Diversity & Inclusion in Dispute Resolution

A Wet’suwet’en mediator’s perspective

Diversity & Inclusion in Dispute Resolution

As dispute resolution professionals, we bring our whole selves to our work. And yet, it is common to gloss over, or even resist, sharing aspects of ourselves in service of an often unquestioned assumption that making connections and commonalities explicit somehow interferes with one’s ability to do our work.

Recently, I was reminded of the difference it can make to create space for sharing. I was co-facilitating with three new colleagues. We started with “standard” introductions: names, roles, summary of our work experience. This didn’t make us comfortable enough to imagine easy collaboration, and so we introduced ourselves like my nation, the Wet’suwet’en, do: where did we grow up, what do we do for fun, where do we live now, who are our families? In doing so, we discovered small connections to each other that we didn’t know we had – a spouse we’d met; an event two of us had attended. Having shared and connected about who we are, we began working together much more comfortably — which made the work itself better.

That kind of exchange can happen with diversity in the room and can strengthen our ability to work together collaboratively. Part of my self can sometimes connect with a part of someone’s whole self to create that shared sense of “they get it.” “It” might be geography, remoteness, ethnicity, language, religion, ability, or sexuality, or age; what matters is that there is a sense of connection in the room. Rather than excluding, that connection invites others to also connect and assists in creating an atmosphere that makes resolving conflicts and sorting out differences much more comfortable.

That everyone doesn’t always introduce themselves this way or feel the need to develop connections/relationships was a revelation to me. The Wet’suwet’en always address the room to describe who they are and where they come from and who their clan, house, and family are. That is respectful to others, helps everyone find their place, reassures them that business will be done properly, and they are accountable for their words and actions. We seek to understand connection to each other; this is protocol.

The importance of connecting in preparing to do the work of conflict resolution is something I discuss often in working with professionals who worry that connection negatively impacts our roles in our work. I am sometimes questioned about whether I can conduct a truly neutral process when I share ethnicity with one or more parties, and sometimes I am specifically asked whether, as an Indigenous person, I can facilitate a process with Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants without bias. It is my experience that clarity of roles in a process is very possible even when we share ourselves and build connections; connecting brings comfort but does not negate our ability to carry out our roles. In fact, sharing offers protection against the hidden biases that we may not even realize we bring to our process.

As a mediator, I work to develop a relationship with all the parties in the room because as humans we seek connection to each other. My experiences show me the importance of greater diversity in our mediation rosters and ensuring that our community is informed by diverse approaches to our work. This involves thinking in different ways, examining our rules and habits, and wondering what keeps some people out of mediation practice and favours others in ways that we may not have been able to see. It includes being uncomfortable sometimes, but we ask our participants to do that in every process, and while it may not be easy, it will be worth the work. I am happy to be at the table, inviting folks to come sit beside me and help me do the work.