What Role Should Technology Play in Mediation?

Much has been written about the growing impact of technology in society, so it’s only appropriate that we consider the role of technology in mediation. It’s no longer a question of should we let technology in the door – it’s already there. The better question now is, “What is the legitimate role of the ‘fourth party’ in the room?”

Any discussion of technology in mediation should begin with its impact on communication, and herein lies the tension. As mediators, we are trained to find ways to build connection with everyone who comes before us, and we know that the gold standard is having every stakeholder present in the room. For some individuals, however, face-to-face communication is neither preferred, nor even possible. Shouldn’t we look for ways to accommodate them through technology? Often, the option of utilizing Skype, video conferencing, Facebook, texting and email represents the difference between moving forward in dispute resolution or not.

Retaining personal connection

Yet, we understand that mediation, at its core, is a human intervention often requiring deep personal connection. Does reliance on technology jeopardize the benefits inherent in the mediation process? As Eric Galton’s rap at the end of this post creatively asks, “Is there room in a dispute resolution process for a texted apology?” Or, as another colleague recently observed, “Just because we can do something using technology doesn’t mean we should, like self-driving cars.”

Author and researcher, Sherry Turkle, has been studying digital culture for over thirty years. She writes in her book, Reclaiming Conversation in a Digital Age, that we live in a world where younger people in particular have become digitally dependent and may be in desperate need of learning communication skills. She cautions that we may be raising a generation of people who lack empathy, possess limited aptitude for recognizing non verbal cues and, worse still, may be emotionally avoidant.

While the conversation of technology and its role in communication sometimes gets reduced to a discussion of generational differences, such reductionism misses the point. Communication is always a tension between mindfulness and distraction. While Ms. Turkle clearly states that technology itself isn’t bad, she warns of its potential deleterious impact on communication. Just this past week, we learned from science what we already suspected: our average attention span is shrinking and is now reported to be approximately eight seconds. We also know that the average cell phone user in this country checks his or her phone once every eleven minutes that they are awake.

The mediators’ technology bias

It would seem, then, as mediators, our first challenge is to start by understanding our own biases toward using technology in mediation. Are we open to allowing technology to assist rather than distract? When I walk into a room, for instance, and the participants are all busily engaged with their electronic devices, I will sit quietly until I have everyone’s direct attention. When I observe someone typing on their cell phone while another person is talking, I’ve often pointed out that they are taking notes, thus avoiding a potentially difficult moment. As another example, I’ve heard someone report that, while using Skype, she was surprised at how angry she looked during her exchange, because she could see her picture displayed in the corner of the screen.

We live in a digital world. At the recent conference of the International Academy of Mediators in Vancouver, British Columbia, we listened to an interesting report by the lead mediators for the Sports Dispute Centre of Canada explain that 95% of their mediations are conducted online in “virtual mediation sessions.” The combination of working with busy athletes who often travel, are comfortable with technology, and are faced with time sensitive disputes, makes web conference-based mediation their process of first choice.

At the same time, we are an industry that debates the wisdom of foregoing joint sessions with the parties for fear that it deprives everyone of the opportunity for authentic connection, including emotions. And, isn’t the discussion about using technology just another example of the trend away from the fundamental value of personal interaction?

In the past decade, we have seen more advances in technology than in the past fifty years combined. What we know for certain is that more changes are ahead. It would seem that our job as mediators, and even our ultimate success as an industry, may hinge on better understanding our own biases as we seek to reclaim conversation and find ways to make the fourth party in the room our ally rather than our enemy.

A rap on technology and mediation

During the recent conference of the International Academy of Mediators, I listened to my friend and colleague, Eric Galton, introduce the topic of technology and mediation with the following whimsical rap:

Reclaiming conversation
Is the new sensation
Digital Technology
Text me an apology
May be poor psychology
What on earth is wrong with me

No more face to face
Everyone needs space
Yet we must be linked in
Makes your head spin

Facebook birthday wishes
Instagram bar mitzvah pictures
Creating imaginary dishes
Pretend to swim with fishes

What did Siri say
Why did Alexa move away
To the Amazon she went
Is that where my Prime packages were sent

Yahoo when I’m glad
Yelp when I’m mad
Netflix when I’m sad
Zillow come see my pad

Google maps
Breathing apps
Fitbit palpitation
One minute meditation
Apple Watch
Replaced my Swatch
Heartbeat
Where to meet
It’s just lunch
Meet and greet
Open table
Good to eat
Angie’s list
Repairman bliss
All on my wrist
What did I miss

You see I have great difficulty
not dealing with things electronically
Internet advises gratification
Why not reevaluation
So why does everyone balk
Maybe we should relearn to talk
To each other
Like sisters and brothers
And listen to one another
And listen to one another

– Eric Galton

Bruce A. Edwards is an ADR industry pioneer and recent chairman of the board of directors of JAMS, this country’s largest private provider of ADR services. Along with his wife, Susan Franson Edwards, Mr. Edwards recently cofounded Edwards Mediation Academy, an online education platform dedicated to improving the skills of mediators around the world.

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By | 2017-05-25T12:52:05+00:00 October 1st, 2016|Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)|Comments Off on What Role Should Technology Play in Mediation?