During the recent political and social upheaval it may be difficult to think about resolving disputes, but with the right preparation, online mediation can still work. This is particularly true for consumer-related issues such as faulty goods, agreeing refunds and other simple complaints that can be dealt with over the internet, phone or even by post.
However, the use of online video conferencing to mediate disputes does not remove the fundamental issues that can affect effective communication and problem solving in mediation. While online options can be an excellent choice for many cases, a face to face meeting is often preferable.
The traditional approach to face to face mediation involves parties sitting opposite one another across a table with mediators sitting on either side of the dispute. This format encourages parties to consider their underlying interests and find mutually acceptable solutions, rather than simply focusing on rigid positions. The face to face format also allows the mediator to pick up on non-verbal cues, such as body language and facial expressions, which can be a critical part of the communication process.
In addition to avoiding the distractions that can occur in long-distance discussions, face to face meetings are less susceptible to bandwidth disruptions and other technology failures, which can derail negotiations or cause frustration for participants. A face to face conversation is more likely to engender rapport and trust, allowing the mediator to build and sustain the momentum needed to reach a settlement.
The ability to see and read body language, expressions and tone of voice can help the mediator understand and interpret the emotions of the disputants. The lack of these cues can contribute to a feeling of distance, reduced empathy and a loss of trust in a virtual discussion. This can be problematic in mediation where it is important that the mediator builds a sense of trust and empathy between parties, as well as understanding the underlying issues behind their dispute.
Finally, a face to face conversation is more likely to provide the opportunity for the mediator to give clear and specific feedback, both in response to questions from the disputants and to encourage the development of an effective resolution strategy. This feedback is important because it can provide the mediator with a greater understanding of what is being communicated and how best to proceed in the mediation.