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The Dangerous Bias in Fabulous Reports

The Dangerous Bias in Fabulous Reports   © 2024 Jenni McBride McNamara, LMFT, PC Intro from Bill Eddy This month we have a great article about how to write objectively about other people’s behavior, especially for those who write reports. The article is written by Jenni McBride McNamara, who is a Marriage and Family Therapist, Parenting Consultant/Coordinator, and author. She also is a member of one of the High Conflict Family Law Consultation Groups that I facilitate for High Conflict Institute. She offered this article to our group after a discussion of report writing. We found it so helpful that we wanted to include it in our Newsletter for all of our readers, many of whom are evaluators or otherwise write reports in their work. Enjoy the insights that she shares with us! We Know This About Bias Bias can be conscious or unconscious, explicit or implicit, harmful and othering, plus just plain bad form. We also think we know this: Writing professional notes, emails, and reports conveys a lot more information when we dress up those documents a bit, throw in some concept creep, and hint at what we really mean. Those dress-up clothes, in the form of adjectives and adverbs, are the bias that lurks in our professional words, hiding among the expressions of our expertise and our highly polished abilities to analyze complex family systems. Bias exists in our reports to other professionals and to the courts. Bias exists in our emails and our notes. Bias even exists in the words I just wrote. (“Highly polished”? Says who? Just me?) Our written words can show just as many microaggressions and biases as any raised eyebrow or pasted smile. Even journalists agree. Julie Mastrine, a writer at Allsides (a media bias watch organization) writes, “Adjectives do indicate bias — even if the descriptor is not one you’d deem unfair, it indicates a viewpoint.” These viewpoints, when they can be interpreted as unfair, are what we need to try to avoid. Written Words, Evidence, Bias? In the following two examples, the same information is being shared in a family therapist’s report to a Parenting Coordinator (PC). Let’s say these notes will later inform how the PC will make decisions about parenting time. So, we’ll look at the first example, well, first, and see what we think the PC might take from it. This therapist met with Dad in my office. Dad was resistant and clearly angry with this therapist about my prior report to the PC. This therapist attempted to lighten the tension by asking questions about Dad’s recent visit with daughter, a sweet 13-year-old, but Dad’s narcissistic attitude got in the way of us having that discussion. This therapist continues to believe Dad to be highly manipulative and possibly even a danger, emotionally, to his daughter, given his unrelenting complaints about this therapist’s process and his clear unwillingness to follow recommendations. What do you notice? What kinds of words are being used? What evidence is given to support those words? Writing things like, “resistant and clearly angry” conveys the therapist’s opinion about the client, and that opinion goes something like, “This guy thinks he knows it all (resistant) and is taking it out on me (clearly angry)”. Additional phrases such as, “highly manipulative” and “possibly even a danger…” to that “sweet” daughter also convey that this therapist has little positive regard for the parent. At the end, there’s another “clear unwillingness”. Clear how? Clear to whom? We’re not sure. So, what do you suppose the PC is going to think about this dad? The opinion the PC forms from the therapist’s bias could have an impact on that father’s parenting time. Now let’s look at a version that attempts to take some bias out of the note. This therapist met with Dad in my office. Dad reported that he wasn’t sure he wanted to attend the session because “The last time I was here, it didn’t seem like you listened to me. Then you wrote that first report to the PC and I may lose some parenting time.” This therapist validated that Dad feels that way. This therapist then asked Dad, “How was your recent visit with your daughter?” Dad reported that it was “fine”, but he wanted to talk about the report and share information he hadn’t shared before. Dad reported that he disagreed with this therapist’s report because it contained “factual errors” that he wanted to have corrected. This therapist again validated Dad’s frustration and brought up the visit with his daughter in a different way to refocus the session. Dad repeated his request to discuss the errors two additional times. In the second version, the therapist writes that the client “reports” versus the therapist offering shorthand interpretations of what the Dad said or did. The therapist also used the Dad’s direct quotes to capture information, rather than using the idea of “narcissistic attitude” (with its negative, concept-creeper connotation) to convey what Dad was upset about. How likely is it, then, that the PC might form a different opinion about this father and more fairly address a parenting time question? How did YOU feel about dad from this example? Though it’s not flowery and expressive, the second version of the therapist’s notes allow the next professional up the authority chain to make decisions for a client or family based on facts and behaviors and not countertransference or assumptions. When I was teaching middle school English and creative writing back in the day, we spent a lot of time on grammar. We talked about adjectives, adverbs, and showing versus telling when we’re trying to be creative. My seventh graders got As when they could describe and enhance their stories with words that evoked the five senses or appropriately applied a figure of speech. But now, here we are, blissfully out of seventh grade (See? My bias is that I’m glad about that!). To avoid bias as much as possible, our professional reports need to be more

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