Negotiator toolbox: Using E-Mediation to Resolve Disputes

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The problem: You want to hire a mediator to help you resolve a conflict that you’re having with an individual or a company, but for various reasons, meeting face-to-face would be difficult. Perhaps you and the other party are located in different geographic areas. Maybe your dispute originated in an online transaction and you’ve never even met. Or perhaps one of you feels threatened or intimidated by the other and is reluctant to meet in person.

The tool: In the late 1990s, various start-ups began offering e-mediation services to organizations and the general public. The companies developed a roster of trained mediators whom they would assign to facilitate dispute resolution online, primarily through e-mail. E-mediation is now offered across the globe, both by service providers and increasingly by individual mediators, writes Noam Ebner in a chapter in Online Dispute Resolution: Theory and Practice (Eleven International Publishing, 2012). Though companies often use e-mediation to resolve high-volume, long-distance conflicts (such as disputes between eBay customers), the range of disputes being mediated online has expanded to include workplace and family conflicts involving people who live in the same area.

Operating instructions: The “platform” that mediators and service providers use varies, but e-mediations are generally conducted via e-mail and the telephone, while videoconferencing and real-time chats are less commonly used. Parties exchange documents via e-mail, and the mediator guides the process. In one study, mediators reported using a more directive, problem-solving approach in e-mediations than in face-to-face mediations as a result of their attempts to maintain the momentum of long-distance talks.

What it can do: Early studies of e-mediation have found it to be an effective means of resolving disputes, Ebner writes. E-mediation offers convenience, allowing parties to participate when they have the time. The slower pace of e-mail mediations (relative to real-time conversations) allows mediators to carefully craft their responses and strategy rather than needing to react in the moment to disputants’ statements. In addition, e-mail mediation can level the playing field between disputants who tend to naturally dominate discussions and those who are more reserved.

Safety warning: Disputants who engage in mediation primarily via e-mail will miss out on the cues they would receive from body language, facial expressions, and other in-person signals. Long-distance mediations are prone to misunderstandings and also lack the rapport and warmth of face-to-face talks. Parties may be tempted to “flame” each other (sending hostile or insulting messages) on e-mail or abandon the mediation entirely when frustrated. Finally, given that disputants often choose local mediators via word of mouth, they may be less trusting of mediators whom they choose somewhat arbitrarily online.

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