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Face To Face vs. On-Line Facilitation: What To Put At The World Trade Center Site?

I was among a very few individuals who got the opportunity to facilitate the discussion in both the Javits Center Face-To- Face format and the WebLab On-Line format. This unique concordance of events allowed me to compare and contrast the Face-To-Face and On-Line Environments for almost precisely the same topical substance. In this comparison, I was especially interested in evaluating the character of the information gleaned as the process impacted it. This article will discuss the comparison of the environment with respect to 4 specific characteristics. These being as follows: 1) The Compression of “Time & Space,” 2) Expression of feelings and underlying emotions in both formats, 3) Creation of “Virtual Intimate Privacy,” 4) Quality of the information.

Very briefly, the process in the face-to-face sessions was to discuss in the classical way, several questions, some with supporting documents. The feedback was then summarized by the facilitator and input to a wireless computer system by a computer operator who was a participant in the group, but not the facilitator. The session lasted about 8 hours. In the On-Line environment, the same basic questions were asked to people over a 2 week period and participants responded to the questions by posting comments to electronic bulletin boards which the facilitator would monitor and post responses to in order to facilitate discussion and answer questions from the participants about the process or the subject matter.

I. Compression of Time & Space

It has long been recognized that one of the advantages of using the Internet for interaction, including facilitation, negotiation, mediation and arbitration, was the ability for the Internet to compress time and space. That is, in regular face-to-face sessions, all people must be in the same room at the same time, or close to that. In On-Line discussions, people can either be interacting simultaneously, or they may be interacting “asynchronously”, therefore, in an “e-mail” like mode where they leave messages for each other or for a facilitator, negotiator, mediator or arbitrator. In this case, the interaction was asynchronous, but there was a period of greatest presence between 6 PM and 2 AM EDT.

Additionally, people need not be in the same place. They can be wherever they need to be to carry on their life activities and yet also be able to interact with this system. Whether that be at home, at work or in an Internet café. Thus, the convenient time for a person in California may not be the same at all as that for one in New York, but with the Internet, that space is compressed into the ability to have meaningful dialogue either asynchronously or interactively.

In the case of the conversations about the World Trade Center, the compression of time was much more significant than the compression of space. This phenomenon was a result of the fact that the majority of the participants was from the New York Metropolitan Area, and thus already had a great degree of geographic proximity. The convenience of people just signing on from their home after dinner or late at night was extremely positive and allowed the discussions to go on over a long period of days. However, the advantage of this capability was offset to one extent or another by the time period of the discussion. The trend was for the most active participation to be in the middle of the first week to the end of that week. After that, people who had not been involved already, felt they were too far behind to catch up.

Technology did not present a barrier to effective communication. While some very minor problems were reported in the very beginning, the participants, who were not particularly computer savvy, had no major problems in utilizing the system. Thus, the technology, in combination with the compression of time and space, proved to be positive factors in the discussion threads.

II. Expressing Feeling & Underlying Emotion

One of the most basic concerns about ODR in general, has been what is lost without the face-to-face encounter and how significantly this impacts the ability to successfully carry out the process. While facilitation is not really dispute resolution, it is a like scenario. In a similar way, the factors such as body language and eye movement are not available for the facilitator to make judgments about what the participant is “really saying” when an On-Line environment is utilized. It has been suggested that as much as 85 to 90% of what is really being said in facilitation, negotiation or mediation is said non-verbally. In her book, “I Hear What You Are Saying, But What Are You Really Telling Me?” Barbara Madonik posits just that position. No ODR practitioner would argue the significance of the non-verbal messages sent by participants. And even I myself would have advocated that the non-verbal signals and messages were about 50% of the substantive interaction. Yet, in the On-Line environment, one sacrifices all of that. Or maybe one doesn’t.

It is true, that the On-Line environment uses primarily words to communicate, but there are still significant and much more consciously used ‘non-verbal’ messages. These mostly take the form of tone of the message, and use of punctuation and type formats. If one also adds the use of color, things can become extremely emotional and descriptive of both the verbal and non-verbal components of a participants message. Through the use of italics, bold and underline, quotation marks, exclamation points and different type styles, the participants were extremely well able to communicate their feelings, both conscious and subconscious. It was surprising to see how accurately the participants conveyed these feelings. So, while I still believe that the non-verbal messaging accounts for a good 50% of the salient communication, I also believe that the On-Line environment does not impede the expression of those feelings, and in addition, creates a permanent record of those feelings so that they can be referred back to later and the flavor still can be perceived and understood.

In my analysis therefore, I find that avoidance of the On-Line environment because of fears of lack of expressive potential are misplaced. Additionally, I found not to be valid the viewpoint that people have problems indicating their feelings in an On-Line format. And lastly, I find that as long as the software is intuitively obvious, people do not seem to be intimidated or restricted from participation because of it.

III. Creation Of “Virtual Intimate Privacy”

Much attention has been paid to the aspects of the mediation environment. The use of flowers, the availability of drinks and food, the availability and access to facilities have all been things about which mediators and facilitators pay careful attention. The objective of most of these techniques is to create a level of comfort for the participant. However, if one were to think of the absolute most comfortable environment for any person, would it not be in his or her own personal space? In reality, if the facilitator or mediator does their job well, they create a sense of “Virtual Intimate Privacy.”

As a mediator, this state of comfort and privacy has taken place usually, but not always in caucus. For many years I have been fairly astonished at what people would actually say in caucus once they have a feeling of trust in the mediator. But, what would people say in the intimacy of their own homes, without any other person looking on, would they not be free to truly express themselves without reservation? The answer to that is mostly yes. That is, they are free to express themselves however they want, but not at the expense of a member of the group. In the foregoing experiment, the group members where the fastest to discipline any member that seemed to be getting out of line. The desire to have free and open communication without regard to ramification was extremely high and was a right that all participants protected and defended adamantly.

But, at the right times, when the participant was feeling most comfortable and most relaxed, a condition of “Virtual Intimate Privacy” was achieved and the responses and posting were of a nature that characterized an even more intimate communication than is often seen in face-to-face sessions. The creation of the most comfortable condition has always been tantamount in the facilitator’s or the mediator’s mind. What could possibly be more comfortable than one’s own home? The need for the facilitator to create rapport is still important, but not in the same way as it is in an office that none of the parties have ever been too. Additionally, the level of comfort attained by the participant is very fast and allows very honest information exchange.

IV. The Quality Of The Information

In making this comparison, I am looking specifically at the process used in the World Trade Center discussions. However, I am also trying to integrate knowledge about how conversational transactions happen in facilitation and dispute resolution sessions. In doing such evaluation, I found two extremely important components.

The first component was that in the face-to-face sessions, information was summarized by at least one person, if not by two people. It was not directly received from the participants in their own words, but synthesized into a more succinct or even in some cases, slightly different manner by the facilitator and the computer operator or both. However, in the case of the On-Line experience, the information is typed in directly by the participant. Therefore, the data was more representative of what was truly felt by those involved in the discussion.

The second component involves the accuracy and permanency of the record. In the On-Line environment, the actual statements of the participants are preserved, virtually forever. They can be analyzed and re-analyzed as many times and for as many aspects as people wish to run correlation studies. This preservation was not the case in the face-to-face sessions. Only the information submitted through the computer terminal is preserved, not the actual statements of the participants. So in the sense of preservation of the information, particularly in its raw form, the On-Line method was far superior.

As a result, the information that can be effectively gleaned from the On-Line process seems to have resulted in better data. A lengthier thinking process developed the data. And the data was preserved in the form of the creator of the feeling, rather than in the form of a summary by a third party.


Upon reflection, the analysis seems to have yielded very positive results for the On-Line method. While the end results may be better in a number of ways for facilitation than for mediation, the results of On-Line mediation organizations also show extremely promising results. Especially as the world moves toward a more global economy and things that use to be ‘far away’ now become as close as the nearest terminal, the use of the Internet for facilitation, mediation, negotiation and arbitration will become more and more a part of daily life. Just as e-mail has become almost a regular daily activity for most people, so also will the use of the Internet for all types of transactional functions become a regular daily occurrence for most people. While in certain situations, the use of a face-to-face session really cannot be replaced, it also seems that in many cases, the On-Line alternative may be as good, or possibly better than the in person alternative. It behooves ADR practitioners to start to integrate the technology of the present and certainly that of the future. If technology makes the job more effective and efficient, it seems only logical that the industry embraces the appropriate use of the tool.


Jon Linden

Jon Linden is a Mediator, Trainer and Business Consultant. He holds an BS in biology and an MBA, both from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. Jon spent 20 years in the Food Service Distribution business, where he was the COO and Sr. V-P of a Distribution Center of a major… MORE >

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