I was a sceptic. I was wrong
I was wrong. If you’d asked me in January 2020 what I thought of virtual mediation, I would have said “It can work, but really it’s a last resort”. However, after conducting multiple facilitated conversations through online platforms, I am prepared to put my hand up and admit it, “I was wrong”. They can work, and work well. Though that does not mean they are ideal for every circumstance. We’ve noticed some interesting trends from the Zoom mediations we’ve done. We’ve also been keenly asking participants about their experiences.
1. Reducing anxiety
What has pleasantly surprised us is the success we have had with video conferencing mediations. Initially we thought, how can it be successful???
When entering a mediation or facilitated conversation, participants can carry high levels of anxiety. Being in their ‘home’ environment often calms them and helps to ease participants into a conversation. They feel less pressure, less under the spotlight and so find it easier to open up and discuss the issues they are grappling with. Last week a participant, Sam, commented “Being in a safe familiar environment allowed me to enter the conversation calmly. When I was physically at work I constantly felt on edge.”
Sam’s feelings are consistent with the study this academic study that shy and socially isolated individuals communicate more in an online forum because it provides some protection from social anxiety.
2. Increased confidence & allowing the nervous participant to be more assertive
Not having to be in the same physical space as the other participant places a degree of separation that allows participants to be more direct. Leena shared “I felt much more comfortable being in my space. It allowed me to be more assertive”. This is relevant as a significant fear for some participants is to be in the same room with the person they are struggling with. In this case Lena felt unable to meet directly with her manger, Sarah. With Leena and Sarah in separate rooms, actually in separate suburbs, Leena’s confrontation threat was greatly reduced as she did not feel as though she had to ‘face off’ directly against anyone. Again, this lowered her anxiety levels and allowed her, as a nervous participant, to better assert and explain her issues.
3. More self-awareness of body language and containment
In highly emotional disputes, I have found that the online experience has reduced the “emotional temperature”. Many participants aren’t always aware of their body language when the other participant is being discussed or is present. The beauty of the online forum is they can see themselves. The mirror is being held up as they can see themselves on screen. In a preparation session with a participant I said to them “Watch your face as you answer the following question”. I then went on to ask them their opinion of their colleague. Their response to me said it all – “I saw my jaw clench and my eyes narrow. I must give off that vibe without even knowing it. My face basically says you repulse me”. I could easily then say “Well, is that the impact you want to have?” and away we went. This academic study found that interacting online increases individuals’ self-awareness.
Further, a fear often expressed to us in a mediation is “What will you do if they start acting inappropriately towards me during the session?”. The quick ratcheting up of emotion and individual unregulated response to emotion (like lashing out, finger pointing, hostile body language) does not seem to occur as readily in an online format. In one facilitated conversation I still had to help a participant calm down and reflect on their aggressive comments, however, the raw emotion and physicality of the situation simply was not present. No waving arms nor pointed fingers.
4. Issues with online mediation
Don’t get me wrong the virtual mediation has its limitations and hurdles too. Some scenarios just aren’t conducive to zoom (MS Teams/Google Hangouts etc), just as some scenarios aren’t conducive to mediation at all. For example, it is true that building rapport, connection and meaningful interactions are more difficult in an online environment, especially when they do not already exist. Also, if the conflict is deeply entrenched and long standing, it can be very difficult to help participants shift their thinking to a problem-solving mind set. To help deal with these situations where we are simply not able to come face to face, we have scheduled 2 or 3 individual preparation sessions and adopted a more overtly coaching approach.
5. A word on Zoom Fatigue
It’s not just a feeling, there really is a phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue”. This article in the Conversation and this article in Forbes explain very nicely why that is. A small tip, you can hide your self-view on Zoom to reduce your cognitive load, here is how. This tip alone, given to me by a wise client (thank you!), has markedly reduced my fatigue.
We would love to hear from you about how you have grappled with online workplace conflict resolution. Please give us a call if you’d like to discuss any issues you are currently confronted with.