So Now We’re All Online Mediators!

Dr Mike Talbot Articles, Dr Mike Talbot

Right, now that I’ve just about caught my breath after six days of re-jigging everything I do, it’s time to get some thoughts down (sitting, in shorts, at my home computer!)

Suddenly, the mediation world has moved online and, if you’d have told me even a week ago that we’d be where we are now, I would have at least struggled to stay impartial. I might even have given you one of ‘those’ smiles and changed the subject!

So, everyone (and their dog, it seems) just became online mediators: the main qualification apparently being that you’ve got an account with Zoom, Skype, or Google hangouts, and a working web cam.

I’ve been in this field for over twenty-one years now, having worked as a psychotherapist for quite a few years prior to that. My company’s training and mediation practice looks at the psychology of conflict (well, what do you expect from a psychotherapist?). So, I’m interested in things like the psychology of anger, how and why shame comes into conflict, why we get so stuck when we’re in dispute, and how interpersonal relationships go wrong and can be repaired.

Our work is normally face-to-face, with about a tenth of our (many) cases being done online. And I have always thought that it takes a special kind of mediator to do proper mediation well when you haven’t got the disputing parties together with you in the room.

And when I say ‘proper’ mediation, I’m referring to the established process that I and a lot of other mediators have been practising for a long time: not the legally-orientated ‘civil mediation’ process that has become more prevalent in the last twelve years or so.

I’m talking about mediation as a process that builds interpersonal dialogue between parties, that allows them to have a thorough exchange of thoughts and emotions, and which ultimately gets them understanding one another’s motivations and needs so they can agree how to collaborate on ending their dispute.

And this is in contrast to the ‘civil mediation’ thing, which tends to be more about the practitioner getting the parties to craft ‘settlement’ options, occasionally giving whispered legal opinion (oh yes, you do!), and progressively inching towards compromise.

Real mediation, for me, requires what I would call psychological contact: a full-on dialogic exchange between the parties – warts and all – where they get to understand one another’s realities, whether or not they agree with them.

And this is a much harder thing to do when you’re all looking down a web cam. I do have a lot of success at it, although I do find the online process tests the mediator’s mettle a lot more. Managing the process isn’t necessarily any harder: there’s still an opening talk by the mediator, uninterrupted time for the parties to speak, then a direct exchange between them. A lot of the skills are similar too: empathic listening, re-framing, working with resistance, dialogue-building, etc, etc.

But the lack of physical proximity means that we don’t have as clear a picture of people’s body language. The little micro-signals that get exchanged between parties can easily be missed, the muttered asides and brief under-the-breath comments that are often so valuable can go undetected, and the fleeting glances and moments of eye contact get completely lost.

The mediator then has to lean back on a new repertoire of skills to make the most of the online setting, especially with regard to filling in some of the relational gaps that are created by the lack of proximity and direct eye contact. Mediation practice for us at UK Mediation is based on the idea that we have to understand the people who are in dispute in order to resolve their dispute, and that understanding just comes a little less readily when we don’t have people in a room together.

Find out more about UK Mediation’s online service, re:connect, here.