Last year, the ACR Hawaii pilot project Virtual Mediation Lab gained a lot of attention. Many ADR practitioners and supporters liked the idea that mediators from around the world can improve their mediation skills and learn how to mediate online — via Skype.
Now that (a) dozens of mediators have participated in more than 100 online mediation simulations of commercial, family, workplace and international cases, and (b) we have seen how much can go wrong during an online mediation session — computer crashes, power outages, internet connection outages, the parties’ video freezes, their voices break, and so on — the key question is: What did we learn?
Lesson # 1 – Online Mediators Need to Master the Software/Platform They Use
Most parties are already upset about their dispute and anxious to find out whether a mediator can indeed help them to resolve it. The last thing they need is having to deal with any technical problems. They expect their participation in an online mediation session to be easy. And therefore, they expect that, if there are any technical problems, their mediator knows exactly what to do about them.
For this reason, on January 1, 2013 we announced “Online Mediation via Skype Made Simple”, a 75-min video tutorial for mediators who know nothing (or very little) about online mediation technology. It is a step-by-step guide that covers in-depth the following topics:
• What determines the quality of a web-based video conference.
• Which software and hardware you need to run an online mediation via Skype.
• How to prevent technical problems.
• How to run an online mediation via Skype – from beginning to end. A 38-min video based on a divorce case shows you (a) how easy it is to set up and switch between joint and private sessions, and (b) how to draft online with the parties their agenda for the next online mediation session.
• The safest way to end an online mediation session.
• How to deal with the most common technical problems.
• Why, when and how to use “Screen Sharing”, a simple-to-use but powerful Skype feature that allows parties to share online virtually any kind of information (e.g. wp and pdf documents, pictures, Excel worksheets, videos, and so on) useful to present, clarify, and discuss their perspectives.
For more information on this video tutorial visit our website http://www.virtualmediationlab.com
Lesson # 2 – Mediation Skills and Experience Are Much More Important Than Online Mediation Technology
For an experienced mediator, learning how to use an online video conferencing software like Skype may take only a few hours. But for a new mediator learning how to establish rapport with the parties, gain their trust, help them to identify and prioritize their interests, to develop options, to assess realistically their alternatives, and so on may take several months, if not years. In short, online mediation, like face-to-face mediation, still requires a mediator to figure out quickly what to ask to the parties, why, when and how; what to tell (or not to tell) them; or when it is better to look a party in the eye and say nothing. No video conferencing software can make those decisions on a mediator’s behalf.
Lesson # 3 – A Mediator’s Learning Process Can Be Considerably Accelerated
During our pilot project, many mediators made huge improvements just (1) by learning from other mediators (during the debriefing sessions) which of their choices had worked well or not-so-well; and (2) by watching video recordings of the same case mediated by different mediators, using different methods and techniques.
Lesson # 4 – Mediation by Video, Phone, Email and Face-to-face Are Not Mutually Exclusive.
They are different tools in a mediator’s toolbox. And therefore, they can complement each other. Depending on each specific case (or the specific mediation stage of each case), a mediator may use any of those forms of mediation.
Lesson # 5 – Online Mediation Can Open Up New Market Opportunities
Let’s take two examples. One mediator who participated in our project used to offer mediation services to divorcing couples in a small town in Canada. Now, she offers online mediation services via Skype across the country, as well as to military couples stationed abroad. Another mediator, bilingual with a business background, now offers online mediation services for settling commercial disputes between two European countries, both famous for their archaic, inefficient, and expensive legal system.
No doubt, there is still so much we need to learn about online mediation. But with so many people already using devices (computers, laptops, tablets, smart phones) with video capabilities, the question is no longer whether online mediation is going to take root – but simply how fast.
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