In the Netherlands, several mediation service providers are using hybrid forms of Juripax-ODR technology in labor and employment disputes. In contrast to ODR processes which take place exclusively online, here ODR is used to support the traditional offline procedures. Specifically, the participants are asked to fill in an online intake before attending the face-to-face mediation. The answers are only sent to the mediator (asynchronous mediation). Actually one could describe this as some kind of pre-caucusing in order to prepare for the face-to-face mediation.


CASE STUDY

Mrs. Johansson (working in the internal sales department) and Mr. Eckstein (supervisor) are going through a nasty conflict. The past 2 months, Mrs. Johansson has been sick-listed. So far, the tones of the discussions were largely reproachful and failed to produce any kind of solution. Consequently, the dispute is referred to the Human Resources office which recommends mediation.


Instead of participating immediately in a face-to-face mediation, the mediator decides to use an online tool to support the face-to-face interactions. Reasons for the mediator to use an online intake are the problematic relationship but especially the destructive communication. As the textual and delayed communication provides people with time to reflect without experiencing the external pressure of the other party, the use of the online tool in escalated conflicts can be very helpful. It may be helpful to cool down and to reframe the situation.


In the above real-life case study, the intake and first discussions were conducted online. As the discussions became more constructive, there were two concluding face-to-face discussions.



Moderator bios:


May-Britt Kollenhof-Bruning

May-Britt Kollenhof-Bruning, Master of Dispute Resolution is a professional mediator, trainer and cofounder of Juripax, Netherlands. Juripax B.V. is an ODR software and services provider that aims to prevent miscommunication that may occur in handling complaints and – if a dispute cannot be prevented – to resolve it effectively. May-Britt comes to the field of online conflict resolution with extensive expertise in the area of conflict resolution. She completed her formal mediation training in the U.S. She has served as a mediator and arbitrator in, mainly, complex commercial disputes. As an independent contractor she has mediated hundreds of online disputes for various companies, including eBay.


Katalien Bollen

Katalien Bollen is a PhD candidate in Organizational psychology at the University of Leuven, Belgium. At this institute she obtained an MA in Organizational, Work and Personnel Psychology. The subject of her doctoral thesis is “Mediation in hierarchical labor conflicts”, in which she focuses on the role of power and emotions during mediation and the use of computer-based technology while mediating. Katalien is a trained mediator and is currently involved in the courses “Group Dynamics” and “Mediation in organizations."


Bryan Hanson


Bryan Hanson is the Assistant Director of the Werner Institute for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution at Creighton University. As a practitioner in dispute resolution, Bryan draws on his experiences and education to assess the existent dynamics, engage the relevant parties in dialogue, reframe the negative to the appreciative, and bring a sense of calm to the room to assist in the facilitation of group dialogue and resolution of interpersonal conflicts. He has a B.S. from Minnesota State University – Mankato in Speech Communications, and an M.A. from John F. Kennedy University in Organizational Psychology with a graduate certificate in Conflict Management. Prior to joining the Werner Institute, Bryan was a university administrator in the San Francisco Bay Area where he also devoted substantial time to work as a mediator, facilitator and trainer in conflict resolution. Bryan also currently serves the Creighton University community as a member of the distance education review committee.




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To start the discussion off, let’s relate to the following question:

People often assume that online communication is often much more hostile than face-to-face communication. Between conflicted parties, online communication may give rise to the expression, or attribution, of more negative emotions. What is your opinion about this?
I suppose that online communication can be very hostile. Particularly
- when the conflict is highly escalated
- people do not want to see each other again
- and esp. when the communication is synchronous (e.g. chat in stead of mailing)
In those cases the screen represents a screen to hide from the potential attacks of the other one ...
Actually, I find that online communication tends to be more measured than face to face interaction. In labor-management relations in the U.S., parties are often taught to be confrontive or combative in their opening sessions. We have found that sharing info online before f2f meetings and using online tools to brainstorm can have a moderating effect.
In my opinion, I do not know if online communication is often more hostile than f2f communication. The intensity of a f2f environment fuels a lot of emotions which can lead to hostile interactions; whereas, online communication lends itself to be more dismissive than f2f communication which may temper emotions.

The challenge of online communication is understanding the interpretation made by the parties in conflict. In online communication, I feel there are more opportunities for attribution errors, misinterpretation, and time for doubt due to the lack of synchronous verification and validation.


I believe there is another aspect related to the ‘screen’ that Katalien refers to namely the fact that parties tend to use much stronger language (that is, more escalatory behavior and emotions) because of /to compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact and (non-)verbal clues. It is my experience that participants show these negative attributions strongly at the beginning. It is generally assumed, and supported by scientific research (Brett and others, 2004), that the quality of the opening phase (managed by the mediator) in online mediation is of crucial importance to bolster the effectiveness of the proceedings and de-escalate negative behavior and emotions. (The study by Brett amongst others models the time it takes to resolve a dispute in an online setting. The results clearly identify what elements of opening moves accelerate or delay resolution and frame the dispute for more rapid resolution)
Hi Daniel,
that is very interesting to me. Are parties in labor-management relations always thought to be confrontive or combative? Here in Belgium, parties involved in collective conficts are taught to be confrontive or combative (esp in opening sessions)... but when involved in inter-individual conflicts ... this is totally different... especially when you are dealing with hierarchical conflicts.

I assume also that sharing info online before f2f can have a positive effect on the subsequent mediation (cfr pre-caucus). You mention that online tools can have a moderating effect. In which context did you investigate this. Moderating effect in which relation? Using online intake or brainstorm => less expression of negative emotions? ...
I feel that in conversations that take place via online communication modes one’s frames or attributions do tend to fill in the meaning that is typically supplemented non-verbally in face-to-face interactions. This element of meaning making can cause a conflict to escalate quickly without the assistance of a third party to ask clarifying questions and to reframe the statements made. However, I do see value in the process of writing your thoughts and perspectives down without the influence of the party in which you are involved in conflict with by allowing one to describe the situation without the risk of escalating emotions.

May-Britt Kollenhof-Bruning said:
To start the discussion off, let’s relate to the following question:

People often assume that online communication is often much more hostile than face-to-face communication. Between conflicted parties, online communication may give rise to the expression, or attribution, of more negative emotions. What is your opinion about this?
I agree with you Dan that parties, especially when new to the process of mediation do come in prepared to get their blows in early. I think this is the culture that we are part of where conflict is seen as zero-sum or win/lose, depending on which term you want to use. I see great value towards alleviating this tendency via online communication prior to the session by way of the coaching that can be done prior to the face-to-face sessions.

Daniel Rainey said:
Actually, I find that online communication tends to be more measured than face to face interaction. In labor-management relations in the U.S., parties are often taught to be confrontive or combative in their opening sessions. We have found that sharing info online before f2f meetings and using online tools to brainstorm can have a moderating effect.
This topic reminds me of the Online Conflict Management Coach that the Princeton University Ombuds offers to folks involved in workplace disputes. The flash-based tutorial explains some key concepts about conflict (comparing it to fire - both potentially dangerous and a key resource in life) and then walks the viewer through a series of questions about a current conflict you may be involved in. Based on your responses, a recommendation of a strategy is provided, along with some tips on how that strategy might be carried out effectively. The viewer is introduced to the various conflict management styles and the potential pros and cons of each.
My recent experience is mostly in labor-management in the U.S., but I do other types of third party work, and I communicate with ADR professionals across a wide range of practices - I haven't really heard any of them talk about flaming and hyper-aggression online for quite some time. Maybe they just haven't talked about it, but my guess is that the formality of entering into a mediation (or facilitation, or whatever) online is in and of itself something of a moderating force in people's behavior. When I'm in a chat room or some other open site, I can let myself go, but when I take the step of agreeing to become part of a mediation process, I think that brings along some sense of responsibility. Again, maybe I'm being overly optimistic. Along this line, however, is a choice that I talk to all of my ODR classes about - the choice to have an open, mediated discussion where everyone can post everything without review, or the choice to have a "gatekeeper" system in which the third party can vet the communication before passing it along to the other participants. If there is the assumption that emotions are so high that the parties will just not be able to resist saying destructive things, perhaps a gatekeeper mode would be a way to blunt the impact of the aggression/combativeness.
Bill, I really appreciate this resource. I have been working on an idea with a similar coaching intention for organizations. This seems to be a electronic version of the Temple CERT model of conflict coaching that Jones and Brinkert refer to in their book Conflict Coaching (2008). I think applications like this that can easily be integrated into organizational processes will encourage constructive conflict engagement at the lowest possible level.

Bill Warters said:
This topic reminds me of the Online Conflict Management Coach that the Princeton University Ombuds offers to folks involved in workplace disputes. The flash-based tutorial explains some key concepts about conflict (comparing it to fire - both potentially dangerous and a key resource in life) and then walks the viewer through a series of questions about a current conflict you may be involved in. Based on your responses, a recommendation of a strategy is provided, along with some tips on how that strategy might be carried out effectively. The viewer is introduced to the various conflict management styles and the potential pros and cons of each.
Bill, thank you very much for sending the link to the "Online Conflict Management Coach".
Currently we are working with some organizations (including the government) who are all interested in using a similar system -at the moment not existent yet here-. I think that this kind of tools will help people to deal with conflict in a pro-active way and constructive way. In addition, it will lower the threshold that people now may feel when trying to resolve a conflict.
Here in Belgium, we are dealing with the "problem" that people do not really want to see conflict and/or are not willing to talk about it... People often wait for the conflict to escalate and then leave or go to court ... Often they feel too insecure to take up responsability and to deal with the conflict. Such a tool can stimulate people to perceive confict as "normal" and to deal with it .

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