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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Professor Exon,

 

I believe that the age of the individual will be the determining factor in establishing trust in an online mediation.  I believe that older people put a premium on handling disputes face to face, and I find it very hard to believe that a mediator will ever be able to establish trust in an online process with people who may not even know how to send an email.  Personally, I would be uncomfortable mediating anything but the smallest issue online.  I understand the benefits of online mediation, but I still believe that it would be hard for me to trust in the process.  I can only imagine how someone new to the process would react.  As such, I believe the most important building blocks are 3 and 4.  That being said, I think it may be more of a hurdle than a building block.  The question that I keep asking myself is "would I be comfortable participating in a real online mediation that involved me or my family?," and my answer is "I hope so, but probably not." Thank you for all of your work and the interesting topic.  In studying ODR, I have never asked myself how I would feel if I were a participant.  I appreciate your taking the time to provide this discussion.

 

All the best,

 

Ben Murray

University of Nebraska School of Law

Susan Nauss Exon said:

Stan, perhaps the younger generation has such strong feelings because they are so accustomed to using technology. Something to think about and perhaps study. Susan

Stanley A. Leasure said:
Susan: I agree with your assessment about the relationship between the comments and trust factors (now that I better understand trust factors based on your work). But, aren't you surprised this demographic has such strong feelings? But, maybe thing have not changed as much as I thought. Stan

Thanks, Noam and everyone, for your thoughtful questions and comments. As Noam qualifies, we need to keep in mind the text-based setting in which we are attempting to communicate without being able to see or hear each other. So Noam's question is how to warm up the website/platform design.

 

Being that I am not as techie as most of you, I want to address the website appearance. Color can make a difference. Years ago I wrote a paper for an LL.M. class about the effects of color.  In doing research for the paper, I looked at interior design texts. Shades of blue and green are calming colors, orange exudes creativity, yellow brightens up our day, red is a power color, etc. Some of Colin Rule's writings (can't remember if it's your book or the paper you attached the other day, which by the way I have cited to in my upcoming law review article so thanks), also discuss the calming effects of blues and greens. So why not think about how you can use color to express your personality on your website. Who is your audience? How can you try to connect to that audience (community)? What do you want to portray as you try to obtain a psychological connection? Individual words also are critical as that becomes the paramount part of our communication. Use descriptive adjectives to describe yourself, again thinking how to connect on a psychological or social basis. Pictures and diagrams also are important to convey your message.


Noam, I have had a chance to look at the website about how stuff works and the up and coming technology to create a "virtual stink." Really awesome. Think about how people stage a house when they try to sell it. During an open house, a bread-making machine may be on or cookies may be baking in the oven to provide positive smells of an inviting home--one in which a family can live. Think about your experience when you walk into shops. What do you smell? How cluttered is the merchandise arranged or is it easy to see merchandise at a glance. Seems like the new technology will enable us to select a smell for our website. I still need to learn more about this. But as for clutter, think how easy it is to read information that is clear and succinct and appealing to the eye.

 

As for platform design, it must be easy to maneuver. If not, the potential customer/client will go elsewhere. So what can be done with platform design? Here's where I have more questions than answers. Susan

 

Noam Ebner said:

Thanks so much Susan.

[Maybe this couldhelp? http://www.howstuffworks.com/internet-odor1.htm]

As you noted, I've been looking at this quite a bit, in particular as I'm trying to develop a model of understanding e-negotiation dynamics in which social presence plays a stronger role than it is currently accorded in the literature - including in my own writing. I think it plays a covert role in many elements of the online negotiation process in addition to its 'classic' manifestations.

I fully agree with everything you wrote about the need to warm up the internet and the interactions it allows. Setting communication patterns and tools aside - could I ask you and others for your thoughts on website / platform design that you think might help contribute to this? Keeping in mind, of course, your original framing of the forum according to which we're talking about a non-visual or text setting. Thanks!

Professor, 

 

Thank you for posting these building blocks. I do have a question regarding a comment you made early on in the discussion chain on Monday. In that post you mentioned building "swift trust" that is essential in a traditional mediation sometimes being overlooked in on-line settings. Do you think a formal and institutionalized ODR certification would be an appropriate means to build trust, and if so, what would training or qualifications for that entail?

 

Thanks, 

 

Jeff

I feel that the process of ODR is risky in a lot of aspects.  There are the trust issues that were presented and the uncertainty of the process.  I feel that the world of technology is progressing in the right direction for the process to work.  With video chats, webcams, and programs like Skype the ODR process could be maximized with the same amount of trust as face-to-face interaction.  The problem of personal touch and interaction is still an issue with ODR however.  Some people like the personal feel of face-to-face mediation.  I personally think ODR should only be used as a back up plan due to weather, sick days, or travel distance.  I feel that it should not be the main source of ADR.
I'll be honest: I've baked those cookies myself...   These are some excellent starts!

Susan Nauss Exon said:

Thanks, Noam and everyone, for your thoughtful questions and comments. As Noam qualifies, we need to keep in mind the text-based setting in which we are attempting to communicate without being able to see or hear each other. So Noam's question is how to warm up the website/platform design.

 

Being that I am not as techie as most of you, I want to address the website appearance. Color can make a difference. Years ago I wrote a paper for an LL.M. class about the effects of color.  In doing research for the paper, I looked at interior design texts. Shades of blue and green are calming colors, orange exudes creativity, yellow brightens up our day, red is a power color, etc. Some of Colin Rule's writings (can't remember if it's your book or the paper you attached the other day, which by the way I have cited to in my upcoming law review article so thanks), also discuss the calming effects of blues and greens. So why not think about how you can use color to express your personality on your website. Who is your audience? How can you try to connect to that audience (community)? What do you want to portray as you try to obtain a psychological connection? Individual words also are critical as that becomes the paramount part of our communication. Use descriptive adjectives to describe yourself, again thinking how to connect on a psychological or social basis. Pictures and diagrams also are important to convey your message.


Noam, I have had a chance to look at the website about how stuff works and the up and coming technology to create a "virtual stink." Really awesome. Think about how people stage a house when they try to sell it. During an open house, a bread-making machine may be on or cookies may be baking in the oven to provide positive smells of an inviting home--one in which a family can live. Think about your experience when you walk into shops. What do you smell? How cluttered is the merchandise arranged or is it easy to see merchandise at a glance. Seems like the new technology will enable us to select a smell for our website. I still need to learn more about this. But as for clutter, think how easy it is to read information that is clear and succinct and appealing to the eye.

 

As for platform design, it must be easy to maneuver. If not, the potential customer/client will go elsewhere. So what can be done with platform design? Here's where I have more questions than answers. Susan

 

Noam Ebner said:

Thanks so much Susan.

[Maybe this couldhelp? http://www.howstuffworks.com/internet-odor1.htm]

As you noted, I've been looking at this quite a bit, in particular as I'm trying to develop a model of understanding e-negotiation dynamics in which social presence plays a stronger role than it is currently accorded in the literature - including in my own writing. I think it plays a covert role in many elements of the online negotiation process in addition to its 'classic' manifestations.

I fully agree with everything you wrote about the need to warm up the internet and the interactions it allows. Setting communication patterns and tools aside - could I ask you and others for your thoughts on website / platform design that you think might help contribute to this? Keeping in mind, of course, your original framing of the forum according to which we're talking about a non-visual or text setting. Thanks!

Professor Exon,

I find your Six Building Blocks of Trust very interesting, especially because digital interactions are becoming the norm. This week, my Advocacy in Mediation class discussed the difficulties in effectively communicating over email and other written electronic mediums. So I wanted to ask you a little more about Building Blocks 3 and 4.

One concern that seemed to come up often was how a mediator can maintain impartiality and trust when electronic communications can be misread or taken the wrong way. In the event that one party in a mediation misreads a communication from the mediator, causing the trust between them to suffer, how do you suggest that the mediator handle the situation?

I know that a simple apology would be appropriate, but written communications through the internet don't carry the same emotional weight as face-to-face interactions. I'm concerned that if one party has the perception that the mediator is in the other party's corner, purely written electronic communications won't be enough to undo the damage.

What do you think?

Sincerely,

 

Tim Lenaghan

University of Nebraska Law Student

 

I must admit that I have not read Noam's work about about people tending towards self-involvement in lean media, but I wonder if it may have something to do with our attempts to be brief when sending email.  It seems that people are still more comfortable reading anything of length when it is in hard copy (maybe Kindles and the like will lead toward change!). 

Interestingly, I do not see this as the case in my experience with Facebook.  Oftentimes when a user posts a comment or status update that contains some kind of emotional display, is vague or cryptic, readers tend to inquire and try to understand the underlying motivation.  I'm not sure if that exemplifies people just being nosey or if there is something that could be taken from this sort of interaction for ODR.  Also, most of these exchanges take place between people who have existing relationships.

Mediator relationships aren't meant to be long lasting, but the right balance needs to be struck in order to develop a positive rapport and establish trust.  I think separate initial private meetings between each party and the mediator are a necessary first step.

 In your work about email negotiating, Noam, you noted that people in lean media tend to be more self-involved, fail to ask questions to understand someone else's underlying interests and motivations, 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 without having to interact physically with an opposing party.

 

Jeff, I believe the quote you are referring to from Monday is as follows:


"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.'"

 

I am not saying that swift trust is overlooked in online settings. What I am saying is that whether you are the mediator in a F2F or online setting, a way to quickly establish trust is through your own introduction, capitalizing on your qualifications and accomplishments, education, etc. This type of information provides credibility for the mediator, which in turn helps to engender trust in the mediator, at least initially.

 

So now to your question: "Do you think a formal and institutionalized ODR certification would be an appropriate means to build trust, and if so, what would training or qualifications for that entail?" This is an interesting concept because it signifies that not only is the mediator trained traditionally as a mediator, she also has special ODR skills. That would play directly into Building Block #5, Sustain Mediator Competence, and actually wrap up everything we all have said this week. We have to pay special attention to the way we communicate in writing. We can easily translate what we say in a traditional, F2F mediation to text, yet we need to slow down and be thoughtful in how things are said and what specific words are used because we are creating a permanent record. Perhaps a communications professor who has online experience could teach a segment of an ODR certificate. The psychology of conflict could be translated into the ODR setting and be taught. Obviously, an ODR certification would need to include training on the use of different types of online platforms. Overall, however, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are all different and our ability to trust someone, including a process like mediation, depends so much on our subjective interpretation of reputation and credibility, which brings us back to Stan's comment on Monday that credibility is a conditions precedent to trust.

 

This is just a start. How about others? What else should be included in ODR certification?

 

Jeff Kanger said:

Professor, 

 

Thank you for posting these building blocks. I do have a question regarding a comment you made early on in the discussion chain on Monday. In that post you mentioned building "swift trust" that is essential in a traditional mediation sometimes being overlooked in on-line settings. Do you think a formal and institutionalized ODR certification would be an appropriate means to build trust, and if so, what would training or qualifications for that entail?

 

Thanks, 

 

Jeff

Another good question, Tim. I really appreciate your thoughtful insight. Within Building Block #3, I discuss the need to be consistent in behavior and responses, have clear and well-organized answers, provide professionalism and transparency, among other principles. There are great ways to meet all of these principles. Try to include one main theme per email. If you need to discuss more than one point, then carefully organize the points by paragraph. Include a descriptive subject line. In other words, never send an email without something in the subject line that provides good direction for the text of the email. Just like mediators reframe and summarize in a face-to-face mediation, they can do this in emails to prevent misunderstandings. In fact, if the virtual mediator uses techniques of reframing and summarizing, this may prevent misunderstandings in the first place.

 

Within Building Block #4, I discuss the need to model positive personal characteristics. For example, the virtual mediator can reflect helpfulness and friendliness in her emails. Studies have shown that if we interject a bit of social commentary (personal information), we can help to build interpersonal relationships. Thus, if people like each other, they are more willing to trust them. The mediator can model active listening skills by responding with good questions that signal she has heard what the mediation participants have said. The mediator also can promote enthusiasm in emails. Examples might include: "I appreciate how hard everyone is working," or "it is wonderful to see the good faith efforts of everyone as you work hard to reach a resolution."

 

I hope this gives you some information to take back to your class.

Timothy Joseph Lenaghan Jr said:

Professor Exon,

I find your Six Building Blocks of Trust very interesting, especially because digital interactions are becoming the norm. This week, my Advocacy in Mediation class discussed the difficulties in effectively communicating over email and other written electronic mediums. So I wanted to ask you a little more about Building Blocks 3 and 4.

One concern that seemed to come up often was how a mediator can maintain impartiality and trust when electronic communications can be misread or taken the wrong way. In the event that one party in a mediation misreads a communication from the mediator, causing the trust between them to suffer, how do you suggest that the mediator handle the situation?

I know that a simple apology would be appropriate, but written communications through the internet don't carry the same emotional weight as face-to-face interactions. I'm concerned that if one party has the perception that the mediator is in the other party's corner, purely written electronic communications won't be enough to undo the damage.

What do you think?

Sincerely,

 

Tim Lenaghan

University of Nebraska Law Student

 

I agree that trust is an integral issue of the online communication situation and building rapport is vital to this and your building blocks seem to feed right into the building of this trust.  I just wonder what types of checks and balances can be used to verify the direction of the mediation.  I hope I made my point clear.

Susan Nauss Exon said:

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  

Dee, I think the greatest type of checks and balances is the permanent record that email creates.

Dee Head said:
I agree that trust is an integral issue of the online communication situation and building rapport is vital to this and your building blocks seem to feed right into the building of this trust.  I just wonder what types of checks and balances can be used to verify the direction of the mediation.  I hope I made my point clear.

Susan Nauss Exon said:

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  

This is a very interesting topic! In fact, the whole idea of resolving disputes online has always made me leery due to the trust factor.  I have a hard enough time trusting people in face to face environments hence; I really find it difficult to trust individuals online, especially with confidential disputes/matters. I normally judge an individual's intention and motive based on their facial expressions and body movement.  The inability to see these aforementioned features online presents me with discomfort which makes it difficult for me to trust.  To that end, I think the information that you laid out will be very beneficial to mediators because it provides them with the building blocks to handle individuals such as myself that have online trust issues.

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