by AJ Jakubowksa

In conversation with Matilda and Gil.

Psychologists are divided on the question of how we become who we are and why we behave the way we do in various situations.  For example, those who subscribe to trait theories believe that human behaviour arises from particular personality or character traits. Situationists, on the other hand, postulate that human beings react to particular situations irrespective of their unique, personal characteristics.  It is the situation which causes them to act in a given way, not what they bring to it of themselves. There are other theories. Most modern personality psychologists are interactionists, meaning that they explain human behaviour as arising out of a combination of biology, personality and situation.

The layers we accumulate over our lifetimes, layers based on our culture, upbringing, gender, age, experiences, biases, etc., make each of us very unique as individuals. While this uniqueness and variety contributes to the rich tapestry of our Planet’s population, it also poses challenges for communication, interaction and yes, resolution of disputes in the FDR context.

I recently had an opportunity to dialogue with two FDRIO members, from very diverse backgrounds, about the challenge of keeping an open mind in our FDR work and approaching those who come to us for help without judgment. In our dynamic conversations, we were able to share ideas and identify some common themes in our approaches. Matilda Kissi is a Ghanian-Canadian and a Senior Family Law Clerk. Gil Kay, an Israeli-Canadian, is known to many of us as a seasoned family law litigator but he is also no stranger to resolving disputes through dialogue and consensus.

In our exploration of this subject, each of us immediately identified “awareness” as being of preeminent importance. Simply and most fundamentally put, we need to be aware that judgment, bias and “pre-diagnosis” of a problem are all a possibility. As aptly identified by Gil, while we can never be truly free of it, it is important to recognize the possibility of judgment before reaching any conclusion. In his words: “You need to be honest with yourself as to your conclusion”. This process of questioning oneself should be dynamic and recurring, says Gil, as we approach a dispute from beginning to end. I also found very interesting Gil’s comments on the risk of pre-judging an issue, a dispute, or a person, as familiarity with the subject matter grows, as we become more and more experienced. The longer we do what we do, the more likely we are to “pre-diagnose”, meaning come to a view of a situation or a person based on our experience and not on what the situation is or what unique qualities or experiences the person before us actually presents. This could be likened to skimming an article, or reading only the first paragraphs, and concluding on the content. The remedy is staying aware, continuously aware, and remaining vigilant to the possibility of a premature conclusion. Gil and I talked about FDR work being more of an art than a science, continually refined through mindfulness of ourselves and of others.

Matilda also emphasized awareness. We talked at some length about the great value curiosity , as a quality, brings to FDR work, and the importance of asking questions, probing in an appropriate way not only to unearth information about the unique person in front of us but also to better understand their motivations and goals. Matilda talked about the importance of re-framing. She often asks parties in family law disputes: “Can you help me understand?”, “Is this what you mean?”, “Can you give me an example to better understand what you are saying?”  The questions and answers achieve a number of important goals. First, they make the questioner identify that the information gathering process is not yet concluded and that it is too early to draw any conclusions. Second, the questions signal to the person being asked that the other is genuinely interested in understanding the person, the issue and the situation. Third, the exchange may serve to put the person being asked at ease, and increase their level of confidence in the process because a genuine effort is being made to understand his or her unique circumstances.  We are back to the importance of being aware that motivation and goals may be shaped by individual experiences or cultural background, for example.

I conclude with my favourite Japanese idiom: “Ten people, ten colours”. It can be used in different contexts. For me, it serves as a constant reminder to approach family dispute resolution without judgment and with an open mind.

I thank both Matilda and Gil for their participation in this project.