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When it ain’t Easy to Say the Right Thing: How Distance Mediators Help

Distance Family Mediation by Susanna Jani

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word
is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” ~
(Mark Twain)

I wish I’d seen that quote years ago, when I was in the midst of my own separation. In hindsight, I can say without hesitation that many of the discussions I had with my ex about how to reorganize our lives went sideways for no other reason than that I didn’t understand how important my choice of words actually was. I also didn’t fully grasp how difficult it can be to say the “right thing”. This isn’t just because I was young (which I was) – it really is difficult to remain on an even plane and to contemplate the impact of words in the emotionally charged atmosphere that accompanies a marital break-up.

This is where a family mediator could have been really helpful for me.

Let me pause here, just in case you are becoming suspicious that this is about to turn into a sales pitch. It is not. Mediators are, simply put, in the business of helping people communicate with each other in a positive way. It is their stock and trade, and what they are trained to do. For many of them, it is a professional and personal passion, and they take great pride in their skills at creating an atmosphere that lets people resolve their issues productively and in a civilized manner. Traditionally, family mediators have done this when meeting with clients in person – together with them in the same room. But how do they do this when they are at distance from the clients and using technology to meet?

To get the answer to this, I went to our distance mediation team members and asked them how they help family clients communicate with each other. I found their comments so interesting, I decided to post them “uncut” – exactly as I received them. Here they are:

1) All my distance mediations to date have been much more respectful than face to face mediations. Because of the technology, especially with videoconferencing technology, parents are not talking over one another, as the platform really determines that parents need to wait to be heard. Additionally body language doesn’t seem to be as much a trigger because they aren’t in the same room.

That said, I use the same techniques I do in person. Clarifying communication guidelines before beginning the mediation, getting buy-in from clients and then referring back to guidelines if clients begin to deviate. I try to keep the process as simple as possible, as the issues are usually far from it!!

2) I have had similar experiences [as the mediator above]. In talking to my distance mediation clients individually they say they simply could not be in the same room due to the emotional stress. They find the videoconferencing format is working well for them because they are able to see the person, but be distant. When things get too emotional, they can save face by asking for the meeting to end. I find that I am using the written materials they have provided to help focus on the issues and move forward. Other than that, mediation is much the same and, as a mediator, I forget the technology and it seems a natural process.

3) My experience has been the same. I tell my distance clients the same thing as most of my regular clients, especially the very fraught ones; that is: Try to distance themselves, step back and observe, or think about it being over and resolved, or think of it as a difficult discussion with an acquaintance one must continue to work with (sort of the opposite of being ‘in the moment’). The technology does seem to help create a sense of distance, which then helps to keep things cool.

4) Likewise – in our individual pre-mediation sessions I discuss what each party feels their personal “triggers” are in communicating with the other parent. This gives me the information I need to identify it when it is occurring. When someone is triggered, they won’t be able to actually “hear” what the other is saying….so knowing these triggers gives me the cue for extra clarification when they are in play.

As it is important that our joint session remain “respectful” – when I am going over that part at the outset of the mediation – I take a few minutes for all three of us to define what that means to each of us. For some it may be a tone/volume/ language-use, and with that understood for each we can all consciously make an effort to avoid what each has identified as disrespectful. I also explain the human tendency to feel under attack when someone starts a sentence with “YOU” and encourage the parties to avoid that trap.

Referring specifically to the “distance”, or use of technology experience, I find that checking in more frequently with the parties with respect to “how we are doing” and “how is this feeling for each of you” is necessary due to the absence of the more subtle cues I may be able to detect in person.

It is so true that frequently it is not “what” is said….but “how” it is said that can make or break productive communication!!

5) The strategies in distance mediation are essentially the same [as for in-person mediation]. For example, I emphasize the importance of listening to each other in the mediation process so that clients can gain some understanding of the issues, and also explain that listening does not mean agreeing.

In distance mediation, I spend more time in pre-mediation with parties discussing the environment in which they are going to be in when they are mediating. Is it free of distractions? Is it comfortable? Is there going to be anyone else there? The physical space (environment) can impact their communication with the other party if they have challenges focusing on the conversation.

Very interesting, don’t you think?

If you mediate from a distance, using technology, I’d love to hear what you have to say about this. How do you help your clients communicate with each other?


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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