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A High-Wire Act: Mediating High Conflict Online


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By Bennett Brooks and Patrick Field

This post originally appeared on Consensus Building Institute’s blog on September 10, 2020. We are reposting it with Bennett Brooks’ and Patrick Field’s permission.

As COVID-19 drives our longstanding work with stakeholders, advisory committees, and others onto online platforms, we also are being forced to mediate our most challenging cases in the same online format. These cases often prove to be high-wire acts when we meet face to face. Add an online environment to the mix, and we’re now blindfolded on that high wire: with less clarity on the mood of the room, difficulty seeing body language, no chance for informal conversation at breaks, and no physical connection to build relationships and humanize one another.

So how is it working out? What are we learning?

Benefits of Online Mediation

Online Platforms as “Cool” Media
We are finding that there are some very real advantages to facilitating high-conflict cases online. For one, web platforms like Zoom or Webex are, by their nature, a “cool” medium. There are distances – in physical space, emotionality, and non-verbal communication – that are less satisfying in many ways, but also less heated. While parties may have the same strong feelings, we are finding that it’s simply harder to convey emotion on these platforms. This has helped, in some cases, to bring the temperature of the conversation down a notch, allowing parties to focus more on the substance and issues, and less on one another’s emotional response.

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A More Deliberate Conversation
Because interruption online tends to “gum up the works” in terms of ability to hear and track video of who is talking, parties generally have to make space for others to talk. Even the acts of muting and unmuting and raising one’s hand electronically help slow down reactions. Just that brief pause can ease both the pace and intensity. Overall, we are finding that as long as we facilitate them well, online discussions are more deliberate, give people more time to process, and allow everyone to contribute without being cut off.

Engagement Opportunities for All in the Room
In some ways, online platforms make it easier for people with diverse speaking styles and ways of processing information to actively participate. Yes, people still jump in verbally to make a point. But with the chat, polling, and raise hand functions, participants have multiple ways to contribute. They can post a side comment in the chat or ask for an opportunity to speak by raising their hand (and the facilitator can acknowledge hands up, so people know they will be called on). If polling is used, they can weigh in equally with those who are more forceful. For those who might have struggled enduring a vigorous face-to-face debate, engaging online provides more opportunities to weigh in and be heard.

Shorter Sessions with Digestible Content
With online sessions, the facilitator can break complex issues and elements of the dispute into more discrete, shorter discussions. When parties used to come together in-person, the expense of time, travel, and effort typically required people to meet for two or more days. While this created opportunities for bonding and trust building (more on that below), it also meant that meetings were intense, addressed many complex issues in one sitting, and often resulted in participants becoming cognitively and emotionally worn down. With online meetings, scheduling is easier, people can come together for a few hours over a period of time rather than all at once, and they can have time between sessions to process meeting notes, ideas and options, and really sink their teeth into each topic.

Challenges

Despite the above-mentioned benefits, we are not kidding ourselves about the limits of online facilitation and mediation, especially in high-stakes situations.

For High Stakes, Smaller can be Better
Online platforms for high-stakes mediation work best when there are fewer participants. This could probably be said of in-person cases, too. With larger groups, people can check out, multi-task, and not fully participate (which leads to “sorry, what did you say?” being asked far too frequently). We use a variety of tools to address these challenges and keep people involved. We do “round robins,” asking everyone to speak briefly. We use polling to test the temperature of the room or generate instant feedback. Breakout rooms on Zoom offer an easy way to bring people together in smaller, more informal groups to do work. We have also explored ways to use smaller, representative work groups to generate proposals, options, and ideas to bring back to the larger group.

Resolution Online can be Difficult
When emotions are high and trust is low, it can be very difficult to work out a solution with everyone online due, in part, to the “cool medium” of an online platform. In these situations, much like with in-person mediations, we resort to caucusing and shuttle diplomacy, either during or between meetings. We might use Zoom breakout rooms or separate call-in numbers for caucuses – or simply engage with participants individually between joint meetings. These practices allow us to work through tough issues, be more frank, test the bounds of settlement, and address strong feelings or concerns more constructively. When we are caucusing online, others can go about other work and not “wait around” as one subgroup or another continues its deliberations.

Dangers of the Written Word
While the modes of engagement have expanded with online platforms, these various forms of participation also lead to more channels that the mediator must manage, and address, if things go awry. As an example, a written comment in the chat function, maybe just poorly constructed or not explained, can lead to confusion, argument, and conflict. Such a statement – because it is in writing – can be starkly remembered and lead to more discontent during and after meetings. We have learned that some people are willing to behave in writing in ways that they would not in person, leading to all sorts of trouble.

At Times, Too Cool a Medium
The cool medium of an online platform can lower the temperature, but can also lead to challenges in reading, managing, and directing the group’s mood and energy. Parties may have shorter attention spans and distance may cause them to be less engaged, diminishing their appetite to dive into hard conversations. Whether the mood spikes high or low, the mediator has less ability to shape its direction. With in-person meetings, mediators can have everyone take a break and talk with a few individuals by the water cooler for five minutes. They can change who is seated next to whom. They can use their own body language (standing, sitting, gesticulating) for effect – but, not so much online. And, it’s worth mentioning the technological glitches of low bandwidth: People forgetting to hit the mute or unmute button, dropped calls, a poll that fails, are irritants that don’t help when parties are already on edge.

Hampering Deeper Connection and Relationship Building
Lastly, it’s no surprise that building strong relationships online is more difficult. Malcolm Gladwell writes about the bonds that freedom riders in the North built (or did not) as they came South to protest Jim Crow laws. He argues that having a good friend, college roommate, or other close connection at one’s side was the strongest predictor of which freedom riders lasted through the long months, the threats, and the verbal and physical assaults. Those who went down alone struggled to remain for long. His broader argument is that college roommate bonds are “strong,” and today, many of our social media bonds are “weak” (they are easy, many, fast, and provisional). The same goes for mediation online. We can try to make the engagement more personal with stories, sharing of photos, informal breakout sessions, virtual “happy hours,” and other means, but the fact is, relationships are not cemented as effectively when remote. The informal breaks, the intricacies of human connection, and the proximity of physical presence cannot be “made” online, at least not yet.

We can use online platforms because we have to – work can get done, travel can be eliminated, and health risks substantially reduced. After almost six months in this new world, we have also come to experience both some unexpected upsides and some very real constraints and frustrations of our – we hope – temporarily two-dimensional work mediating hard cases.

 Bennett Brooks is a Senior Mediator at the Consensus Building Institute. Based in New York City, he has facilitated dozens of complex and highly contentious collaborative dialogues on issues related to water resource conflicts, fisheries, infrastructure improvements, and ecosystem restoration throughout the U.S. His most recent work has focused on marine mammal bycatch issues on the East Coast and Hawaii, a longstanding transportation dispute in Seattle, and an evaluation of the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Bennett has conducted numerous assessments, designed and facilitated several joint fact-finding panels, and taught numerous negotiation trainings on mutual gains bargaining. Bennett is adept at working with senior policy makers, and he puts a premium on structuring dialogues that forge understanding among parties with diverse viewpoints and backgrounds.

Patrick Field is Managing Director at the Consensus Building Institute and Associate Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. For 24 years, he has built consensus and collaboration capacity on complex public and organizational issues in the U.S. and Canada. His primary focus is building agreements on and finding solutions for the built and natural environment across sectors, interests, disciplines, and organizations.