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The Changing Face of Mediation

Author: Don Schapira, Q.Med

One of our greatest strengths is adapting to changing times. After 9/11, the way we traveled was altered forever. Long hours in security queues, shoe & belt removal, and watch lists to name a few of the measures we readily accepted. The reason we embraced such strict measures was for our collective safety. We recognized a threat, reacted and adapted. Today we are undergoing a similar shift, but this time in terms of communication.

Technology was meant to supplement how we communicate, not replace it. Pandemic times call for adaptive measures, and so, here we are, each with our own brand-new video-conferencing account, ready to replace normal face-to-face interactions with virtual ones.

The effects of these changes are difficult to measure. We understand that social-distancing is necessary, making office visits more difficult to accommodate. Other customary meeting locales like coffee shops and patios are shuttered, so we are ultimately left with software and technology to tackle life-events that simply can not be paused during a pandemic. Separation and Divorce processes are chief among these.

Online Mediation has become a staple service for those of us with ability and skill set to offer it. The question remains however, can virtual mediation effectively offer the same quality of service as in-person meetings. The answer, of course, is – Depends.

It depends on the awareness of the differences for both the mediator and those participating. One common disregarded difference is the awareness of ‘self’ in a video conference. When we converse with one another, rarely are we conscious of our own facial expressions, hand gestures and general appearance. Seeing that little video-mirror of ourselves onscreen, subconsciously distracts us from the content and context of the discussion, requiring more focus and thus, energy expended.

Another major contrast is the reduction in quality. HD and turbo internet are still nowhere near the quality of real life, face-to-face conversation. The comfort of a moment of silence in a live discussion turns into alarm of a poor internet connection; the subconscious tapping of a foot a mediator would notice in person, has now disappeared completely, as well as other subconscious fidgets that could otherwise lead to moments of insight.

The setting of the meeting also has deep implications. A mediator’s in-home office is set up to tackle emotional conflicts and limit distractions, a client’s living room, dining room or kitchen is not. Typically clients are emotionally prepared to enter a mediators office, where a different setting facilitates a different mind-set. We now expect clients to deal with emotional issues from the comfort of their own home, reframing painful conversations that may have occurred in that very room. A difficult task at best.

Careful planning, and clear recognition of these obstacles are the only way to overcome them. Discussing these added complexities at the outset of the mediation, can relieve the concerns expressed. The major source of relief for a client is the knowledge they are engaged in a process that will lead them to a sustainable, interest-based agreement that meets their needs, their Ex, and especially their children. That their relationship has been expertly shifted from couple-parenting to co-parenting in the healthiest of ways. It is therefore incumbent upon all mediators to rise up to these challenges by communicating the effects this change may have.

The goal after all, is to be open, empathetic and understanding. What better way to mirror that behavior than with the foresight and vulnerability of making clients aware of our own challenges. It is the best way to transform them into our greatest strengths.

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