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Video-based mediation – it’s starting to happen. What do we need to know?

I recently had the pleasure of writing a paper with my student-turned-teacher, Jeff Thompson (an alumnus of our Negotiation and Dispute Resolution program at Creighton and the Wizard Behind the Curtain at ADRHub). Jeff works on non-verbal communication in mediation, and is also in involved in ODR. Putting those together with my own interest in the role of trust in ODR, we mapped out some issues at the juxtaposition of trust, non-verbal communication and online, video-based, mediation. You can read this article, soon to appear in the International Journal of Online Dispute Resolution, here:  @ Face Value? Nonverbal Communication & Trust Development in Online Video-based Mediation

A bit of background:

I often wish that I had counted the number of times people have told me, regarding different challenges in Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) that “Sure, but once we do it through video, those problems willl all go away”. Once we can see each other online, people seem to think, all the contentiousness, ambiguity of intent, psychological distance and negative attribution associated with communication at-a-distance will go up in a whiff of smoke.

[Perhaps in an equally misguided counterbalance to this viewing of videoconferencing as a panacea, I used to catch myself (being a text-oriented practitioner myself) relating with some degree of prejudice  towards types of ODR incorporating audio and video – thinking that if these media are involved  it’s not really ODR; almost as if including these media  is almost cheating. Come to think of it, this might be my writer’s-ego at work: I’ve focused quite a bit on text-oriented processes, so I want them to stick around in order to save me from instant anachronism – funny how quickly that can happen nowadays!]

The age of video in ODR is just starting to arrive – much later, perhaps, than many expected. I noted as recently as 2012 that ODR has remained solidly text-based , and that one can only just see the first harbingers of video-based mediation. Two years later, while text is still solidly in the lead, video has certainly arrived – and it’s time to talk about it. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t “solve everything”.

Video certainly adds in a great deal of what is missing in ODR – so long as it is used in the right cases and in the right way. However, not only does it not solve everything, but thinking that use of a new medium will only introduce positive media effects cuts against most of what communication theory has taught us.

So, what is it that video-based communication has to offer as a medium for conducting mediation – and what challenges does it pose? This article addresses a very small corner of that question, as an invitation to others to ask similar questions about other corners. One major shift that video-conferencing introduces to online mediation is that it returns the contextual cues offered by non-verbal communication back into the mix of communication signals being exchanged. Does this mean that non-verbal communication in video-based mediation will be identical with its face-to-face, in–the-room counterpart? We suggest that assuming it will be so would be a mistake. In particular, we discuss the effects of this on the issue of interpersonal trust – which has been identified in the literature to be one of the most pressing issues in mediation.

Many people are starting to use online videoconferencing for mediation – individual mediation practitioners are beginning to offer it as an option in addition to their traditional location-based services, and efforts are underway to expand and institutionalize this mode of practice (see, for example, Giuseppe Leon’s work on this last at ). We suggest that as this mode takes root and this trend takes off, we need to continue studying its unique characteristics carefully – and offer this article as a first step.

Sometimes you write a paper, and you know you’ve nailed everything that should be said on a topic. Other times, you write one and know that you’re saying the first word on the topic but certainly not the last. On the contrary – you’re hanging up a board for people to gather round and discuss (or, to gather round and throw darts at). I think Jeff and I both agree this is one of those latter cases. So – feel free to throw any comments you have; we’re in the market, as always, for good thoughts.

Check out the paper here: @ Face Value? Nonverbal Communication & Trust Development in Online Video-based Mediation


Noam Ebner

Noam Ebner is a professor of negotiation and conflict resolution at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business. Prior to joining the faculty at Creighton, Ebner taught at universities in Israel, Turkey, and Costa Rica. He practiced as an attorney, negotiator, and mediator at his Jerusalem-based firm, trained mediators for the… MORE >

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