Negotiator Toolbox: Using E-Mediation to Resolve Disputes

E-mediation has become an increasingly common and convenient format for resolving disputes. Before you dive in, consider what makes the process different and how to prepare for it.

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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 meeting face-to-face would be difficult. Perhaps you and the other party are located in different geographic areas, or social-distancing guidelines are keeping you apart. 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 party 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. Online mediation services are 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 online 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. E-mediation became the de facto form of mediation during the Covid-19 pandemic when it became unsafe to meet in person. 

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Operating Instructions: As with traditional mediation, disputants choose to engage in e-mediation voluntarily and are typically assisted by a neutral third party. In e-mediation, the role of technology is often likened to a “fourth party” in the process, write Jennifer Parlamis, Noam Ebner, and Lorianne Mitchell in a chapter in Advancing Workplace Mediation Through Integration of Theory and Practice (Springer International Publishing, 2016). Originally, e-mediation was conducted primarily via e-mail and the telephone, but it has increasingly migrated to videoconferencing and online platforms, where real-time chats are sometimes used. E-mediation ranges from being completely automated, with technology guiding disputants through the process of sharing information and reaching agreement, to being led entirely by a trained mediator. When hiring a mediator, look for someone who is trained in technology-aided mediation and has a strong understanding of e-mediation practices and procedures, including which online mediation software to use when.

What it Can Do: Research on e-mediation has found it to be an effective means of resolving disputes, Ebner writes. E-mediation offers convenience, allowing parties to participate at a time that works for all parties, without the hassle and expense of travel. E-mediation can be conducted at a slower pace than real-time conversations, as the process can be easily paused online. As such, e-mediation allows mediators and participants to carefully craft their responses and strategy rather than needing to react in the moment to statements. At the same time, e-mediation may also shorten disputes by reducing scheduling difficulties. When conducted via e-mail or other text-based tools, mediation can level the playing field between disputants who tend to naturally dominate discussions and those who are more reserved. In one study by Katalien Bollen and Martin Euwema of the University of Leuven, Belgium, subordinates mediating a dispute with a superior were significantly more satisfied with technology-supported mediation than with traditional face-to-face mediation. Mediators may also behave differently when leading negotiations online than they do in person. In one study, mediators reported using a more directive, problem-solving approach in e-mediation than in face-to-face mediation as a result of their attempts to maintain the momentum of long-distance talks.

Safety Warning: Disputants who engage in e-mediation need to remember that videoconferencing formats lack the full range of body language, facial expressions, and communication signals we have access to when we meet in person. E-mail, of course, is an even more “impoverished” communication medium, lacking visual and verbal cues. E-mediation can be prone to misunderstandings and may also lack the rapport and warmth of face-to-face talks. Because e-mediation can be dehumanizing, parties may be tempted to abandon it entirely when frustrated. Ebner recommends discussing the potential limitations of online formats up front and referring to them throughout the process. By doing so, parties may be less likely to blame each other when difficulties arise. In addition, it is wise to toggle between communication media throughout the process, choosing the format best suited to the task at hand. In the early stages, parties can take time to get to know each other and build rapport on video calls. Later in the process, they may want to exchange information or the details of offers via e-mail, or pick up the phone when they need quick clarification. 

What have your experiences with e-mediation been like?

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