Connecting the Dots Through Telephone Mediation

By Laura Melton Tucker, January 31st, 2011

Listen to this entry.

There is a saying that you can’t connect the dots until you collect the dots.  Mediation, in part, is about collecting dots.  Two people meet to hear one another’s story, (one dot), explain their version of the same story, (another dot),  problem solve possible solutions, (more dots), etc.  Once these dots are on the table, connections can be made.  Some connections are minuscule, a small detail cleared up.  Some are considerable, a softening of a position, perhaps.  Some are huge, veritable paradigm shifts, that allow warring factions to make peace.  Most dot connecting happens over time.  Mediation gets the dots rolling.

Every now and then, collecting dots becomes more difficult because the parties live in separate states or countries.  In these situations, I offer telephone mediation as a possible work around.  There are advantages and disadvantages to telephone conferencing, as illustrated in Dorothy and Doug’s story (with names and circumstances changed).

When Dorothy approached me about mediation, she was concerned about the court mandate to mediate when her husband lived several states away.  Because of work commitments, her husband Doug wouldn’t be able to travel to Iowa in time to meet the mediation deadline.  I asked her if she’d asked for a court waiver to mediation, since Doug’s unique geographic circumstances created a hardship.  As Dorothy explained to me, she didn’t want a waiver, she wanted a conversation with her absentee husband.  She asked for a telephone mediation.

I arranged Dorothy and Doug’s telephone mediation by setting an agreeable time (in both time zones) for each of us to call into a conference call phone number.  Our shared telephone line would provide a mediation space, if not an actual place.  As I explained to Dorothy and Doug, the advantages to phone mediation are obvious.  Convenience is at the top of the list.  Though most telephone conferences begin awkwardly with parties unsure of when to speak, how to interject, etc., in quick order we find a rhythm and the conversation progresses naturally.

But, of course, telephone conversations are limiting.  We can’t see each other’s faces.  We can’t read body language.  During a telephone mediation, it is especially incumbent on the mediator to check in frequently to see how the process is working for each participant in order to maximize transparency with a communication medium that favors opacity.

On the day of the mediation, Dorothy developed cold feet and asked if she might sit in my office and share the phone with me.  As a neutral mediator, I was cautious when Dorothy approached me asking for this change.  “I’ll have to check with Doug“ I told her, “to see if he is comfortable with the arrangement.  I don’t want him to feel like the two of us, sitting together in my office, are ganging up on him.”  With Doug’s permission, Dorothy came to my office for the phone call.  I spent extra time assuring Doug that I was acting on both of their behalves.  Frequently, I commented aloud, “Dorothy is showing some concern on her face. I’m going to ask her to explain her expression and see if she has any questions for you.”  I extended this same effort to Doug: “Now that Dorothy has given her side, I’m not able to see your reaction.  Can you tell us your thoughts?”  Despite these attempts to balance the experience for both participants, I wasn’t entirely successful.

When the call concluded, Doug asked me to stay on the line to answer a few questions.  I demurred.  “I would prefer to speak to you with Dorothy present,” I explained, “unless, of course, you have a question or comment about the mediation process.“ He did, he said, and we made arrangements to speak the next day.

When Doug and I spoke again, he explained that he wanted me to know a few things that Dorothy had left out.  He felt  she’d misrepresented him to me.  I stopped Doug before he was able to go into his retelling of the story, assuring him that it didn’t matter what I thought one way or the other.  What mattered was whether he felt he’d had an adequate opportunity to explain himself to Dorothy.  The process hadn’t worked over the phone for him as well as it might have if  we had met in person, I explained.  I promised to work harder next time to make sure he had adequate opportunity to give his side.

Doug’s follow up conversation with me was clarifying. While I could see Dorothy’s face and note a furrowed brow or shadow cross her eye, I couldn’t do the same for Doug.  Nor could he see me watching for his reaction to her words or nodding in understanding while he spoke.  The takeaway for me that day was that while telephone meetings are handy, they’re also problematic. They require extra diligence and attention.  While collecting and connecting dots across time and space is convenient, it is also a challenge without the added benefit of seeing one another’s face.

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