Computer screens buzzing with distraction.
Background noise. Fidgeting with camera angles. Bad lighting, echos and muffled voices. Now add strangers in the background, waiting rooms, unreliable internet connections. Mediators, hold on to your seatbelts; we have a few new hurdles to navigate!
I recently engaged in a Zoom mediation practice with a dedicated group from the Harvard Mediation Program. All of us have mediated conflicts in person, and many by phone, but the use of video conferencing platforms is a whole different story. It takes practice, even by the best in the field. And, because clients expect outstanding service with each and every mediation, professionals must prioritize extra preparation, practice and anticipation of unforeseen complications.
Why This is Important
Virtual Mediation is a game changer. Despite its challenges, it is convenient. Single parents, those without reliable transportation, and employees who can’t get time off work can all access mediation in a much easier way. When technology is available, the virtual world provides more equitable opportunities to a much wider population. It is about time that mediation, a tool that builds bridges, is more accessible and mainstream.
Despite initial awkwardness, many feel an increased level of safety in front of a computer screen. Conflict resolution is hard. Being in the same room as a perceived “adversary” can be intimidating. Parties may be less concerned about power dynamics when they are in their own, familiar space. Virtual conflict resolution opens up a whole new world to those who tend to avoid face-to-face discord.
The inclusion of language interpreters, experts and advocates in sessions grows with virtual mediation. Remote meetings seem more convenient than in-person gatherings.
With greater flexibility, more people recognize that mediation is a very strong contender to litigation. And, during these contentious times, a shift that promotes more cooperation and healing is certainly welcomed.
An example of this cultural shift can be found in India. On January 6, 2020, the Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan announced the publication of an E-Magazine, E-Mediation Writings, a tool to share wisdom from mediation experts world-wide. According to a January 19, 2020 article of the Economic Times, an Indian English-language business-focused daily newspaper, Supreme Court Forms Committee to Draft Mediation Law, Will Send to Government, “the Supreme Court has, through a unique step, set up a panel to firm up a draft legislation to give legal sanctity to disputes settled through mediation.”1
India’s renewed interest in mediation is partially energized by the lack of mobility caused by Covid-19. Conflict resolution can thrive through virtual mediation, even in a pandemic! Virtual mediation is an increasingly sought-after mode of dispute resolution. Passionate facilitators are grateful for this powerful opportunity to show the world what mediation is made of. It is important, therefore, that across airwaves, monitors and screens, facilitators approach each session with professionalism and excellence.
Tips for Virtual Mediation: Video-Conferencing Style!
The following guidelines are based on collaboration with other mediators and on my virtual work with schools and families:
I. Lay the Groundwork:
- A strong internet connection is critical. It is recommended that all parties have a backup way to call in (such as a phone), in case of technological issues.
- Facilitators should discourage distractions, such as background noise, pets or food, at the start of the session. Participants should, therefore, switch their phones to airplane or Do Not Disturb mode.
- Anyone in the same room as the client must announce themselves. Have the signature tool readily accessible for all unexpected parties to sign the Attendance Record.
- To ensure confidentiality, prohibit screenshots, note-taking and recording of the meeting. Virtual whiteboards are an excellent, transparent tool for sharing information. Encourage participants to ask permission to jot down small “to do” items, if necessary.
II. Take Time To Organize:
Facilitators need to be extra prepared for virtual sessions. Participants may find it unsettling when they can’t see what is going on. When the mediator gets up to get water or to find pens or a calculator, the flow is interrupted. With solid facilitator preparation and mastery of whiteboards, separate meeting rooms, documents and signature tools, participants develop greater trust in the process.
III. Make the Start of the Meeting Welcoming:
- Invite parties to click on the Participants button and hover over their name to rename themselves if desired. Parties then feel heard and empowered from the start.
- Acknowledge any awkwardness. Virtual tools are still new for many people; it takes some time getting used to engaging in meaningful dialogue while talking at a screen. Keep in mind that participants have less opportunity to read body language; it is more important now than ever to slow down and clarify feelings, uncertainties and intent.
- Keep the agenda and ground rules posted throughout the session to ground clients in the virtual space.
- Encourage questions, sharing about technological problems and requests for breaks. Virtual conferencing is about teamwork, and all members should feel safe and cared for.
- Prepare clients for time they might spend alone in a waiting room. When first in this space, they may feel a bit shut off from the process. Let them know that this feeling is natural and give them a sense of how long the wait time will be. Do your best to keep the time at 15 minutes maximum, or be sure to check in with them if the time is longer. Teach them how to use the chat function to reach out to you if they have a question or concern.
IV. Be Flexible:
Above all, facilitators must be flexible. No matter how prepared, you never know what is around the corner! And, that is ok. Mediation mirrors real life. It can be messy. Sometimes, this messiness creates a vulnerability that leads to greater understanding and change.
One rainy day, I facilitated a mediation between a mother and a superintendent. One agenda item was the school’s treatment of her daughter, and the history behind this was quite complicated. I had set up the mediation beautifully. Everyone knew to keep distractions to a minimum, including having no one else in the room.
Ten minutes late, the mother entered the Zoom room from her car with her children in the back seat. Windshield wipers were on and the initial connection wasn’t great. I was especially concerned that dialogue would be restricted by what was appropriate to say in front of the kids. I thought about rescheduling, and I am glad I didn’t.
The flexibility shown by all parties seemed to instantly unite us. We worked together to handle the unforeseen circumstances, and the patience shown by the superintendent created a feeling of ease for the mom. This positive tone set the stage for very open and productive engagement.
Enjoy the Space!
So, mediators, remember to lay the groundwork, take time to organize, make the start of every meeting welcoming and, by all means, be flexible! Then, enjoy the space you created to help people to move forward and heal.
Covid-19 is creating many cultural shifts with new norms. Virtual mediation is one of them. What a wonderful shift this is. Virtual mediation can and must be done right in order to keep the ball rolling in the direction of greater understanding in an increasingly complex world.
1. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/supreme-court-forms-committee-to-draft-med iation-law-will-send-to-government/articleshow/73394043.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium =text&utm_campaign=cppst
Kathleen Young, M.Ed is the founder of Young Mediation Associates. She currently serves as the Program Coordinator for the General Education Alternative Dispute Resolution Program for the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which she helped create. Young Mediation Associates LLC provides full-scale, confidential mediation services for the educational sector. They facilitate open and transformative dialog to resolve disputes in a non-adversarial manner and help shape healthy school communities and culture. Kathy is trained through Harvard Mediation Program, Mediators without Borders, NonViolent Communication and Global Youth Courts. She holds an M.Ed. in Special Education K-5 and 5-12 from Lesley University, and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston College. A lifelong learner engaged in continuous education and training, she is a tireless advocate for youth, schools, families and communities.