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Best Practices for On-Line Mediation: Recommended Ground Rules

Rachel Alexander June 11, 2020

Mediating Online requires some new guidelines to optimize participants’ experience and maintain the integrity of the mediation process. Clients are encouraged to consider what makes them feel most at ease and supported while working in this new medium, as well as what makes them frustrated, unfocused and uncomfortable. As clients become more adept at virtual conferencing, they are very welcome to bring their insights to each mediation session, and the meeting can adjust to include improved practices and adapt to fit participants better.

Ensuring Confidentiality

How can we ensure confidentiality during online mediations? As we are not in a room together with a closed door, ensuring intimacy in our virtual “room” is vital. Mediation requires that both parties trust that they are safely held in a private space where nothing said will be recorded without consent, revealed to third parties, or otherwise used against them. An online mediation follows the same guidelines as a settlement conference: Confidentiality is protected as sacrosanct, a mandatory condition to engender the candor, open discussion and exploration necessary to resolve conflict.

Online mediation participants might consider these general guidelines:

  • No third parties present during the mediation. “Present” includes within earshot.

  • No recording of video or audio, unless expressly agreed by both parties at the start of each session.

  • No printing of “chats,” or instant messaging. No taking and printing of screenshots, etc.

  • Each party might disclose something about their physical location so that the other can be assured, or raise concerns if they have a sense that where the other person is holding the conversation is inappropriate.

  • Limitations of physical spaces and individual situations as well as tolerance for video communications should be considered, discussed and readdressed as it changes – e.g. a commitment to keep voices at a conversational level might be required. An agreement may be reached that if voices start to escalate, the other participant will need to mute or drop off the call immediately in order to protect the privacy of the meeting. The meeting can be rejoined, with a renewed commitment to respect the importance of keeping voices lower.

  • Make a commitment to stay on the call. We might agree that if someone drops off the video for any reason, they will endeavor to return as soon as possible, and we might agree if this happens, how parties prefer the remaining participant and mediator proceed – e.g. should the mediation pause, or can some information exchange continue, and if so, to what extent?

What can make this space safe, respectful, and even improve on what has been the norm as to how we conduct ourselves? These sample guidelines can be modified as well as used to generate other guidelines aligned to the specific needs of participants.

Managing the Time and Process

  • Breaks should be organized and discussed in advance if possible, to avoid either party leaving the meeting without giving notice.

  • Breaks can be scheduled as necessary or requested by parties, i.e. “I need a two-minute break,” or “I need a bathroom break,” etc.

  • Participants may agree whether they prefer to be present by video or phone, including the preference for how the other party is present.

  • Conduct – What is Acceptable and Agreeable to Both Parties

Which ground rules are fitting for a virtual divorce mediation environment? Sharing a physical space differs from sharing a virtual space. In the first session, we might take a few minutes to each express what we prefer and can agree to in terms of:

  • Does each party need to be on video at all times, or is just audio acceptable?

  • If someone needs to move around or stretch, will that be construed as rude or tolerable and necessary (perhaps to accommodate a physical condition)?

  • If one party becomes agitated, can we agree that if anyone has the impulse to leave or shut off video, they will first express this so that we might determine how it can be addressed in the moment? (For example, break for five minutes., end for the day, etc.) Or should the participants turn to another subject? We might agree on these options before such a moment arises.

  • Online interactions can be both more intense and easier to tune out, so we want to acknowledge if either party starts to lose focus (or the will to live!) in a shorter period of time than at an in-person meeting. We might agree to check in every 25-30 minutes and also make it acceptable that anyone can express their need to wrap it up and simply pause, or wrap up and schedule the next session. This can be an opportunity to practice recognizing and asserting limits and respecting (rather than arguing against) the other’s boundaries.

Preparing Yourself and Your Household: Organizing Ahead of Time and Making Arrangements for Other Residents, Especially For Kids

Preparation can start well before the mediation. Weeks before, in fact. The more you can create a schedule or structure for the household so there is designated quiet time (nap, reading time, movie/tv time, whatever — depending upon age of kids) as part of the daily schedule, the easier it will be to use that designated time for your mediation meeting. For example, after school (online school these days) kids have a snack and then an hour and a half to watch tv, read, play a game, etc. During this time they are not to disturb you or get into a project that requires adult supervision or involvement.

Have simple snacks and drinks available and prepared at least a day before so you don’t have to scramble at the last minute or be interrupted because someone can’t find the Fritos or Pellegrino.

Practice releasing your role of worrying about the others in the house during this time. Allow yourself to be the priority. This will take practice if you are accustomed to placing the needs of others in the household ahead of your own.

Once this time has been established, you will have already set the expectations of privacy and quiet and it will be far easier to utilize the time for a mediation.

The “day of”: particularly with younger kids, if possible, it’s best to organize the day so that there is some activity, preferably physical activity, outside the home prior to the scheduled mediation. A long walk, playground, park, or other outdoor time for a couple of hours, so that once home, kids naturally downshift to quiet or even rest, providing you the opportunity to turn to mediation. In addition, engaging in some fresh air and movement can release some adrenaline and calm nerves, get blood flowing and breathing regulated, and help you be more centered and grounded for the mediation session ahead.

By preparing a structure and then inserting the mediation session into the pre-established household framework, participants can alleviate competing concerns and distractions, and turn their full attention to the mediation itself.