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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While I do not have any personal experience in online mediation, I feel like of all the forms of ODR, mediation would be the most difficult to perform successfully online (ignoring the more technical complexities and difficulties of other forms of ODR). Of all the many types of alternative dispute resolution, mediation, because it is focused on mutual solutions as compared to adversarial success, seems to require close relationship, trust, and an overall positive rapport. Developing this closeness seems enormously difficult in an online setting. I have had a number of relationships with people over the internet, and even after many years I often have trouble connecting or really understanding the other person's interests or concerns during a conversation. It is simply difficult to empathize through a computer screen.


That said, I think these building blocks are definitely a step in a positive direction. Of the above six building blocks, I think numbers two and three are the most vital to success. In any online interaction, it seems imminently important to ensure that the parties know that the mediator is a human being who can understand their struggles. To ensure this, it is vital that a mediator write and communicate in a way that establishes his or her humanness. I think people are naturally doubtful of strangers over the internet. To alleviate this doubt via specifically chosen words and style seems to be the only way to really create a positive negotiation.


I'd also like to discuss issues of professionalism with respect to this issue of establishing a human relationship. It seems that the internet, for the most part, appeals to younger generations. And these younger generations who have grown up with the internet will soon be the businesspeople and citizens who employ online mediation more readily. These same young people are rarely trained in any sort of online etiquette. In fact, I think most believe the internet is a space where they are able to drop etiquette entirely. It seems like this would be a serious problem as more mediations are moved to the internet. Do any online mediators here have a problem with online etiquette? Do you notice a difference between online mediation and face to face mediation with respect to this issue?

Thanks for your thoughtful question, Nora. Creating a social presence is a way to connect psychologically to others. Thus, I am hesitant to say you should always do one thing or another. For example, if you are mediating with a Type A, no nonsense business person who is well-educated, articulate and wants to get to the point when discussing things, I do not think that person would connect well to someone who communicated casually. I think you want to get to know your participants and figure out who they are so that you can connect to them when communicating. That is why I have found during the past few years that I spend more and more time during the convening process communicating with participants (usually attorney representatives) as I prepare for a mediation session. I have to confess, however, that initially I like to have private telephone calls with intermittent emails as I prepare for the mediation session.


Now back to my hypo. If all of my communication is by email, I will want to make sure from the outset that I exude credibility and the best way I can do that is my establishing my qualifications, competence, and knowledge of mediation. I will take the time to do everything that has been discussed this week to ensure an accurate, authentic, well-organized, and clear message. As soon as I receive an email response, I should be able to tell if the sender has taken time to think through what he or she writes so that the message is clear and well-organized, has taken the time to proofread, etc. This assumes, however, that the sender is accustomed to typing and otherwise communicating via the Internet. If you find that someone is having trouble with virtual communication, that is a clue that online mediation may not be the best bet.

Nora Urbanski said:

Professor Exon,

I am very interested in this topic.  I participated in an online negotiation simulation recently and fond that the lack of personal elements like eye contact and facial expressions made it difficult to feel connected or really engaged with the person I was interacting with.  In reference to building block #2 “Create Social Presence” can you give an example of how this would be accomplished online?  Is this like using more casual words or phrasing?  For example using “couldn’t” instead of “could not” to sound more conversational? 


Everyone, thanks for such a fun-filled, rich dialogue this week. I have enjoyed moderating this discussion thread about how to maximize technology to establish trust in an online, nonvisual mediation setting. I appreciate the helpful comments that everyone made about my Six Building Blocks of Trust.


I want to end with a couple of reminders. As pointed out, many of these building blocks apply both to a face-to-face setting and virtual setting. They go beyond mediation and can be used in many aspects of our lives. Credibility plays such a large part in developing a trustworthy demeanor both in yourself as a virtual mediator and in the mediation process. The building blocks inter-relate with one another as shown by our discussion. And, finally I have discovered that I have much more to explore and learn about engendering trust as a virtual mediator. If you are interested in reading my upcoming law review article, it will be published in the next issue of the University of La Verne Law Review. Based on the discussion thread this week, I think I'll have to do more research and publish more on this interesting subject. Thanks again to all who contributed. My best, Susan.

I think your Six Building Blocks of Trust could apply to on or offline situations. I am a social media intern and as I was reading each point, I began to notice that these building blocks of trust tie into social media and how you should portray information on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Susan Nauss Exon said:

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.

Thank you so much Susan!


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