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Collaborative Practice, Reflection, Triangles and a Commitment to Managing One’s Own Reactivity to Others

By Linda MacKay, PhD
CPNSW Member

In 2017, collaborative practice professional Shelby Timmins, discussed how interdisciplinary collaborative practice (ICP) as a team-based approach, successfully moves away from a “win/ lose adversarial mentality” to an ethical, principle-driven process in which all participants are “committed to a win/win, future-focused outcome for those involved, without involving the court” (Timmins, 2017, p. 88). Similarly, Lande (2011) in their meta-analysis of ICP research outcomes as well as the motivations of both clients and legal practitioners who commit to this way of working, found that this process produced more constructive outcomes for separating clients and their children, and “eliminated [the] stress and pain of litigation” for lawyers and clients alike (Lande, 2011, p. 262).

ICP is not without its own intellectual, emotional and psychological dynamics and tensions.

It would therefore appear to be a “no-brainer” that this way of working would be the practice of choice for lawyers and social scientists burnt-out by the demands of their often very anxious, angry and distressed clients in high-conflict family law cases. However, ICP is not without its own intellectual, emotional and psychological dynamics and tensions, albeit played out in an environment that overtly promotes a fair and equitable negotiation that will contribute to greater wellbeing outcomes for clients and their children in the long-term.

So, what, specifically are these dynamics? How predictable are they? What is problematic? As ICP practitioners, how do we recognise our contribution to a problematic dynamic despite our best intentions? How should we respond to these dynamics considering each individual collaborative professional’s multiplicity of roles in the collaborative practice process? By this I mean, how does the individual practitioner manage the conflicting tensions of

  1. their role and responsibility to their own individual ethical practice and principles,
  2. their role and responsibility to their client,
  3. their role and responsibility to their legal, financial or social scientist colleague who is working for the “other” client(s) or child or children of the client(s), and
  4. their role and responsibility towards the ICP team as a whole?

So, let’s think about what happens when there is a threat to the harmony of a relationship. In the face of escalating unresolved disagreement and conflict, heightened stress responses activate the fight/flight neurobiological system in each of us. When we think we are not understood or validated, feel betrayed or cheated, feel unappreciated, feel as though we are not given enough attention and time and experience a host of other negative emotional responses, all of us quickly move into adaptive, “knee-jerk” responses, which function to alleviate the short-term stress we are experiencing. According to natural systems theory, these behaviours include (but are not limited to)
attack, defend, withdraw, accommodate, cut-off and triangling moves that increase in intensity the greater the amount of stress we are experiencing (Bowen, 1978; Kerr & Bowen, 1988). The degree to which we succumb to the pressure to behave in these less than thoughtful ways depend on our ability to act with greater emotional intelligence or maturity when we are trying to manage that stress.

Even the most emotionally intelligent ICP professionals will struggle to manage their own reactivity with angry, distressed clients and colleagues they perceive to be “no longer working collaboratively(!)”. Typical automatic responses include over-explaining the ICP process, trying to convince the clients that ICP is the best way, becoming too helpful, collapsing professional boundaries (e.g. taking additional in-between contact calls, answering emails on days off, “squeezing clients in” when other work and commitments suffer, not charging for work completed), reverting to a more adversarial approach despite the practitioner’s best intentions, covertly siding with a colleague against another colleague, staying silent on an important principle so as not to upset a colleague with whom you disagree, but whom you also respect, and “hanging in” with the collaboration when all evidence points to the need to cease the process.

In ICP, it is predictable that practitioners will be invited to triangle with a partner against the other.

Relationship immaturity (in self, client(s), colleague, or team) is expressed in efforts to change the other(s), criticism, contempt, stone-walling, defensiveness, withdrawal, helplessness, “saving” or rescuing, side-taking and/or irresponsibility. Its team nature will predictably evoke an instinctual response to triangle, that is, to move towards a third party when there is tension between a dyad. Person A will complain about Person B to Person C – a child, a mother-in-law, a lawyer, a social scientist. This move will temporarily reduce the discomfort in Person A (“I feel better after talking to you!”) whilst Person C may find themselves experiencing feelings of threat, anxiety, tension or even animosity towards Person B, which may manifest itself in overt or covert ways. This threat does not usually belong between Person B and Person C. It merely is a manifestation of the conflict between Person A and Person B that has spilled over to Person C.

In ICP, it is predictable that practitioners will be invited to triangle with a partner against the other. It is predictable that a practitioner will be invited to triangle with a partner against another member or the ICP team, particularly if triangling continues to be a major defensive pattern to manage conflict within the separated couple’s relationship. It is predictable that the more anxious the collaborative process, the greater the risk of anxiety “infecting” more collaborative team members (we are relational beings after all!). The greater the transfer of anxiety to more team members, the greater the chance behaviour will be less thoughtful, more reactive, less grounded in factual observations, and more susceptible to “group-think”.

A commitment to collaborative practice is a commitment to managing the tensions of the above responses and reducing the automatic pull to act from a less evolved part of the brain when there is a high level of physiological arousal. It involves more thinking brain – to keep the frontal lobes on line, as far as possible, so actions can be guided by one’s ethics and principles rather than by one’s reactivity. Collaborative practice, therefore, is not for the faint-hearted. Whilst it works to indeed reduce the pain and distress of litigation, it takes sustained and sometimes painful effort to maintain the courage, commitment, and willingness necessary to continue to work on the self of the ICP practitioner.

Linda MacKay PhD has degrees and qualifications in counselling, couple and family therapy, university teaching and a PhD in Critical Psychology (UWS). She currently is the consultant supervisor of child, youth and adult mental health units across Sydney and provides reflective practice to interdisciplinary collaborative practice family law teams. She is Co-Director of The Family Systems Institute based in Neutral Bay. Linda is also a lecturer in the undergraduate and Master’s program in Counselling at the University of Notre Dame Australia. Her research interests include Bowen natural systems theory perspectives on stress, functioning and outcomes in anxious families and organisations. Linda’s experience in change management and executive coaching assists business leaders to manage and function better under stress to maximum personal and team functioning.


Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Aronson.

Kerr, M., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation. New York: Norton.

Lande, J. (2011). An empirical analysis of collaborative practice. Family Court Review, 49(2), 257-281. doi:10.1111/j.1744-1617.2011.01369.

Timmins, S. (2017). Family law: Thinking outside the box: Collaborative practice in family law [online]. LSJ: Law Society of NSW Journal, (31), 88-89. Retrieved from: http://search.informit.com.au.ipacez.nd.edu.au/documentSummary;dn=67238784504900
2;res=IELAPA ISSN: 2203-8906