When parties are in a serious conflict or a dispute the quickest way to address each other may be with a text or email. Perhaps pick up the phone and talk. Even better consider a virtual meeting. As a best alternative consider a face to face interaction. Mediation and conflict resolution using virtual means has been analyzed for some time. This article explores multiple sources and findings regarding virtual mediations and negotiations exploring pros and cons along with best practices to make you more adept in this arena.
Attitudes and communication
From a study by Albert Mehrabian on the 7%, 38%, 55% rule regarding the attitude in communication offers some interesting insights The attitude in communication is evidenced in 7% by the words. Think of a text or an email. The tone from one’s voice results in about 38% of the attitude being conveyed. This means about 45% of the attitude can be interpreted from the words and tone, for example listening on the phone. However, 55% of the attitude is attributed to the facial expressions and body language being presented.
This implies if you are in conflict with someone relating to a mediation or a negotiation it is best to carry this on with a face to face interaction.
Upon reflection this makes sense. If you cannot be face to face, what about a virtual negotiation or mediation? Is that the next best thing? Let’s look at some the advantages and disadvantages of virtual mediations and negotiations
Virtual mediation or negotiation
Noam Ebner a Professor of Law at Creighton University Law School addresses the advantages and disadvantages in one of the chapters in The Negotiator’s Desk Reference and Michael Gregory addresses this in one of his chapters in his book Peaceful Resolutions. Unlike face to face interactions you cannot see the whole person, or see what else is going on in the room with sidebars, and a host of other elements associated with the interaction. On the other hand, a virtual session can save on travel costs, having to physically be together, and potentially save time. Let’s look at this in more detail.
The advantages of a virtual mediations or negotiations
This technology has been around a long time with varying degrees of technological capabilities, but with the advent of COVID-19 virtual sessions became the norm.
It is inexpensive, with relatively easy to operate technology, and has become widely accepted.
It allows each party to pick up on various visual and verbal cues. By being able to see elements of body language and facial expressions coupled with the words spoken and the tone presented, virtual sessions have a lot to be desired. At the same time documents can be shared, presentations made, and videos presented so that everyone can see and hear all of the information the same way at the same time. Clearly these advantages are reasons for promoting virtual mediations and negotiations.
The disadvantages of virtual mediations and negotiations
Ebner offers four limitations associated with virtual negotiations.
These limitations are limited visibility, technical difficulties, privacy and security challenges, and potential heightened awareness of differences.
Limited visibility is associated with not being able to see the whole person. Often you only see the “talking head.” You don’t know what is going on in the background or off camera. You can’t tell who else may be in the room or be influencing the conversation.
Note that often eye contact is with the screen rather than with the eye to camera making eye to eye contact on the other end. This may result in less trust being transmitted to the other party.
Depending on the technology it may not be clear, it may freeze up, or become choppy. It may even be necessary to fall back to a phone conversation. There could be background noise with dogs, sirens, other interruptions, and with other items taking attention away from the session.
Privacy and security can be addressed with varying elements of technology to determine who can attend and have access to the session. Documents can be prepared ahead of time and signed by all participants regarding elements of privacy and security. This includes not allowing unauthorized recordings, others who may be listening and perhaps advising, and other concerns.
With virtual sessions you also see your own face. This may make visual differences obvious. These differences according to Ebner may make us more conscious of differences related to diversity, for example in terms of gender, race, age, culture, and more. He suggests additional research is needed in this area.
Given these comments what can you do?
What can you do to improve the virtual session and promote trust?
Make eye contact with the camera
Use open-hand gestures at a level with the camera
Orient your body toward the computer
Nod your head occasionally while listening
Ensure each party participates from a quiet location to limit interruptions, interference, and distractions
Avoid fidgeting, playing with jewelry, or your hair
Avoid frequent touching of your face or clothing
Be prepared and confident – this helps ensure tone and paralanguage is positive
Dress suitably, the same as you would for a face-to-face process
Use a good video link, good camera, good microphone, and know how to use the system ahead of time
Practice beforehand if this is new to you.
Ebner also recommends:
Have a neutral setting behind you.
Resist the temptation to multitask or be distracted by your phone.
With this information, you should be informed of what to expect, what you can do, and how you can apply these best practices for your session. Face to face is preferred, but if not available, virtual sessions offer the next best alternative. With the commentary presented here take these under advisement and apply them in your next virtual mediation or negotiation. Do you have any other ideas you want to share with me?
About the author
Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]