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Do Parties Trust Mediators When They’re Not in the Same Room?

Just Court ADR by Susan M. Yates, Jennifer Shack, Heather Scheiwe Kulp, and Jessica Glowinski.

Trust in an experienced mediator is the same whether a mediation participant interacts with that mediator via video or face-to-face, according to recent research. Susan Nauss Exon and Soomi Lee explain their research in their article, “Building Trust Online: The Realities of Telepresence for Mediators Engaged in Online Dispute Resolution,” (Stetson Law Review, Vol 49, No. 1).

Nauss Exon and Lee’s research focused on the impact of technology on parties’ perception of the mediator as trustworthy and on their trust in the mediator. To determine what that impact might be, they undertook an experiment in which a single experienced mediator conducted 31 simulated mediations with one party in the room with him and the other interacting via telepresence. Telepresence is sophisticated video conferencing, in which sensitive microphones and special cameras that pan and zoom are used to help participants follow the flow of the conversation.

During the experiment, the participants were asked to complete a questionnaire before the mediation began that measured their level of interpersonal trust. They then completed a second questionnaire after mediation that asked them about their interactions with the mediator and their perceptions of him in order to determine how much they trusted him and found him to be trustworthy. In all, 59 participants provided usable data. These participants included 36 females and 23 males who ranged in age from 18 to upwards of 36 years and who had education levels from high school diplomas to post-graduate degrees.

Nauss Exon and Lee found that although the participants’ questionnaire responses before mediation indicated they were on average more likely to distrust others than trust them, all participants agreed mildly or strongly that they could trust the mediator and that the mediator was trustworthy. Further, they found no difference in the level of response (mild or strong) between those who were in the same room as the mediator and those who participated via telepresence, with one exception. They found that those who had a lower predisposition to trust were more likely to see the mediator as trustworthy.

The issue of trust in mediation is important as courts move toward greater use of online dispute resolution. This research points to the possibility that trust is not affected by at least some online interactions. However, as Nauss Exon and Lee note, more research needs to be done to see if their findings can be replicated in other contexts and under other circumstances. For example, would the same results apply to video mediation that uses a web cam instead of sophisticated microphones and cameras? When only text is used to communicate among parties and the mediator? Would they apply with a less experienced mediator? In the real world, rather than a simulated mediation? Hopefully, further research will answer these questions.

                        author

Jennifer Shack

Jennifer Shack is Director of Research at Resolution Systems Institute (RSI), a Chicago-based nonprofit working to improve access to justice through court alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Jennifer, who has been with RSI since 1999, is one of the foremost court ADR researchers in the field. She focuses on conducting complex… MORE >

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