Time to focus on e-negotiation and e-mediation training?

Love it or hate it, communication technologies are a growing part of every professional mediator’s life these days.  Along with this growth has come an increasing interest in learning how to use these technologies competently, effectively and in a way that best meets the needs of the clients.  But, where can a mediator go to gain this knowledge, to master these skills?  Does the extensive menu of mediator training opportunities address the interest in this new area?  Should it?

Kari Boyle, Executive Director of Mediate BC Society, gives us her take on the interesting question of whether the time has come to focus on the development of training for e-negotiation and e-mediation:

Our distance family mediation service is exploring the use of technology tools in the context of family mediation.  We know from the previous phase of this service that there is significant interest in these tools and the potential to provide families with timely, convenient, accessible and effective support for their negotiation process.  Let’s fast forward six months and predict, for now, that our distance mediation service’s experiences support these assertions.  What training will be available for negotiators or mediators who wish to use these tools?  It is not too early to begin thinking ahead and planning for training programs and tools that focus specifically on e-negotiation and e-mediation.

In an interesting article, Noam Ebner of the Werner Institute for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution points out that e-negotiation, as a core skill area, continues to be relatively ignored in negotiation teaching.  Most teaching is still based on the assumption that there is a physical “table”.  Negotiators need more preparation to cope with dynamics affected by online media including conflict escalation dynamics, integrative behavior and trust.

Negotiation and mediation using technology tools builds on “traditional” skills and experience; however, they require new and expanded skills and a fundamental rethinking of some of the well worn assumptions.  The very comprehensive paper produced at the end of the previous phase of our distance mediation service details interim “practice guidelines” for e-mediation and e-mediators working with families.  It raises and discusses important questions such as how to determine whether the matter is appropriate for the use of technology tools, how to figure out which tool(s) to use (and stresses the importance of the parties and the mediator if any to be familiar with and comfortable with the tools), how to manage confidentiality issues, how to screen effectively for violence and how to manage the sessions appropriately without the benefit of body language and verbal cues.

There is no doubt that those involved in direct or facilitated negotiation of any kind using technology tools will need training and a dedication to ongoing professional development.  High quality training programs require development time and collaboration between many different stakeholder groups.  What will they look like?  Will they be offered entirely online (which makes sense given the subject matter) or is a face-to-face environment more helpful, or will some combination of the two work best?  Should these skills be taught as part of basic negotiation or mediation training or are they “advanced” programs more properly offered to trained and experienced professionals, as our distance mediation team has concluded?

These questions are posed in a bigger context as well.  As pointed out here, game theorists and computer engineers are already busy creating software that they say could replace at least some of the negotiations now done directly by lawyers and, presumably, those facilitated by mediators.  Some of these systems are already out there and some families will be seeking them out, particularly those Millennials who may look first to web for “apps” to help them resolve disputes of all kinds.  Will these services and software algorithms replace the need for professional assistance?  Not likely.  However, negotiators and mediators need to be educated about them and ready to make the case for why their services continue to offer value.

This brings us back to the need for timely and effective e-negotiation and e-mediation training!

We are fortunate in British Columbia to have educational institutions – including the Justice Institute of BC and Continuing Legal Education Society of BC, as well as three law schools – capable of developing these important programs.  Mediate BC hopes to collaborate with them to move ahead in this area and, drawing on the learnings from our distance mediation service, to jointly create training programs to meet this already present and important need.

Thank you, Kari, for your timely comments on this topic!

And now it is your turn to tell us what you think:  If you are a mediator, what would you like to see our educational institutions offer when it comes to e-negotiation and e-mediation?  If you are a client who’d like to use a distance mediator, what do you think their training should include?

Photo credit:  “Computers Original” by prasain.naik (CC license)

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