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Designing for the Intensity of Online Mediation

The rapid shift to the greatest use of video conferencing technology has occurred, but how are we adapting ourselves and our mediations?  Thoughtful design of remote mediation and dispute resolution that addresses the often difficult barriers that can occur, is important to provide the opportunity for agreements to form.  The often unknown cognitive toll that the increasingly remote landscape can have, can be addressed by adaptation support from the mediator.  Relatively simple adjustments to remote mediation can result in a higher likelihood of outcomes that would have likely occurred during face to face mediation.

Designing for the Intensity of Online Mediation

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world of mediation has rushed into a near fully remote and online experience for parties.  Online mediation has been occurring in some form since the early 1990’s (Katsh, “ODR: A Look at History”) however the current world politics combined with shifting societal norms, has increased the demand and necessity to engage in the remote mediation option.  During recent online mediation of property disputes, I took away several observations that parties and myself displayed.  These included, difficulty maintaining continuity of conversation, unwillingness to invest time to develop thoroughly vetted mediation agreements, and overriding unease with remote mediation versus in person.  Recent articles on Mediate.Com reinforce some of these observations, and provide options for improving the remote mediation process (Laporta, 5/17/20; Matteucci 5/22/20; Bergman 6/4/2020).

The rapid shift in the mediation environment is leading to several known and an increasing amount of unknown consequences that need to be understood and navigated by online mediators, throughout the world.  The near fully web based conferencing shift is a mass experiment as summarized in a recent National Geographic:

“The unprecedented explosion of their use in response to the pandemic has launched an unofficial social experiment, showing at a population scale what’s always been true: virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain”.(National Geographic, April 24th 2020)

The necessity for an immediate shift to a fully remote mediation environment has allowed for the continuance of providing vital mediation services to a range of participants, however the consequences on parties must be addressed.  The technological hurdles are numerous with leading online mediation applications such as Zoom TM, Cisco WebEx TM, and GoToMeeting TM each having inherent complexity and suitability for mediator and parties (Alt, 5/9/2020).  With focus on technological opportunism, the emotional impacts for all participants can be overlooked:

“The video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. It is the distress that every time you see someone online, such as your colleagues, that reminds you we should really be in the workplace together,” he says. “What I'm finding is, we’re all exhausted; It doesn't matter whether they are introverts or extroverts. We are experiencing the same disruption of the familiar context during the pandemic.”(BBC, April 22nd 2020)

The intensity of online mediation and the related impacts on mediator and parties’ ability to develop successful outcomes, will often hinge on the mediator’s ability to alleviate online mediation fatigue.  There are several ways to begin this process including:

  • Limit video calls to those that are necessary.  In many cases, phone calls or document sharing are still optimal and reduce the on-screen burdens previously summarized.
  • Turning on the camera should be optional.  There is an implicit requirement that all parties see each other, however this is not a requirement and may be a negative experience for some participants that can be eliminated.
  • Having your screen off to the side, instead of straight ahead, could also help us as mediator’s and the participant’s concentration.  This allows for the ability to look away for a reprieve and brief mental rest.
  • Sharing files with clear notes may be a better option that avoids information overload.  This can be completed before, during, or after mediation sessions.
  • Take time during meetings to catch up before diving into business.  This is an important component of building a shared level of trust and rapport. 
  • Build transition periods in between video meetings – boundaries and transitions are important.

Given this information, designing online mediations to be presented in succinct 15 to 20 minute blocks separated by break points can help inform and hopefully enhance the mass online mediation currently occurring.

References Cited:

Mediate.Com newsletter articles March-June 2020  (Alt, 5/9/2020)


Adam Stebbins

Adam Stebbins (B.A. Biology, B.A. Environmental Science, Professional Science Masters, M.S. Environmental Science) is the principal and owner of Stebbins Optimal Solutions.  The SOS approach is built on over 15 years of experience dealing with diverse and complex projects.  SOS provides facilitation, mediation, and project management consulting services to private, non-profit,… MORE >

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