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“I Listen Better When I Can Talk” (and other disadvantages of videoconferencing in distance mediation)

Distance Family Mediation by Susanna Jani

In a recent post, I explored some of the advantages of using computer-based videoconferencing platforms to conduct family mediations from a distance. In spite of our preference for these platforms, our distance mediation team recognizes that they also come with a number of disadvantages. Some of these are inherent to the technology itself, while others are a function of the fact that when it comes to selecting a technology for mediation purposes – family mediations in particular – one size simply does not fit all.

Here are some of disadvantages we have discovered:

1. The technology’s flaws can get in the way of communications: As our mediation team member, Eugene Raponi Q.C., once wisely observed, “I listen better when I can talk”. His comment came on the heels of a team videoconference meeting during which he was effectively muted for over an hour because of an audio glitch. Indeed, videoconferencing technology may have come a long way in the last few years but it is far from flawless. Disruptions in audio, data and video transmission – experienced as “freezes”, Picasso-like pixilation, delays, dropping of words and complete cut-outs – still happen. Not only are these disruptions annoying, they are quite distracting and can seriously interfere with, and even halt, the flow of communications. In some of the more remote areas of British Columbia, where high-speed Internet is not available, videoconferencing platforms may perform so poorly that using them for mediation is not a reasonable option.

2. Visual cues may not be helpful for some clients: While more limited than in face-to-face mediation, a range of visual cues – including body language – is available in videoconferencing. Clients’ body language provides useful information for the mediator but may not necessarily be helpful for the clients themselves. In fact, in an earlier phase of our service, our distance mediation team found that there were advantages to some clients not seeing each others’ body language. During this phase, telephone was the primary medium we used to conduct family mediations. Our team found that one of the benefits of using telephone was that it eliminated the types of visual cues that act as emotional “triggers” for some ex-spouses.

3. Clients aren’t separated: Our team believes that, where children are involved or a long-term relationship is important for other reasons, it is usually valuable for ex-spouses to attend mediation together. It may, however, be helpful for clients to not interact real-time or directly with each other in some cases – for example, where emotions are still too raw for constructive communications. In such cases videoconferencing, which emulates the synchronous, direct-contact style of in-person mediation, may not be the best choice for distance mediation.

4. Participants have to be in the same place at the same time: If you’ve ever tried scheduling a meeting with people in different parts of the globe, you may be wondering about the feasibility of using a technology like videoconferencing which requires everyone to attend mediation at the same time, dressed in something other than their pyjamas. Even without the time differences that come with geographic distance, clients’ work shifts, availability of child care and other commitments can make the use of any technology requiring synchronous participation in mediation unrealistic. In these situations, it may be preferable to use technologies such as text-based mediation platforms or e-mail, which allow clients to “log on to mediation” at a time that is workable for them.

5. Verbal communication isn’t for everyone: Videoconferencing clearly favors the spoken communication style, making it less than ideal for verbally not-so-nimble clients and for those most comfortable expressing themselves in writing – as well as for clients with certain disabilities. Some clients may also need, or wish, to have time to rein in their emotions, to reflect or to frame their words with extra care. The asynchronous, text-based technologies may well allow these clients to participate in mediation more fully than videoconferencing would.

6. The children may be nearby: Managing the presence of children when parents are mediating from their home may be particularly challenging with videoconferencing. With both audio and video being transmitted, the risk exists that any children who are nearby may observe or overhear the discussions, in spite of a mediator’s or clients’ precautions in this regard. While risks also exist when using text-based technologies for mediation, these may be somewhat easier to prevent. For a more detailed exploration of this topic, check out our earlier posting, Where are the children during the distance mediation process? by Laura Luz.

7. Intuitive? Well, …: If you are anything like me, you may find that the number of bells and whistles that come with many of today’s technologies is plain scary. One glance at how much needs figuring out and you can almost smell your time going up in smoke. Computer-based videoconferencing platforms are no exception to this. While many of their features are fairly intuitive (well, they are sometimes and according to some people), the platforms do require time, patience, perseverance and a range of practice opportunities to master. In our experience, the time commitment involved in becoming competent using these platforms can be substantial, especially for the “mature” mediator who has come to computers later in life.

You may have your own views about this brave new world of using videoconference or other communication technologies for distance mediations. Have you experienced any advantages or disadvantages in using specific technologies, as a mediator or as a client? I hope you’ll help us continue to learn by letting us know.

Photo credit: “i know it hurts to feel so all alone” by Ashley Rose (CC license)


Susanna Jani

For a decade, Susanna Jani was Roster Administrator for the B.C. Mediator Roster Society*, managing its day-to-day operations, activities and projects, including the initial research phase of the Distance Family Mediation Project. In 2009, she followed her passion for this environmentally-friendly project and became Project Coordinator for its second, pilot… MORE >

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