Trust, online? Now that’s tricky!


Inter-party trust has been identified, in the literature and in practice, as one of the most important, yet elusive, elements in negotiation and mediation. What makes people trust one another? How do we decide whether to trust one another in negotiation? What is the most productive way a mediator might deal with trust issues – which might already be present or arise during the process -- between parties? These questions are challenging enough in face- to-face situations. What challenges does online communication pose with regard to trust, trust-building and trust-breaking? In this forum, we will to explore insights and best practices regarding, some of these questions.


To start this off, please read this short case, which will serve as a basis for this forum discussion as well as several others during Cyberweek: Ecotourism media effects case.pdf


Next, let’s kick the conversation off by relating the following questions:

 1)         What do you think is the most significant way in which communicating through online media is the same or different from trust building in face-to-face settings?


2)         How do you see some of those issues playing out in the Ecotourism case?


We're looking forward to this conversation a great deal! Let's get started.


Barbara and Noam

Moderator Bios:

Noam Ebner

Noam Ebner is an assistant professor at the Werner Institute at Creighton University's School of Law, where he chairs the online masters program in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution.  Previously, he taught at universities in Israel, Turkey and Costa Rica, in addition to managing a mediation firm in Jerusalem, Israel.

 He is the co/author of several pieces on online negotiation, including:

Ebner, N., (2007)  “Trust-Building in E-Negotiation”. In L. Brennan & V. Johnson (Eds.), Computer-Mediated Relationships and Trust: Managerial and Organizational Effects.  Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing

Ebner, N., Bhappu, A., Brown, J.G., Kovach, K.K. & Kupfer Schneider, A.  (2009) “You’ve got agreement: Negoti@ing via email.”    In C. Honeyman, J. Coben & G. DiPalo (Eds.) Rethinking Negotiation Teaching: Innovations for Context and Culture. St Paul, MN: DRI Press.   [Reprinted (2010) Hamline Journal of Public Law and Policy, 31(2), 31(2), 427-458]

Barbara Madonik

Barbara Madonik, President of Unicom Communication Consultants Inc., is a veteran communication consultant, mediator and dispute management specialist, and courtroom strategist.  An internationally-recognized expert in nonverbal communication, her worldwide practice focuses on practical, face-to-face and online communication tools.

She has been faculty and keynote speaker for clients that include government, business, universities, law schools, dispute resolution institutes, and the UN. She sits on two international advisory boards.

Her landmark book, I Hear What You Say, But What Are You Telling Me? The Strategic Use of Nonverbal Communication in Mediation (Jossey-Bass, 2001) has been required reading in graduate programs and Building Trust: Keeping the Heart and Mind in Online Negotiation” is now a chapter in the newest ABA Guide to International Business Negotiations (3rd Ed., 2009).  More information is available at and Barbara can be contacted personally at or 416-652-1867.

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Thanks for starting this forum, Noam, and welcome everyone!

To give everyone an opportunity to come away from this discussion with some practical tools s/he can use, I am now attaching the introduction to my chapter on Building Trust. This will provide additional food for thought. (I’ll send a copy of the whole chapter at the end of the forum to anyone who requests it.)

Here’s my challenge to you: When answering questions or offering information please resist the urge to perform "psychic surgery" or rationalize the case through ersatz psychobabble. Make sure your comments in this forum relate to practical tools and/or skill-based remedies that you back up by your reasons. That way, at the end of the discussion, forum readers should have a useable tool kit.

Thanks, in advance for your participation. Now let’s go ahead and have some fun!


Barbara Madonik
President, Unicom Communication Consultants Inc.
Communication Strategist, Mediator, Author & United Nations Consultant & Presenter
Noam and Barbara,
First, thanks for organizing this space!
It is a bit difficult for me to imagine, in this case, the process of building trust between the tourist group and the Ecotourism company. The fact as provided that the company reimbursed the cost of the trip, (it's already done and solved) leaves us in the dark with respect to the procedure selected to repair the relationship.
Having said that, I've found that technologies that allow the participants to hear each other's voices are more conducive to build trust than the ones that use chat alone. Also the voice of the third side is important....the tone and wording are the channels for trust building. Using a slow pace of delivery, modulating the words in a way that minimizes accents and giving parties the opportunity to follow the conversation, are crucial....and intangible factors.
Thanks for your insight, Nora.
You've certainly summed up how people with an auditory communication preference are often reassured or convinced by tones and words. They prefer to use sound in communication.

Sound, though, is only one of the three communication "channels" that people use (most times without even knowing it). The three channels --or communication systems -- are sound, sight and body sensation. (The latter, technically called kinesthesia, is communicated through feeling, smelling, tasting, and emotions).

Let me ask you ... and anyone else: What could you do to be just as reassuring with those people who have a communication preference for seeing things? These are the folk who believe "a picture is worth 1000 words."

What could you do for the third group -- the part of the population that is convinced or reassured through kinesthesia? They are the ones who unknowingly are making their decisions through communication that reflects body sensation. For example, they'll use expressions like "getting a feeling", "finding something tasteful"-- or tasteless", or sensing that something doesn't "smell right."

How might you craft your communication to reassure the second two groups? Also, what technologies -- old and new -- might help everyone involved in your negotiations?
I feel that the biggest difference in building trust in online and face-to-face settings is the amount of interpretation needed in a conversation. In text "My day is fantastic" could be interpreted differently than what the sender meant. Without tone, inflection, or non-verbal communication, one would be forced to interpret this to be a good thing. Hearing and seeing one say this would leave little doubt what they actually meant.

One of the great things about ODR is that it allows for the resolution of conflict over vast distances. This may also create problems with the unknown differences in the style of conflict engagement. In this case, at least three different styles are involved; not to mention the language, culture, and time differences. While many of these issues would also take place face-to-face, I feel they would be magnified if the right technology is not selected.

Luckily this case does have a bit of hope to it. At this point, they still have an interest of doing business together. Building trust will rely on this.
You have an interesting point about your interpretation of a phrase. Let's remember, also, that in different cultures, phrases are idiomatic. The example you use seems pretty straightforward ... to native English speakers.

I'm Canadian and I can still remember when I first started teaching French in the USA. My little students told me that I wasn't speaking English... I was "talking American." So everything I learned at university fell away because I recognized that I -- and the people I work with --always have to remember cultural overlays, even when we seem to look and sound alike.

For example, what about phrases that are idiomatic to a culture or language? I deal with this on a daily basis being based in Toronto -- an incredibly multi-cultural, multi-lingual city. In my work, not only do I focus on the practical applications of nonverbal communication, my foreign languages force me to consider all aspects of communication. Like all mediators and negotiators, I must consider the different nuances in a phrase or word whose meaning can depend completely on context and culture in which it is used.

So let's go with your suggestion that issues would be "magnified" if the "right technology" were not selected.

What technology --or combination of technologies --would you select, to buffer issues (rather create a sense that the other parties are being ignored or their concerns minimized) ?
Hi all
It's interesting, how when discussions about trust get started, the conversation often turns very quickly towards videoconferencing, in one form or another, as a good solution.

And yet - I think that if there is one area in which the technology, the internet and market trends are lagging behind people's expectations (as opposed to zooming ahead 10-20 years in front) it is precisely this area of video communication. I'm sure all of you out there said to yourselves, 10-15 years in the past, that "pretty soon the telephone will be a thing of the past, and we'll all have videophones" (well, maybe we used different words for it - but the expectation was there). Today - while technology for this and other means of video technology certainly exist, they are nowhere near perfect. Even more important: The 'market', those multitudes of users whose trends decide which technologies and applications will be adopted and as a result - further improved through research and development, has simply not made the transition to video. This, despite the fact that decent platforms exist, at low-fee or for free. We'll have a demo on dimdim later on today here at Cyberweek, and other platforms also offer free video: oovoo, Skype and others. Still - the market hesitates right on the brink.

Fair disclosure: I often catch myself with some degree of prejudice, as a text-oriented practitioner myself (my own ODR processes are nearly all conducted via email), towards types of ODR incorporating audio and even video - thinking that if these are added it's not really ODR; as if this is almost cheating. Funny how that slips out, until I catch myself. Come to think of it, this might be my writer’s-ego at work: I've focused quite a bit on text-oriented processes, so I want them to stick around in order to save me from instant anarchonism - funny how quickly that can happen nowadays!

Having said that, I believe just as much as anyone that when new, rich, video technologies become commonplace, hold on to your hats. For example - take a peek at this peek into the not so very distant (or so they say) future.

A different technological and marketing approach has led to other possibilities for doing something similar. Some of you may remember this, from US election night 2008 (see some background here).

And – perhaps taking this a bit further on the ‘human interactions’ spectrum – watch this

At any rate, though - it will certainly take some time until the richer technologies take hold. This is why - even though the case points to a videoconference being held - I'd suggest we see this as only one option, and instead of viewing it as an overall solution, break communication down into discrete forms and elements in order to gain a better understanding for what we need to know and do until such time as super-tech holography is perfected in such a way that Obi-Wan will always have the sensation that Princess Leia is right there in the room with him...

Breaking it down - Nora suggested visual elements as being more conducive to trust than strictly text-based exchanges. Barbara suggested that 3 types of people relate to different types of input: sound, sight and bodily sensation, and that we need to figure out ways to connect with all of them! How can we improve the sensations for a sight-oriented person, and what might we need to do for others?

Matt brought up a very important point: Meaning, interpretation, construction. Challenging enough face-to-face, precise understanding is certainly hard to come by in text-based interactions! How might we improve this? And - how might other types of interactions be challenged by this issue - or solve it?
This is a major element of our e-learning course on ODR and let me share some thoughts. As Barbara says, lets be practical here. The parties do not have to trust me as you would trust a friend. Whilst, of course, it would help if they did, but in reality, they don't have to know me as a person nor even like me. Not meeting me could be a bonus! I think we really have to clarify, therefore, what we mean by 'trust' in the context of mediation and then see how it is challenged by the mediator not being in the presence of the parties.

The single most important issue on which the parties need to trust the mediator is that he will stand by his undertaking that he will not disclose anything a party tells him in private to the other party without prior notice and agreement. That is key to encouraging the fullest disclosure, of both facts and emotion. Without trust that I will stand by that promise, a party may hold back on all he tells me and my work made more difficult.

Whilst generating that trust is easier when the parties meet you in person and can judge whether you are someone in whom they can present such trust, I do think that, in this respect, text does have two advantages and one tip then is to exploit such advantages repeatedly.

To write down the undertaking on confidentiality gives the parties the assurance to rely on the undertaking. Its in black and white. Further, its easier to keep to the undertaking in that I have time to prepare what I say in writing whereas something could easily slip out inadvertently in conversation in an in-person meeting. I may give a party that assurance ,but once I ask him to leave the room so I can talk to the other party, is he really confident he can trust me to keep to it? He may not give me his highest offer out of fear a little facial expression from me may give away to the other party that the latest offer is not the final one. We all readily acknowledge the supposed disadvantage of the lack of visual cues in ODR , but here is one area in which visual cues can be a distinct disadvantage!

A mediator will,of course, set out in writing the undertaking on inter-party confidentiality within his terms at the outset and should repeat it at the outset of the in-person mediation, but hours later the party may not have it at the front of his mind. Online you can continually repeat it, 'in black and white' (maybe red to highlight!) when it is felt important to encourage a party to release more information. So constantly write ' Remember, Jim, when you are replying to me that nothing you tell me in response in this area of the platform will be seen or copied or otherwise disclosed to Bob. '. This is why I had a permissions table built in at the head of all discussions in the mediation room to remind everyone who can and who cannot see those discussions.

Another subject in which you want trust is that you are as much anxious to reach an agreed solution as are the parties. Again we can see an advantage in ODR. The one way to lose trust is to say in an in-person mediation, 'we only have 30 minutes left to wrap this up' which sounds like - 'I have a wife/family/beer/other client/my own business/my own life to attend to which is much more important to me than your problem - besides you have already paid me'. With ODR we do not HAVE to have such time restraints (save in short low value ODR) so can always put in the extra message response and say 'take your time I'll still be here' and not appear rushed. I also like to use expressions to share the dispute so refer to 'one way we can solve this' not 'one way you can solve this' and such sharing looks better in black and white but I'll shut up now as I am in danger of straying into Barbara's psycho-babble no go area!

As Graham points out, the issue of trusting the mediator in an ODR environment, is dependent upon the notion of privacy and confidentiality of communications. Noam notes that the use of technology will vary, and, that the types of technology available will drive some parties to use the latest whiz/bang device while others will just stick with what they know. Barbara identifies characteristics of behavior that will push/pull a party toward or away from a consensus on how technology can be used in a trust building environment and will depend upon how skilled the neutral is in understanding what channels of communication are best for the people involved in the dispute.

To me, the choice of communication channels has to be contextually based: Ebay's dispute resolution mechanism is going to be driven by the nature of the online markets, the expectation that its users have a certain level of sophistication with online tools, and, most importantly, that the users of the online marketplace have agreed in advance to use these tools to solve their disputes. On the other hand, multiparty stakeholder dispute resolution, such as occurs in an environmental dispute over, say, wind farm developments, is going to involve numerous parties, stakeholders, courts, administrative bodies and so forth. Any online dispute resolution occurring in this setting will be consensually based, and, decided upon after the dispute has arisen. The opportunity for each stakeholder to assure that the correct communication channels are chosen will be determined before a technology is permitted.

Since we live in a transitional time, this represents a great opportunity to 'test' multiple technologies in DR settings. As long as technology is seen as 'just a tool', then, parties and mediators can choose or lose the technology as they see fit.
Jeff, zooming in on your final points, I think you've touched on something very important for moving this conversation along:

We've been talking a lot about choosing a medium and the trust-conduciveness (probably not a real word) of the medium being one of the choice factors. However: We will often not be the one choosing the medium! Often, neutrals will find themselves working through a channel parties agreed on, or an organization's in-house system or through something that someone's cousin gave one party a good price on.

Certainly, those of us who set up dedicated platforms of a certain nature and then allow cases to flow their way enjoy a larger degree of choice - but then they are restricted to some degree to their own initial choice - unable to change the platform's capabilities or nature according to the needs of a specific process.

Looking at things that way, it would seem that mediators need to equip themselves with a real understanding about the ways different types of online media affect
communication and process management:

Instead of 'email' or 'videoconferencing', let's start with 'synchronous' and 'asynchronous' as a good differentiating point: What is the effect of time delay?

Let's talk about 'text' vs. 'audio' vs. 'video', and try to understand what each type of channel is well-equipped to acheive - and what issues it challenges. If this boils down to practical insights such as "In videoconferencing-based mediation, the mediator should try and give the sense that the medium doesn't matter, and try to convey the exact same experience of a face to face medition", or "in e-mail mediation, mediators should explicitly recognize the fact that email communication can challenge trust in a new way every time someone clicks 'send'" - then we're getting somewhere!
Online (text) can give off a whole different meaning of something than the way the "writer" meant it. This has a huge role in the tone and sarcasm of ones voice, similar to as Matthew said earlier. Through text, it is almost impossible to accurately understand the emotion of dialogue.
Relating text to trust, sure with text it is a written down document that could be kept as evidence if ever needed, but a face to face conversation in my eyes is more powerful because I would have the opportunity to fully see the others expressions as they talk. A word for word same sentence can have two completely different interpretations when comparing text verse speech.
It is hard to build trust between tourists and the Eco tourism company due to the experience the tourists had. It is appreciated they reimbursed the trip, however the friendship between the two will never be accepted due to that trip. However this offer would seem more generous if it weren't via text. Something this crucial deserves a face to face conversation or at least a phone call and this is where I believe people don't realize when it really is not the accurate time to use a computer. Online media obviously seems more convenient but it is in no way the correct way for confrontation or anything of a serious matter. Face to face conversation is the first step towards showing how important something is or is not to you.
I'd be delighted to send whole chapter to anyone who requests it and is participating in this forum. Just email me a quick request at the end of the forum.

Now, while I have your attention about the thread of this forum I'd like to compliment all the contributors who are "stretching" their brains to accommodate the needs of the parties receiving the information. Good for you!

We read about high-end and state-of-the art media. Now, for us Luddites, let's look at the other side of the coin. Consider, for example, what action you might take in this situation: You have case facts and are looking to accomodate the different communication channel preferences of the receiver(s). However, some stakeholders in this particular environment have only (what I deem) "antiquated technology" (i.e., fax vs the new spiffy state of the art media on the market). Moreover, they are not really savvy about technology. What approach do you suggest under these circumstances?

What do you think would be trust-builders and trust-breakers?

What could be done to develop rapport and trust in this type of situation?

Over to you...

This question of less advanced technology made me think of the Online Family Mediation and Collaborative Practice webinar, specifically the research done on using distance mediation with separated couples in rural British Colombia. While the primary communication via telephone is a form of sound communication, the use of an email feedback loop also provided sight communication. This distance mediation used two of the three types of communication spoken of earlier. This would of course be dependent on a person’s confidence in email use, but I suppose a fax might be able to provide a similar function. It seems to me that the feedback loop could be a trust builder. As mentioned in a previous post, tone of voice in telephone communication would also be important to building trust. I also think that using teleconference so that all stakeholders could be part of a conversation would develop trust in this type of situation.


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