Can online mediation work?

Technology provides advantages to a number of different types of online mediation service.

Conference calls

The invention of the telephone enabled mediation for the first time between parties who might be miles apart.

It probably didn't work terribly well in the early days. Today it works extremely well.

With conference calling technology, all you need to do to join your mediation is to dial in to a telephone number.

Email messages

Almost everyone uses email today.

The problem is that some people check their email messages only rarely. Even if everyone is asked to check their email messages at least once a day, that is no guarantee that it will happen.

Although email messages can move at the speed of light, sometimes a thread of correspondence stretches over a couple of weeks or more.

VoIP and teleconferencing

It does not matter how far apart the parties are physically, mediation by VoIP and teleconferencing are real, practical, successful ways to negotiate, discuss and settle your disputes.

Today’s vast increase in the number of virtual meetings results from:

  • the development of better software.
  • the increase in international trade which has resulted in a wider spread of senior and middle management who have to communicate from time to time not only with their own people but with their customers and suppliers.
  • home-working. Through new law and the necessity to keep good staff, corporate policy on the extent and reasons for working from home has caused an enormous increase in the number of working hours spent away from the office and therefore requiring attendance at Internet meetings.
  • the need to reduce long-distance travel.

Face-to-face meetings have to be managed

As the technology improves we use it more and more. Nonetheless, many people regard online meetings as an inefficient use of time.

Meetings are rarely managed on the basis that one person is in charge as a leader or chairman. The prime outcome is that discussion of business that should have been covered in two hours drifts on for an entire day. People just cannot concentrate for longer than a few hours at a time.

When you are not around a table where everyone can see your every move, it is very easy to check your email or social media profiles or just catch up with other work for a few minutes here and there. As soon as one participant sees another not paying attention, he or she feels that he or she too can be excused for a temporary mental absence.

Face to face, we humans communicate, fight or cooperate. Our instincts are honed to take in and process information obtained face to face far more efficiently than information obtained in some other way.

As far as online mediation is concerned that affects not only our attention span but our willingness to share information, to cooperate, and to commit. As a result, a promise to take a particular action in a face-to-face meeting always provides a higher level of commitment than the same promise given over the telephone, or, in this case, at a virtual meeting.

Even though your mediator is likely to be an expert in assessing human nature and applying that to what each person says at a live meeting, it will be more difficult for him to empathise in a VoIP meeting than in a face-to-face meeting. You cannot judge someone’s body language if you can watch him or her only when he or she wishes to be watched.

All in all, this adds up to a situation where a virtual meeting is most useful only when the hurdles are acknowledged and covered by the preparations and management of the meeting, both in advance and on the day.

Overcoming potential problems

Latest technology

The chance of success of the event will be greatly increased if everybody has comparatively up to date hardware and software.

This may not be possible. However, the Mediator should make clear to every participant that his or her own success in achieving outcomes he or she desires will be reduced if he or she cannot take the trouble to engage with the technology. If that is not possible then neither is the meeting.

Start the mediation process outside an online meeting

If the meeting is the culmination of several weeks of discussion by email and telephone, then your online meeting will be treated as the most important part of the process and as a deadline for all other work. Whether with joy or trepidation, participants will look forward to it.

Use the telephone if the Internet fails

However, if there are problems with VoIP, a standard conference call may well be the best alternative. Telephone conference calls are not perfect either because when you can’t see someone, you cannot know whether or not he or she really has his/her mind engaged on the meeting.

Your mediator should arrange both VoIP and teleconference meetings only with a small number of people.

If a party to the mediation wants to bring a support team, that should be no problem – provided that the additional people are present in person with that party, and do not expect to be included as separate participants in the teleconference.

If the Mediator presents himself as being clearly in charge, the meeting should certainly succeed with no more than three other participants.

Dealing with documentation should just as easy in an online mediation as in a traditional live mediation. Using simple online procedures documents can be circulated by the Mediator’s office not only for a final online meeting but for the entire, earlier part of the mediation process.

The Mediator controls the meeting

There must be absolutely no doubt that the Mediator is in charge of the arrangements and particularly of the proceedings on the day.

He must not accept a failure by a participant to take a full part in the proceedings. He must engage frequently with each participant to make sure no one falls asleep or spends time reading a website.

Even though a mediator is your paid servant, his or her position gives him or her authority over the preceding. He or she can use that leadership to maintain the engagement of the participants by empathising with each and keeping them interested, amused and engaged.

Just as in a live meeting, the Mediator is in a position to put a stop to any rambling discussion by one particular participant.

On some occasions it may be that one or more participants are able to meet together face-to-face, leaving one or more others to join the meeting via the Internet. If that happens then it is essential that the Mediator is one of the people at the live meeting and that he allocates specific time to bring in the party who is online so as to make quite sure that the playing field is level. That means encouraging the distant participant to provide input specifically on the same basis as the face to face participants.

It is not only a distant participant who should be encouraged to engage with the others in the meeting. For example, the mediator will, in any event, work to maintain everyone’s interest and participation in the mediation meeting – even if it is a whole day long.

This may simply be a question of asking each person in turn whether he or she is ready for whatever stage of the event is about to unfold.

Finally, remember that telephone and online mediation really are just tools of our trade. There is no reason why an online mediation should not be interrupted, or terminated, with a conventional face-to-face meeting. In any event, a few mediators start every mediation by gathering information by telephone and email.

Simple telephone mediations

Simple mediations, like those covered by the new EU consumer-trader provisions, are dealt with exclusively by telephone. If your dispute is quite simple, and of comparatively low value, then any dispute can be mediated by telephone. However, as soon as you are involved with documents, history, detail, both you and the mediator need time to assess everything and for the mediation event to evolve in a way that may not be possible in a few phone calls.