There are many differences in mediating online and mediating in person.
1. Online mediation is a time-delayed process and not contemporaneous like mediating in person.
There is a different rhythm in online mediation because each party answers via email usually at least once a day.
2. There are no visual cues online; all content is from the email message.
You don’t realize how much you rely on visual and audio cues until you communicate only via email messages. When we talk, we use inflection to indicate whether we are serious or trying to be funny. That cannot be done with online mediation. It is important to use plain talk and not be too cute or the message might be misinterpreted.
3. When mediating online, one must be very aware of email etiquette: no lol, smiley faces or CAPS.
If you are mediating online, you cannot use the same language you might use texting or on twitter. You need to be very careful about Caps, which are the equivalent of shouting on the internet. Smiley faces or abbreviations are not appropriate in that setting. If you use them, it shows that you may not be professional and are not taking the mediation seriously.
4. Parties are bolder online and more likely to use profanity or insult the mediator or the other parties.
When I first started mediating online, I was surprised that parties seem to be more willing to be bolder that they might be in person. Parties have used profanity and tried to insult or bully me. Cyperspace seems to embolden some people since there are usually no repercussions for such messages. I try to deal with this upfront in my groundrules for the mediation. IF this does not work, I deal with the offending party in a caucus and, if necessary, will stop the mediation if the disrespectful messages continue. After pointing out my policy, the parties usually change the tone of their emails, but not always.
5. Mediation can be freeing because the mediator usually does not know the race, ethnicity or home country of the parties.
Sometimes I prefer mediating online because I can deal with just the issues. I do not know the race, ethnicity and sometimes sex ( if email address does not indicate). This is freeing since there is little likelihood of bias or an allegation of bias. Unless they mention it, I often do not know where the parties are living. It could be Europe, Asia, Africa or the US or UK. What is wonderful about all this is that I can concentrate on the issue and how to resolve it.
6. Emails must look professional and should be checked for typos before sent.
When mediating online, one must be extra careful that the emails look professional. I n the haste of writing a message, it is easy to have misspellings and typos. Remember that spell checker only tells you whether a word is a word, not that it is used correctly. If the parties see typos and mistakes in an email, they may think that the mediator is not professional and does not care about his messages. If I have a long complicated message, I sometimes put it away so I can edit it later. I am usually much more able to see my errors. Everyone needs to be edited from time to time.
7. The Mediator sets the pace and rhythm by the timing of the emails.
The Mediator does set the pace when responding to the emails. Even when you get an immediate response, you may want to wait some time before answering so that the parties don’t think you are just waiting for their message. On the other hand, if you don’t check your messages every day, you may be slowing up the process. The Mediator has to find the right rhythm. Sometimes the Mediator can sense that the case is on a roll and close to completion. In that case, he may want to answer quickly to get the case closed.
8. Parties may feel isolated online and especially need to be kept informed.
When a mediation extends days or even weeks, it is important for the parties to be kept informed as to what is happening. Has the other side responded? What did they say? What is the offer? What do they want? Being a party in an online mediation can be isolating an the Mediator has to take special care to keep all the parties as to what is happening, if only to say that the other side has not responded.
9. Caucusing via emails is different than in person.
Caucusing is an important tool in online mediation. Caucusing means that I will “meet” with parties individually and we may discuss things that won’t be shared with the other party. The party will tell me what he wants to keep private and what he wants to let the other party to know. Sometimes it is harder to explain the caucus concept online than in person. Maybe that is because the other party may be on another continent in cyberspace rather than in the next room. Often the parties online don’t understand why they can’t see the messages that the other party is sending to me. I explain the caucus system in advance so that the parties won’t have expectations that they will see what the other party is saying to me.
10. Jokes and sarcasm often bomb and emails sound cold.
Without those visual cues we were discussing above, jokes often misfire. If the joke centers on the meaning of a word, that might be lost on those speaking English as a second language. You definitely cannot be sarcastic in an email. It really sounds caustic rather than funny. Many of use use gestures and inflection to get our meaning across. It is no wonder that emails often sound very cold. The Mediator may need to be a little chattier with a friendly salutation and sign-off. In addition, you may need to summarize so everyone is on the same email, so to speak.
In summary, I find online mediation challenging and fun. If you follow these rules, you will be able to mediate online like a pro.