Maximizing Technology to Establish Trust in an Online, Nonvisual Mediation Setting

Maximizing Technology to Establish Trust in an Online, Nonvisual Mediation Setting

As mediators increasingly rely on technology for all or part of their mediations, they must be cognizant of the best ways to effectively communicate especially when attempting to engender and maintain trust among all participants. The majority of our communication relies on contextual cues such as eye contact, proximity, personal space, and demeanor. Yet these same cues are lacking in a nonvisual, nonverbal environment such as email, chat rooms, and instant messaging. The written word, therefore, becomes the focal point of online communication.

We all know that an important part of a mediator’s job is to engender trust in both herself and in the process so that participants will feel at ease and share open, candid dialogue during a mediation. Trust is a multidimensional concept and definitions vary depending on different social sciences such as sociology, psychology, political science, history, economics, anthropology, and sociobiology. Although few agree on what the various dimensions of trust are and how the dimensions interrelate, let me simplify a definition for our discussion purposes. Trust is a subjective concept because it is based on perceptions. The trustor must infer feelings of trust. In doing so, the trustor must take a risk to rely on personal expectations that someone else will fulfill a promise or duty, exposing him to vulnerability and some reliance on faith. The trustor, therefore, lacks control over another’s actions.

Relying on background research regarding trust taken from fields other than mediation, I have developed Six Building Blocks of Trust to help a virtual mediator establish professionalism, credibility, reputation, integrity, competence, and other positive characteristics inherent in trustworthiness. As I developed these building blocks for the virtual mediator, I realized that most of them apply to mediators in a F2F setting as well. So here is a summary of my Building Blocks. What do you think? Let’s start a dialogue this week.

1.    Establish Online Reputation and Credibility

Building Block 1 provides helpful information for mediator marketing purposes in terms of website design and capitalization of online referrals designed to help a mediator be resourceful with a community.

2.    Create Social Presence

Building Block 2 is helpful for mediators to recognize the necessity of connecting psychologically to mediation participants and recommends creating a social presence in website design as well as applying social presence norms to online communication.

3.    Establish Credibility Through Skillful Written Interaction

The purpose of Building Block 3 is to demonstrate how a virtual mediator can gain and maintain credibility, and therefore trust, by using skillful text and skillfully managing the text of mediation participants.

4.    Create Positive Experience and Perceptions

Building Block 4 is a corollary to Building Block 3 because it suggests methods that a virtual mediator can use to send and manage written messages, but adds a level of optimism through the generation of positive messages and perceptions.

5.    Sustain Mediator Competence

The purpose of Building Block 5 is to highlight the fact that mediator competence in a face-to-face setting is not necessarily the same thing as an online experience. There are additional considerations that the virtual mediator must consider.

6.    Use Technology to Promote a Trustworthy Environment

Building Block 6 is necessary to demonstrate the critical role of technology to engender trust in the virtual mediator and in the online mediation process.

 

 

Moderated by:

Susan Nauss Exon is a Professor of Law at the University of La Verne College of Law in Ontario, CA, U.S.A. She is co-chair of the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Ethics Committee and a member of the Section's Ethical Guidance Committee. She has been mediating civil disputes since 1998.

 

 

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Now that you have had a chance to review a summary of my Six Building Blocks of Trust, welcome to this discussion of how to use technology to establish trust in an online, nonvisual mediation setting such as email, chat rooms, and instant messaging. I look forward to a week full of rich dialogue. During the week, I hope to explain the building blocks in more detail and hope to learn from you too.

For example, one of the most interesting building blocks for me is Building Block #2, Create Social Presence. I have learned that face-to-face communication is a rich medium because both visual and verbal cues are transmitted. Email, on the other hand, is considered a lean medium because it lacks both types of cues, thus reducing social awareness and hindering our ability to interact with others. Noam Ebner has written about email negotiating, noting that people in lean media tend to be more self-involved and fail to ask questions to understand someone else's underlying interests and motivations. Email negotiators, therefore, are more contentious than F2F negotiators and may exhibit a competitive negotiation style. Email also has advantages. Due to the asynchronous nature, people have time to contemplate before responding and may feel more comfortable participating in an email exchange, thus reducing "social influence bias among individuals . . . ." If the virtual mediator is aware of the effects of lean media, she can capitalize on this information to help disputants improve their online communication.

What do you think? I look forward to your input.

A great way to break down the areas that a virtual mediator needs to address to maximize their effectiveness. As I read your six steps, I could not help but to compare them to what I professionally do, university development (fundraising) and alumni relations. These six steps can be applied to a fundraising campaign to build confident and engender trust in a project and in a group of people raising funds for a particular project. Interesting way to apply your building blocks for other applications. Thanks for posting!

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Kevin. You have good insight. As I was conducting my own research, focusing on the virtual mediation in which participants cannot see or hear each other, it dawned on me that much of what I was emphasizing can and should also take place in F2F settings. In fact, I was already doing most of the things that I write about.

Kevin McAlpine said:

A great way to break down the areas that a virtual mediator needs to address to maximize their effectiveness. As I read your six steps, I could not help but to compare them to what I professionally do, university development (fundraising) and alumni relations. These six steps can be applied to a fundraising campaign to build confident and engender trust in a project and in a group of people raising funds for a particular project. Interesting way to apply your building blocks for other applications. Thanks for posting!

Susan, your Six Building Blocks of Trust provide a good rubric to consider the effectiveness of trust building in ODR. Is difficult to get one's arms around an amorphous concept like "trust building" without such a tool.I think maybe the most important element in the success of any ODR process involves the establishment of credibility in each of the ways articulated in your rubric. Credibility is clearly one of the conditions precedent to trust. Several of your Six Building Blocks of Trust touch on credibility; maybe they all do. The establishment of credibility without face-to-face contact is challenging. I find this to be true in the online courses I teach. Significantly more difficult than in the face-to-face courses. Kevin, think how difficult it would be to raise funds without any face-to-face contact.

Thanks, Stanley. I absolutely agree that credibility is a "conditions precedent to trust." Such related concepts as reputation, reliability and integrity also engender trust.  For example, for Building Block #1, Establish Online Reputation and Credibility, people will judge you in an instant from the way you are portrayed on your website. One can establish credibility by creating a website that is easy to maneuver, is neat, well-organized and clear so that important information can be ascertained at a glance. Establishing credibility is easy when relying on education, experience, qualifications, professional affiliations, and client endorsements.

Building Blocks #2 through #4 rely on credibility in terms of the words one uses to communicate. From the perspective of a virtual mediator, she can educate parties about the mediation process, demonstrate impartiality, be consistent in her interactions with participants, be clear and organized with a message, maintain professionalism, be transparent, provide predictable and prompt responses, and model positive personal characteristics by showing empathy, being friendly and helpful, acting as a good listener, promoting enthusiasm, and infusing social commentary. Noam Ebner recommends we think about the  "schmooze factor" when we email because all too often emails get right to the point in terms of business and lack friendly and social context. Thus, a good technique is to first write out an email response and then go back and insert words to demonstrate friendliness, empathy, etc.

Building Blocks #5 and #6 also rely on credibility to the extent the virtual mediator must demonstrate competence in her ethics and in her ability to use technology appropriately.

Okay, now I've just said a lot. Hopefully this provides a little food for thought.


Stanley A. Leasure said:

Susan, your Six Building Blocks of Trust provide a good rubric to consider the effectiveness of trust building in ODR. Is difficult to get one's arms around an amorphous concept like "trust building" without such a tool.I think maybe the most important element in the success of any ODR process involves the establishment of credibility in each of the ways articulated in your rubric. Credibility is clearly one of the conditions precedent to trust. Several of your Six Building Blocks of Trust touch on credibility; maybe they all do. The establishment of credibility without face-to-face contact is challenging. I find this to be true in the online courses I teach. Significantly more difficult than in the face-to-face courses. Kevin, think how difficult it would be to raise funds without any face-to-face contact.
Interesting topic here. One thing that comes to mind for me right way is the importance of rapport building in the early stages of a process. This is probably directly related to the "schmooze" factor mentioned earlier. One of my professors (Neil Katz) used to say "Rapport is like money. The more of it you have, the easier things can be, the less you have, the harder you may have to work to get things done." Some research done by Stephen Goldberg and Margaret Shaw (see summary here) explored elements contributing to mediation success in F2F work and rapport was very high on the list. So...how does one build this kind of rapport in virtual, text-based environments? Reflective listening seems like one good move, but I'm sure there are others we could spell out as well.
As we used to say in Arkansas, "you are preaching to the choir." Your comments regarding websites are on target.

The mediator's credibility and and trust are certainly damaged by poorly a designed website or the perceived inability of the online mediator to make efficient use of the available technological assets. I have not seen any specific research on this, but I suspect surveys along this line have, or would validate your point.

Addressing tactics for a moment, what methods would be at the top of your list for the online mediator to take to educate the parties about the mediation process and, at the same time, engender credibility and trust?
Think about what we say in a F2F setting. It is easily translated to online words. Without contextual cues such as eye contact, tone of voice, proximity, personal demeanor, etc., we must focus on the written word. Indeed, the written word is paramount to online communication. Choosing words carefully is the key and in an email exchange we have time to carefully write, edit and add the schooze factor.

So much of our credibility is built upon reputation (the way people perceive us). We have to show we know what we are doing and a great way is to highlight ourselves as a mediation process expert. So in the beginning of the mediation, we can simple introduce ourselves, highlight our qualifications, and explain the process that is about to unfold. This is nothing new; however, I suggest this because I believe that in an online setting where the mediator and participants cannot see one another, it might be too easy for the mediator to forget something so simple. By doing so, the virtual mediator can begin to engender "swift trust." As the mediator continues the mediation session, she then needs to do all those things highlighted in my earlier reply to demonstrate impartiality, consistency, predictability, etc. As information exchanges take place and mediation participants learn more about the mediator's reputation and behavior, they develop knowledge-based trust in the mediator.

There is really no magic to my building blocks. It's a way, however, to put everything in a logical order as we go about our business as a mediator. As I indicated early on, most of what I have gathered for the virtual mediator applies to the face-to-face setting as well.

Stanley A. Leasure said:

As we used to say in Arkansas, "you are preaching to the choir." Your comments regarding websites are on target.

The mediator's credibility and and trust are certainly damaged by poorly a designed website or the perceived inability of the online mediator to make efficient use of the available technological assets. I have not seen any specific research on this, but I suspect surveys along this line have, or would validate your point.

Addressing tactics for a moment, what methods would be at the top of your list for the online mediator to take to educate the parties about the mediation process and, at the same time, engender credibility and trust?

Professor Exon,

 

After reading this discussion I can see it is extremely important to build trust rapidly between the mediator and the parties. Your first five building blocks make sense to me on how a mediator would build trust. However, I am slightly unsure of how to put the sixth block into context. How does the mediator promote a trustworthy environment by using the technology itself? Thank you.

 

Nick

Law Student

Univ. of Nebraska  

I have divided Building Block #6 into four areas to help promote a trustworthy online environment:

1) Platform Design and its Underlying Code - although the underlying code is hidden, platform design must be accessible and bandwidth becomes important. To enable quick interface, a good idea is to use a minimal number of images and small icons can be visually pleasing. Colin Rule has a good discussion of how best to design a platform in his book, Online Dispute Resolution for Business: B2B, E-Commerce, Consumer, Employment, Insurance, and Other Commercial Conflicts (2002).

2) Ease of Use - in a research study conducted by Hassanein & Head, they determined that ease of use of a website creates a positive experience which in turn lends itself to trustworthiness. This idea interrelates with Building Block #1 in terms of how to design your website.

3) Ability to Protect Confidential Information - ODR participants must feel confident that their private information will remain private. As you design a program, therefore, you must ensure that technology ensures confidentiality.

4) Trust via Visible Components - because the underlyng code is not immediately noticeable a good way to establish a trustworthy website is to include visible components that individuals can readily see and experience. These visible components include: quality user interface design; speed; and reliability. Again, Colin Rule has a good discussion of this in his book.

Nick Buda said:

Professor Exon,

 

After reading this discussion I can see it is extremely important to build trust rapidly between the mediator and the parties. Your first five building blocks make sense to me on how a mediator would build trust. However, I am slightly unsure of how to put the sixth block into context. How does the mediator promote a trustworthy environment by using the technology itself? Thank you.

 

Nick

Law Student

Univ. of Nebraska  

Professor Exon,

 

Thank you. I overlooked the importance of the platform itself; it definitely has to be easy to use and reliable in order for the parties to maximize their potential in the mediation. 

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