Article by Andrew Taylor – 01 March 2020
The online process emerges
As I write, our service provision of online mediation as an alternative to face-to-face mediation has become mainstream. There are some who think it will remain more important than in the past because we shall all become more used to using meeting software.
This page is intended to provide a few ideas of how we might manage online mediation together. I may make a few recommendations but there are no rules. When you instruct me to help you to settle your dispute, I will do so in whatever way best suits you. I can do no more than suggest areas for consideration which I can accommodate.
Some of the points I make are more important in a negotiation relating to one type of dispute than another, so please do not assume that every comment I make will apply to you.
The absolute minimal requirement for even the most simple mediation, is a telephone. However, I do not try to conduct a mediation through conference calls. The telephone must be reserved for one-to-one calls only. If you have a very simple situation then I may well accept your instruction to help, based on time set aside for a period of solid calls between first one of you and then the other.
If we are to operate with anything more sophisticated than a telephone then the next most important item is a reliable Internet connection. If yours is not 100% reliable then we may be able to get by, by disconnecting the video link and using voice only. It is not a good idea to ask me to help unless you are certain that your Internet connection is adequate. As far as I’m aware, a simple medium like Skype can be used through at least 95% of the UK, so this is unlikely to be an issue for us.
Next, please consider your hardware. Nearly all of us now get by with whatever comes with our laptop or phone. That might be perfectly satisfactory for dealing with family and friends – or even simple business arrangements. Please consider carefully however whether it is likely to be adequate to negotiate a situation which is already causing you enough stress and expense for you to be here, reading this article. Your conflict-party may be someone not well known to you. Alternatively he/she might bring a solicitor or other person. Not everyone speaks clearly. It is unlikely that you are used to hearing accents from all over the UK, let alone further afield.
Specifically, I recommend that you should not use a mobile. If you rely on your laptop, you need to be sure that the microphone and speaker is absolutely reliable. In my experience, by far the best preference is that we should use higher quality hardware, particularly for audio. A pair of good quality headphones with microphone incorporated, will beat most laptops any day.
However, if you do not wish to look like a zombie from a science fiction movie, you could still use a desktop microphone and speakers – but maybe try to avoid speakers you have been using since you first bought a desktop 20 years ago.
I shall use GoToMeeting. It is extremely simple to engage and I think it is more secure than some of the others. There is an excellent instruction on YouTube at Attendee https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ojl1q_sPrP0. If you have a real problem with that then we can try Skype
How we are
If your conflict party were to appear at the mediation meeting sitting at his breakfast table trying to persuade a four year old to finish his serial before shooting off to nursery, you may not be very impressed. You may even be irritated. The usual total informality prevailing at Internet meetings may therefore be inappropriate to a business meeting.
On the other hand, one of the specific advantages of online mediation is the flexibility which could enable you to manage inevitable disturbances without excessive interruption to the process. If you are in a position where interruptions are inevitable, please make this clear to both your conflict-party and to me. If your conflict party is aware of your situation then he/she has the option to discuss some other time with you or even to help you to make appropriate re-arrangements.
To present yourself at your best in terms of how you want to appear to your conflict party and to the Mediator, it is worth considering small points like trialling how far your face should be from your camera and how much of your body should appear on the screen of the other parties. You will probably not be familiar with these considerations but if you just play around with the possibilities, you will understand that it is worth getting right.
Associated with camera work is body language. If you like to use your hands expressively, why not make sure they are seen by the camera? If you have an unavoidable habit of twiddling with your hair or pulling at an earlobe, I shall not mind all, but it will be more obvious if all I can see is your face.
I shall not be enthusiastic if you set your camera in such a way that you are peering out of my screen aggressively, nor is it conducive to your getting your own way if your conflict party can see only the top of your head while you watch the screen at a lower level than where your camera is located.
It is even more uncomfortable to maintain your body in a position which is constantly in the appropriate view of your camera, then sitting in the same chair for four hours in a meeting room. The general term “comfort break” will, for once, the bear its precise meaning.
Traditional face-to-face mediation requires that the mediator should shuttle between the participants. My position on this in an online mediation is to accommodate the process in as near as possible the same way. If you wish, you can refer to the full explanation of what happens on the day. The simple point I want to make here is that I shall actually close down the software whilst I move between the participants by simple phone calls.
I hope you’re not offended by these suggestions. None are critically important, but they are points you might not have considered without my mention. For my part, I have no objection whatever to your strange or wonderful surroundings or even to the proposition that you will be feeding your grandmother or your newborn while the mediation negotiations continue.