It’s hard to remember a time when I left the house every day to go to my office to sit in a room with clients. I guess for us all it’s becoming increasingly hard to remember that strange country called “normal” although I think most of us hanker after it. Will that world ever return? The smart money seems to be on that not being any time soon. Whilst I know of mediators returning to face to face work, personal and client safety issues aside, I feel that a computer screen is less of a barrier to the spirit of mediation than it is for clients and mediator to sit in the same physical space behind perspex screens or wearing face masks. At least onscreen we all look each other in the eye and pick up on the facial signals we all give.
As a board member of the Family Mediators Association, I (with my fellow board members) have been hosting regular Zoom sessions where our members can meet up to discuss mediation in this strange new world or just have a chat. I seem to remember there was an awful lot of discussion about hair and longing to be able to visit a hairdresser in the early days of lock down. From my conversations with many mediators, it seems that only a tiny minority are returning to face to face work at the moment.
However blase some people seem to be about the threat, the reality is that coronavirus still presents as much of a threat as it did at the beginning. Bar an effective and widely available vaccine, that seems likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. Given that, online mediation is the option of choice right now, indeed for many clients the only option..
That however is I think to look at what online mediation offers in a very negative way, purely as an alternative to the traditional face to face mediation. There are many of us mediators who would almost certainly never have considered working other than face to face before March this year who are converts to the online world. I know I’m not at all the only one who has come to evaluate the process as positive. I have lost count of the number of mediators who have said that they feel that online working is better in many ways.
It is more flexible- no longer those long-drawn out arguments about where to mediate when clients live at a geographic distance from each other. It’s just a question of a good enough broadband connection and a private space in your own home. There is no need to travel to see a mediator. He or she comes to a screen in your own sitting room or kitchen.
And I believe that having clients in their own spaces is important. It gives a lot of clients a confidence in stating their own views (essential to the process) which is sometimes lacking in the mediator’s room. There is also the odd phenomenon that clients by and large respect each other’s turn to speak far more than they ever did when sitting across from me and their esrtwhile other half in my room. Not always of course. But then the mediator can always mute the warring couple briefly to enable herself to get a word in edgeways!
Online mediation means the mediator being creative about how to deal with financial disclosure for instance. However it’s just a question of selecting a safe medium for exchange and attuning yourself to reading documents online rather than wading through a pile of paper. I don’t have to feel as guilty as I did about all the trees sacrificing their lives to fill my filing cabinets. Paperless is the way forward.
For those very many of us pushed to online mediation by force majeure who would previously have scorned the idea of ever working that way, it has been a revelation. I for one am glad I was pushed into working this way although not at all about the reason for that push. I still would like my real life back please.