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Embracing virtual mediation in the time of COVID (and beyond…)

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I'm going to come out and say it: virtual mediation isn't so bad.

I know that, after several weeks/months of nothing but virtual meetings with everyone from your co-workers to your old college friends, we're all experiencing just a little bit of Zoom fatigue. But there are distinct advantages to moving mediation online and even before COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, I was often involved in in-person mediations in which one or two participants would appear in this manner.

Of course, conducting entire mediation processes virtually has taken a bit of getting used to — and isn't without its downsides.

Some circumstances can make it more difficult to participate. Taking part in a virtual mediation session when you live in a studio apartment with three kids and a dog isn't easy. Nor is it easy when you and your partner are both working from home while trying to keep the kids entertained (and out of earshot). And that's before we even mention the leaf blowers, lawn mowers, or noisy neighbors you may have to contend with.

Our "new normal" comes with plenty of distractions.

Then, of course, we have the technological issues to overcome. Not everyone has great internet service, or access to a device that will permit video calling. And some may struggle to get to grips with using the technology.

However, it's not all bad and as I've spent the last few months dealing with exclusively online mediation, I've come to realize that virtual participation works just fine when everyone appears by video. In fact, virtual mediation has just as many plus points as it has disadvantages…

The benefits of virtual mediation.

Greater comfort.

We usually seek mediation at times of stress, upset, and strong emotion. Mediation providers know this and most will go out of their way to create an environment that offers a feeling of comfort and security during a difficult time.

However, when it comes to comfort, we can't hope to compete with someone's home. Sitting in your favorite chair, with a view of your own backyard, and a beloved pet snuggling on your lap during video mediation is great for mitigating the effects of stress, and can make meetings far more comfortable — and far more productive too.

Greater flexibility.

Taking your mediation online offers much greater geographic flexibility. No longer are you restricted to choosing a mediator within easy commuting distance of your office. Now you can choose a mediator based on rapport, their credentials, or their subject matter expertise, rather than their location.

Easier scheduling.

When you cut out travel time and only have to find space in your diary for the length of the meeting itself, it suddenly becomes a whole lot easier to find an appointment time that works for everyone involved, thus removing an additional layer of stress you can all do without.

Virtual mediation: the new normal?

Because we haven't been able to hold in-person mediation over the past few months, using telephone or video technology has been the only way for cases to proceed. However, despite the fact that mediation centers are beginning to reopen, it's not quite time to ditch the idea of virtual mediation.

Many people — participants and mediators alike — might need or want to avoid appearing in person until we're certain there's a reliable (and readily available) vaccine for COVID-19.

Also, when in-person mediation does resume, it's going to look a little different. It's likely strict social distancing measures will have to be put into place, with everyone required to stay six feet apart, wear masks, and apply hand sanitizer at regular intervals.

It isn't an entirely appealing scenario and I anticipate that lots of people will feel that mediation via videoconference is infinitely preferable! You may not be in the same room, but the lack of masks means you'll not only be more comfortable, you'll also be able to see each other's facial expressions — which would be impossible if everyone were wearing a face covering.

Between that, and the benefits mentioned earlier, we may just find that virtual mediation becomes the norm well beyond the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Making virtual mediation easier for everyone.

So, if virtual conferencing is to become a standard part of the new normal, or at least becomes far more common in the future than it was pre-COVID-19, how do we make it easier for everyone to participate comfortably and productively?

Well, I've spent the last few months ironing out the kinks and I've discovered several strategies that make the virtual mediation process run more smoothly:

·I know that not everyone is 100% comfortable using the technology so I have developed help guides and protocols for how to proceed if a participant's internet connection is lost. The last thing I want is for anyone to miss any part of these important discussions!

·I will also conduct a test run with participants prior to the day of mediation to ensure all parties are comfortable with using the virtual mediation platform.

·As rapport is so important to the mediation process — and can be harder to build in a virtual environment — I hold individual pre-mediation planning meetings with each party so we can get to know each other and I can learn more about the issues that are most important to them.

·Because online platforms are asynchronistic I structure talking and listening time in a more formal way to make sure everyone has a chance to say their piece.

·I have been using Zoom, which has breakout rooms where parties and their lawyers can speak to each other privately and the mediator can go from room to room, just like in in-person mediations. The mediator can set up a mediator's room, where he or she can visit with one or more of the lawyers without their clients, if appropriate, and another room, where the lawyers can talk to each other without their clients or the mediator.

·Zoom's screen-share feature allows the mediator to use a white board to help the parties decide how to proceed by keeping track of the demands and offers made and, if appropriate, suggesting next moves. In fact, the overall process looks and feels a lot like an in-person mediation.

·As with in-person mediation, privacy is paramount and, thanks to some new features on the Zoom platform, I'm now able to lock my meetings by issuing an invite and passcode to participants to ensure that no uninvited guests show up. I do not allow the recording of any meeting.

I believe we're at the beginning of a new frontier of video mediation and I, for one, am quite excited by the benefits it will offer both participants and mediators.

And while I know that the platforms we have available right now weren't specifically designed for mediation, I've been encouraged by the way their designers have worked to retrofit the platforms to meet mediation needs — and I'm looking forward to seeing how they evolve to meet our needs in the future too. Whatever happens over the next few months with COVID-19, I believe virtual mediation is here to stay, and after being pleasantly surprised by just how effective it is, I am more than ready to embrace it!

If you were ready to give mediation a try but have been putting it off because of COVID-19, please do get in touch. I'd be more than happy to talk you through the process and answer any questions you might have — I promise it's far more effective and far less scary than you might imagine! 

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Friday, 25 September 2020

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