Being a fan of circumlocution, I always point out first that safety considerations and client preference, comfort level and accessibility to technology are the key cornerstones of our distance mediation service. If safety concerns dictate, or clients wish to use – or only have access to – phone, e-mail, a dedicated online mediation platform or other technology, our distance mediators will work with these.
Custom tailoring aside, however, our service has been leaning towards the use of computer-based videoconferencing platforms to conduct mediations. Most of our mediation team members have expressed a liking for these platforms, particularly the ones that have multipoint video (where more than one person can be seen on-screen at any given time), document sharing and editing, and text chat capabilities. Their reasons boil down to one basic point: Compared to other technologies, it is videoconferencing which most closely emulates the advantages that accompany “real life”, face-to-face mediation.
Here are six of the ways it does this:
1. Videoconferencing makes a range of cues available: Of all the “distance” technologies available, videoconferencing platforms seem to have the potential of giving the mediator the greatest range of cues, including visual, verbal and text-based ones. Its visual cues seem most valued by the mediators on our team. The ability to read and convey body language is more limited than in face-to-face mediation but is still a strong suit of videoconferencing. Being able to see the clients’ eyes, the expressions on their faces, how they are using their hands, the glass one of them may be drinking out of (whoa…what is that stuff being imbibed?): these all assist the mediator in reading the clients in a way that simply can’t be done with voice or text alone. Combine these visual cues with the verbal ones received via the audio of these platforms, and you have what some mediators on our team have described as “feeling like you are in the same room together”.
2. The mediator can share and edit documents real time: Many of today’s videoconferencing platforms allow the mediator to “pull up” a document on their own computer which they can then show to clients on the computers they are sitting in front of. The Agreement to Mediate, for instance, can be shared real time this way, allowing clients to follow along and see the clauses being explained by the mediator. Particularly valued by our team is the ability to do work jointly with the clients, during the mediation session itself, whether it is editing of documents or using specialized software they have on their computers. For example, DIVORCEmate can be shared with clients so that they can see, on their own computer screens, the mediator entering data into the program’s information fields. Not only is this an efficient use of the mediator’s time, but it also makes the exchange of information more meaningful, engages the clients directly in the process and encourages them to work together. As a bonus, the ability to work on documents during the mediation session gives clients a tangible focus for their discussions – one which is outside of themselves.
3. Clients can communicate immediately and privately with the mediator: The text chat that typically accompanies computer-based videoconferencing platforms can often be set to specify or limit the recipients of the text messages. For example, the mediator can set the chat so that clients can send messages to him/her only. This is a particularly helpful feature in cases where the mediator is concerned about maintaining a safe and respectful environment. By limiting the chat this way, clients can privately – and immediately – let the mediator know if they are feeling uncomfortable, unsafe, if they feel rushed or don’t want to say something in front of the other client. One of our team members has pointed out that, “Clients know when a shot is being taken at them by their ex-spouse, which a mediator might miss because s/he is not privy to the subtle messages between them. The ability for clients to text the mediator privately, to say there is an unhealthy communication taking place, makes the chat an excellent tool.”
4. Clients are not separated: Our team believes that in cases where a long-term relationship between the clients is important – for instance, when children are involved – it is usually valuable for the clients to attend mediation together. Unlike some asynchronous, text-based technologies in which clients may never interact real-time or directly with each other, videoconferencing brings them together with one another, albeit from a distance. This allows the mediator to help clients learn how to communicate more effectively and, hopefully, to develop the type of healthy relationship which will most benefit the children.
5. The mediator doesn’t do all “the work”: With some of the asynchronous, text-based technologies where clients do not have direct contact with one another, their communications flow entirely through the mediator who then also acts as the carrier (and sometimes reframer) of information. The result is, in essence, a shuttle process in which the mediator may do much of “the work”. Because videoconferencing is real time, with clients attending the mediation together, it allows them to articulate and personally convey their own thoughts, wishes, concerns and information. Clients, by engaging in the process directly – by doing the work required to craft their agreement themselves – potentially have more ownership over the final outcome of the mediation, improving the odds of compliance and durability of the agreement.
6. It suits the verbal communication style: Allowing for verbal expression is another area where videoconferencing shines. The complex background, emotions, finances, children’s needs and other details that characterize many family split-ups can be difficult for some clients to describe using text, even when education or inclination is not usually an impediment for them. For these clients – as well as for those who are most comfortable and naturally adept at expressing themselves verbally – videoconferencing, with its ever-improving audio capabilities, can be particularly suitable.
Like most things in life, of course, nothing is perfect, including the use of videoconferencing for mediation. The wonderful advantages these platforms bring to some situations are clearly disadvantages in others. Videoconferencing also comes with its own inherent disadvantages, compared to other technology options.
If you keep an eye out, you’ll see one of my upcoming postings where I’ll give the rundown on some of the cons of using videoconferencing to conduct mediations from a distance.