Is the Internet conducive for carrying out mediation? Yes it is, and with developments in online technology, it can possibly improve the process. 

Cross-examining mediation and the Internet

The internet has permeated almost every aspect of our lives: from connecting with friends, to seeking a career or investing in a new property. Should it also be used for mediating disputes?

In trying out new ways to do things, there are usually advantages and disadvantages. This is also the case when using internet technology for dispute resolution and mediation. Using the internet for dispute resolution can be particularly convenient when it comes to conflicts that call for monetary settlements. Let’s consider an example where a website provides participants with a neutral setting to exchange offers, where claimants simply submit their offer to the site, which remains undisclosed while the other party submits their preferred settlement amount. If both their demands fall within the same range, the website could then confirm a settlement offer. If not, both their demands would remain confidential, and they could walk away from the negotiation without losing anything. While this example showcases how the internet can provide a neutral environment and encourage both sides to communicate, it stills fall short of mediation due to the lack of a flexible, empathetic and legally-trained mediator, and being limited to resolving monetary issues only.

Using the Internet for dispute resolution can provide convenience. For individuals who live far from each other, online mediation will eliminate the need for them to travel long distances to be able to discuss their dispute. Aside from this, online mediation also allows parties to join the discussion in their own time.

Another benefit that can be gained from online mediation is the asynchrony that it lends to communication. Online technologies, such as email, can prevent the exchange of confrontational remarks between participants because they do not see each other face-to-face. This gives the mediator the chance to refine their responses, and to talk separately with both of them without the other side feeling ignored. The impact of negative emotions is lessened, and allows both sides to move toward formulating a resolution. For cases that are sensitive in nature, not having to attend a face-to-face meeting offers protection and comfort for some participants.

Using email for mediation also enables mediators to efficiently document all the information and topics covered, and present them to both sides. The mediator can describe the conflict in context based from their input, including the possible outcomes that they have proposed. Participants may be asked “what if” questions through email to encourage them to consider the risks if they proceed to court. With this form of communication, both sides will have a comprehensive understanding of their dispute and can work out best how to move forward. Privacy of information is very important and mediators must ensure application security is made available for all information exchanged.

The downside of not meeting face-to-face is that the discussion can prevent them from fully understanding each other’s side on the conflict. With email messages being devoid of emotion, they may not be able to sense how offended the other side felt. The impersonal nature of the email technology also prevents the mediator from demonstrating empathy for both sides.

Fortunately, online technology has improved and can now address this issue. Through videoconferencing, mediators and participants can see and talk to each other.

Videoconferencing removes the barrier in online mediation

With the use of a computer with a web camera and a stable Internet connection, participants and the mediator can see and hear each other as if they were in a face-to-face meeting. They may use video conferencing technologies such as Skype or GoToMeeting to start the discussion. These applications offer screen sharing to allow participants to support their story with presentation slides. In addition, these videoconferencing tools enable mediators to hold separate consultations and joint mediation sessions easily with both sides.

Despite doubts, some mediators and lawyers have found videoconferencing beneficial for online mediation. With the right videoconferencing equipment and setting, the experience of having a face-to-face meeting can be achieved, without anyone having to leave the privacy of their home or office. This can also reduce the hostility between both sides, as it lessens the physical proximity they would otherwise have should they be situated in one building.

SHAW Mediation Australia can provide its clients with a location that offers videoconferencing technology. For participants that are situated in different parts of the world, this can help them discuss their dispute conveniently wherever they are. Being able to talk about a conflict immediately enables parties to resolve their issues in a short amount of time.

Aside from videoconferencing, there are other online platforms that are being used for mediation. The Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria offers web-based material for neighbourhood disputes. The resources come in different languages to address the needs of diverse communities. It also has a system for posting comments to ensure that all sides will be heard. Another technology is a software application known as Family Winner, which seeks to help divorcing couples. To encourage both sides to focus on their interests, the system distributes the items to the person who wants it the most. Through a trade-off approach to the dispute, the parties communicate and negotiate until they can eventually resolve their conflict.

With these different technologies, online mediation may be used more often to resolve disputes, which offers an efficient and a convenient alternative for parties in conflict.