them back in your communication.

      Checking for understanding: Take the burden off participants to clarify when they do not understand something by using phrases such as, “Was that clear?”, “Did you get that?”, “Do you know what I mean by this?”

      Providing choice with language: In the context of family violence, language can be interpreted differently depending on a person’s experience. Consider asking participants about the language they prefer using. For instance, “Would you prefer that I use perpetrator or person who uses violence?”, “Would you prefer that I use victim survivor or person with lived experience?

    Reviewed 02 May 2022

    Family Violence Reform

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