The joy of mediating in my P.J.’s: Telephone-based mediation

If you’ve been following this blog, you likely know that our distance mediation service has been leaning towards the use of computer-based videoconferencing.  You may also know that, when they are more suitable or preferred by clients, we use other types of technologies – including the telephone.

In today’s post our distance mediation team member, the inimitable Ronald Smith, Q.C., describes his own experiences with using the telephone to conduct family mediations.  He also shares some of the interesting (and surprising!) lessons he has learned about working with this communication medium:

Ronald Smith, Q.C.

Mediators tend to be touchy-feely people.  We spend a lot of time worrying about the emotional climate in the room, power balancing, and, “Do the parties feel like they have been heard?  I mean, really heard?”

We take courses, we learn communication skills, we learn how to get beyond deadlock.  We have drilled into us that it is our responsibility – kind of like the playground supervisor at recess – to manage the emotional climate and the process in the mediation.  We are, we are told, the skilled professionals whose job is not only to get the parties to ‘yes’, but to do so in a way that they will really believe in the ‘yes’ they achieve.

And of course, all that skill requires us to be present in the room where negotiations take place.  If so much of human communication is non verbal, how can we monitor it if we are not there?  If the emotional climate becomes stormy, how do we intervene if we are not present?

So if it is suggested, as Mediate BC Society had the audacity to suggest in the second phase of its Distance Family Mediation Project (i.e., the previous phase of our current distance mediation service), that we ought to be able to mediate family disputes at a distance – and even by phone – where no one is looking at anyone, our mediators’ souls go into full rebellion.  How can you communicate when you can’t see the body language of the parties; indeed, when you can’t see the parties and you don’t even know where they are?  They might well be sitting in their living room in their P.J.’s, or less!  They may be making rude gestures, even towards the mediator.  Suppose they are drinking a beer while they talk, or suppose they aren’t even on different properties but just on different places on the same property.  More important, how do we control who is in the room?

Well, we tried the experiment, and survived with our mediators’ souls in tact.  More important, clients surveyed were generally positive about the process, even when they did not achieve resolution.

What we did:  The second phase of the Distance Family Mediation Project was designed to study whether technology-assisted mediation services could be offered safely and effectively to parties who would not otherwise have access to family mediators – specifically, to parties residing in rural, remote areas of British Columbia.  While we had high hopes for developing a web-based delivery of services, in reality, most of the parties we served did not have access to high speed Internet, or were not comfortable enough with it to use it as a communication tool.  So we ended up using telephone conference calling as our means of communication in most of the cases.

We still pre-screened for safety, and we laid down specific rules as to who could be present in the room while the call was taking place.  We assured ourselves and the parties that they would be private and safe throughout our sessions.

We then met with both parties, wherever they were, by conference call.  Often the parties were in different towns.  On one occasion they were on the same matrimonial property, but one was in the cabin and the other in the house.  In all the mediations I did, I never knew what the parties looked like.  However, when I mentioned that, they were quick to tell me they knew what I looked like, as they had gone to my website and seen my photo!

Lessons learned:  I learned some lessons in this phase of the Project about what may or may not be as important in my face-to-face mediations as I thought:

1.  We have a much stronger presence than we might imagine with only our voice.  It is important when we only have a telephone to be friendly, casual and animated.  I spent much time asking about weather, fishing, hunting, and other topics that I felt the parties would consider relevant to their particular circumstances.  It really helps to know something about the area.  For example, in late summer on the Bulkley River, fishing is king.

2.  Time goes much slower in a telephone mediation than in our office.  I think that is because the parties don’t have the feeling they are attending a court-like function, so they can take their time with the process.  Often, if I had documents that only one of the parties had, I could email them to the other party, and call back when that was done.  There was seldom a sense of loosing the momentum in that situation.

3.  Mediation sessions, because the parties saw this as more of a process than an event, were seldom more than two hours. The parties were fine with that, as they knew I would be back.

4.  It was important to create a feedback loop.  Immediately after a call, I would send an email to both parties outlining our progress, confirming the date of our next session, and confirming homework for our next session.

5.  Now, here is the surprise:  I discovered that I did not need to observe body language to control the climate on our calls.  I think one of the reasons for that was that in a matrimonial dispute, if anyone is going to trigger off of body language, it is the parties. They know every roll of the eyes, crossing of arms, and shrugging of shoulders of their spouse.  By telephone, they can’t see each other, so they need to rely on tone of voice, just like the mediator.

6.  The other interesting discovery was just how comfortable the parties were with this process.  They are used to talking to each other on the phone, so this is nothing new to them.  They are in their own homes, where they are comfortable.  A mediator’s office, no matter how hard we try to make it friendly, is a business office.  And the fact that parties have to come downtown, to an office, makes the event discomforting and formal.

In the end, both the parties and I felt that much had been accomplished by the process.

So, mediators, welcome to the future.  This is a large province.  Geographically, most of our citizens do not have access to mediation services, although they would see the need just as city folks do.  We are going to have to provide this service either by telephone or some other web-based medium.

…And, isn’t it great to know that it doesn’t matter how we look when we engage in the process.

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