Online Communications & Trust

Moderated by Jon Linden, John DeBruyn, and Gini Nelson

Despite widespread examples of disingenuous behavior by people on the Internet, there are certain forums that seem to be able to count on people being trustworthy.  One such forum which is utilized frequently and has the character of being mostly trustworthy is when the Internet is used to resolve disputes, i.e. ODR – Online Dispute Resolution.  One would ask the question, “Why should people act differently in this forum than they do in any other Internet based forum?”  The answer to that question is relatively simple.  When the internet is being used for ODR, the Internet is acting purely as a convenience to the parties involved.  ODR makes it possible for these people to create an environment which is flexible in many ways, particularly in the areas of Time  and Space/Distance.  In ODR, the internet is being used to facilitate the ability of two or more parties who are separated by one of both of Time (therefore, they are in a different Time Zone) and Space (therefore, they are significant distances away from each other.)  There is an ongoing dispute and all the parties to the dispute would like to resolve it in some manner.  Therefore, they are being given the option to utilize the Internet to resolve the dispute in a manner that will allow all parties to participate, but they can do so without leaving their home or office.  They are motivated to resolve the dispute because the parties have a vested interest in the resolution, or they need something that will be provided as a condition of the resolution.  Clearly then, the parties can be trusted in direct proportion to their need for there to be a resolution.  Assuming their need is high, even if it is just a matter of their Reputation, often this reason is a large enough reason for them to be trustworthy in keeping their agreement.

Moderator Bios:


Jon Linden is an independent Mediator and Facilitator.  He is also a Certified Paralegal.  Mr. Linden works as a contract Mediator for the NJ Superior Court System/Civil Division and has been working for the NJ Court System for 27 years.  In addition, Mr. Linden worked as a contract Mediator for the US EEOC for 10 years.  He has been an instructor for numerous Mediation classes, including his own, the US EEOC’s, and the NJ Court System for the County of Union, NJ.  Mr. Linden also was a Mediator for SquareTrade and worked to resolve purchase disputes which occurred on E-Bay.  Mr. Linden has written extensively on Mediation and many of his articles are posted on his website at

Gini Nelson, J.D., M.A., (  has been practicing law for 30 years. Her practice includes mediation, including online mediation and consultation.  As an early adopter of social media tools, she started her first blog, Engaging Conflicts in 2006.  She has participated in several, earlier Cyberweeks.


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Thanks for posting this Noam, I just started reading it and, not surprisingly, I'm loving it! :-) 

This is a little off-topic from what many are talking about, but still very related to trust building online and speaks to the importance of your web presence and how you present yourself on your website, social network channels, and whatever www else you're on!  Recently, I've had a number of clients that have said that they used my services because of the trust and rapport that was built from my website, blog and twitter.  Because of the consistency, value that they were getting, and the tone of voice on the three they felt that they could trust me enough to spend a fair amount of money with me.

Though I agree that trust is definitely harder to build online, it can definitely still be accomplished so long as we're being constant in our communications.  Just my $0.02

Noam Ebner said:

Hi all - 

I'd like to share a piece I wrote on interpersonal trust in ODR a couple of years ago:  After following in this conversation, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I have the chance for a second edition - there is so much to add! I'm taking notes. Feel free to add some more.


I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to any type of online communication and the ability of anyone in the cyberworld to carry on any kind of a relationship with complete trust and confidence.  No matter what the circumstance or the issues involved, the elements of space, time, and separation are extremely difficult to overcome.  As an example, I maintain contact with friends from my childhood via facebook.  I haven't physically seen or spoken to them in more than 25 years.  We send messages to each other.  We have access to each other's lives.  We share pictures, stories, and experiences.  And yet, I can't help but believe that there is more to these people than what I am getting from facebook.  We share our ups and at least some of our downs.  But do we really share our whole selves?  And if we don't, do we really know each other anymore?  Are we really seeing things as they really are?  That is the question that all of us need to consider.  In any situation where lines of communication are limited to images or words on a screen, can we be sure that we are truly seeing things as they really are?  The skeptic in me believes the answer is, NO.  And if we aren't seeing things as they really are, is trust truly possible?  Even if both parties involved in an online dispute resolution have the same goal, is there any way to guarantee that both are fully committed to and vested in the process?  Is there any way to ensure that neither one is holding something back?  Is there any way to truly overcome the perceived safety that comes from the physical separation of the parties?  I honestly don't know.

Here are a couple of articles that you may find interesting.  They address the dangers and challenges of online relationships.

Is This Man Cheating on His Wife?

Things as They Really Are

I am glad I have been able to get away from my "day job" desk to catch up on the discussion!

Here are my take away thoughts:

  1. Kerri's reflection that the fact of verifiability of what is communicated (e.g., because the proceedings are recorded) may promote greater individual accountability, is, I think, valid. I see at least two factors to keep in mind to help us from oversimplifying this: (1) individuals vary greatly in the degree of mindfulness they have about what they do and do not communicate; the 3rd party mediator/facilitator may need to be the one to timely intervene to both kindly point out an apparent inconsistency and calmly rein in reactive emotions of the party receiving the inconsistent messages [the nonreflective individual may not see the inconsistency and the receiving party may not understand or care whether the inconsistency is mindful ("deliberate") or unmindful]; and (2) the importance of the mediator/facilitator not only doing that, but also being a person before whom the inconsistent party wants to be seen as decent and fair.
  2. Noam's article -- great to add there! Sidenote: the entire book that his article comes from is available, chapter by chapter, at -- that's where I saw it first, with joy! I especially like, for this discussion -- see the next two entries, and the page numbers refer to the page as shown on the pdf via
  3. (on p. 12) As Colin Rule put it, “Technology, like stage lighting for a play, should not be the focus. If people walk out of a play talking about the stage lighting then odds are either the play or the lighting was not a success."
  4. (on p. 21-22) Trustbuilding: Mediators need to have a solid understanding of trust dynamics and of
    how interparty and mediator-party trust is affected and challenged by the online media. This ranges from how to build it to how to maintain it. The devil, it seems, is in the details. Rifkin notes how trust can erode as a result of mediator response time being slower than parties’ expectations. Hammond reports that lack of mediator skill with the technological platform resulted in eroded trust. Katsh, Rifkin and Gaitenby suggested a structural challenge: the one-shot interactions common to the internet make trust difficult to form and maintain. Given these challenges, mediators need to be proactive in building rapport and trust. (emphasis in bold, mine)
  5. I agree with Joseph -- building trust online is "just" another permutation of the challenge of building trust in any circumstances. We humans have both irrational and rational reasons for how we feel about a person, whether we are dealing with them face to face, or online. I think one of our big challenges as conflict resolvers is to remember how little most individuals know about why they do what they do, think what they think while we seek to structure the process and deal with the individuals as best we can for the circumstances.
  6. Jason's example, for me, highlights, I think, how we can have very different levels of online experience, online voice, and possible consequences. (Continued in next para....)
  7. I started my first blog back in 2006, I think it was, and have tried at least 10 different blogs, websites, over the years since. I have articles published online, including, currently, being a columnist for an online, local newspaper (in Los Alamos, not Santa Fe) -- I have a very visible, vocal professional life online for people to find if they choose to search. But, at least still, most people don't have that much online visibility. They may have a harder time being "trusted", since there will be less to find about them, with which to verify consistency.  Noam's article also pointed out the growing number of individuals offering services on line in contrast to institutions/larger businesses -- I think this is a very important thing to consider, too. When you are out there as an individual, there will be an online presence, history, to find. If you are "only" part of a roster with an organization/business, who are you (from the perspective of the clients)?
  8. Which brings me to Robert's point acknowledging he doesn't know much about his old high school friends via Facebook interactions.  I think we will need to remember, too, that even people with a large amount of online visibility are only revealing limited parts of themselves for the limited purposes of the particular event/communication. Personal side vs. professional side; community level friendship vs. intimate level friendship, etc.  No, he doesn't "know" those people intimately; he does, however, know something about how they communicate within Facebook, and he knows something about their activities and views. 

Bye for now ... back later!


Hello all,

I agree with many times the distance of cyber communication can easily allow people to behave in ways they would not if they were interacting in person. I also agree that the mediator or facilitator has a vitally important role. I think mediators and facilitators should address misbehavior when they see it. Often times people are in a hurry when they write things in an online forum, and many times they do not proof read what they have written before submitting it. This often causes the message to have a tone that they did not intend. Misunderstandings are compounded when a reader reacts to a negatively toned message with an equally or more inconsiderate reply.


Mediators and facilitators should ask questions of parties to help them demonstrate their intent. I do concede that there will be occasions where mediators, like Jon, will have to restrict access because a party is being abusive. However, this kind of thing happens in, albeit less often, in normal mediation sessions. A mediator should not tolerate behavior in cyber mediation that they would not tolerate in person. It can be difficult to determine what behavior is unacceptable because sometimes we judge statements by how they are received by the opposing party. This is harder in online than in person, but I don't think it's impossible. Sometimes it is necessary to ask the receiving party what they thought the message meant. Also, it can be useful to ask the sending party, "Did you mean X?" If they say no, then I think it's the mediator's responsibility to tell the party that you don't think their message will achieve their goals. 
Jon Linden said:

Hi James, Of course, you are absolutely correct. The distance allows for people to hide behind their computers and not look you in the eye. Alas, that is the trick, the skill if you will of the Mediator or the facilitator. It is very much to get beyond the distance, to allow the internet to compress time and space, yet to also use the written cues to pick up on incivility and rudeness and to then act in a manner that exposes the abuser for what he is doing. In some cases, it is not possible to do so, but I would suggest that even in your excellent example of people walking down the street, there are those individuals who will look you right in the face and cast obscenities right back at you. The more experience a Mediator/Facilitator has in the use of ODR, the more skillful they become in defusing inappropriate behavior and incivility over the wire. It can be done, albeit, it is not taught in Basic Mediation Skills. Nonetheless, depending on the tools available, the methods differ, but the techniques are similar to the way one would do it in a Face-to-Face situation. And, of course, the ultimate way to terminate that type of behavior is to use the privilege of all Mediators, the one privilege that they never want to use. But in some cases, the only privilege that will end the behavior. "The Mediator may terminate the Mediation for ANY REASON AT ANY TIME." Have I ever done this? YES. Did it advance the needs of the parties? NO, not the way I wanted it to be. However, it became the point at which the remaining party realized that Mediation was not going to work with that other party and despite the reluctance to resort to the Court system, the attitude of the offending party made it necessary for that avenue to be utilized.

But your point is extremely well taken and so perfectly apropos to this discussion that I think we would all benefit if we spent some time on how this can be done by a Mediator or Facilitator. Perhaps some other folks would like to comment on how they defuse this type of behavior when it occurs over the wire. I will let some of the others here respond to James' extraordinarily perfect question! Thank you James!
I couldn't agree more, that a Mediator should not tolerate disruptive or inappropriate behavior in an on-line Mediation any more than they should in a Face-to-Face Mediation. I would say that I will tend to spend some additional time in gaining control over any inappropriate comments in an on-line/ODR Mediation than I would in a Face-to-Face session. This has to do with the medium to a large degree. If the ODR session is on a medium like Webex, where the interaction with all participants is immediate and verbal, then it is in essence, the same as a Face-to-Face Mediation and there should be no difference between the two. However, in the past, Webex was not something that was universally available. In cases where communication was being accomplished on the keyboard, it was necessary to consider this in the manner that the Mediator controlled the session and the level of tolerance that is displayed. I think that many factors are active in ODR Mediations and to the extent that the tools make it seem as though everyone were actually in the same room, then the Mediator can be very active and instantaneous in controlling poor behavior. At the other extreme, where the communication is on a keyboard, or even more difficult, an asynchronous keyboard, such as in this discussion forum, then inappropriate behavior is a little trickier to control in an immediate sense. The tools themselves can and do limit the ability to do certain things. The more we become sophisticated in using synchronous video & audio software, the more ODR resembles Face-to-Face Mediation and the better it will work. I think we have seen in CyberWeek here, that we are coming very close to actually being in the same room. For example, Webex, will allow a Mediator to even read the non-verbal body language cues almost as well as if everyone were in the same room. Thus, it is the sophistication of the tools that allow us to emulate Face-to-Face Mediation in an ODR settings.

John and Gini,

I think this is a great topic for a forum discussion. After reading this topic and all of the postings, I feel as though the general consensus is fairly mixed regarding trust in ODR.

Prior to reading this article and all the postings provided, it didn’t seem as though trust would be anymore of an issue when utilizing online dispute resolution options than it would when working face to face. As your initial post mentioned, in order for both parties to have made it to the point of ODR, they must have already established a sufficient level of trust for both parties to feel secure in coming to the negotiating table in the first place. This is no different than when parties meet face to face.

However, after reading this article, I now can understand some of the major trust issues that come about when performing ODR. One issue that particularly grabbed my attention was the fact brought up by Kerri Schmitt, about how the major hurdle in almost every mediation, is a break in trust between the parties. A lack of trust is typically the reason the parties are feuding in the first place. This got me thinking about how difficult it would be for mediators performing ODR to have a real time view of the parties’ emotions and feelings. This in turn would make their jobs much more difficult. Although I have virtually no experience dealing with ODR, it seems that because trust is such a sensitive topic in all mediations, performing negotiations/mediations outside of the others party’s presence could make matters much more difficult.

Chase thank you for your observations. Having done both asynchronous and synchronous (web conferencing) mediations your point of difficulty in assessing feelings and emotions is accurate. It can be challenging. I've found I have to pay particular attention to how I ask and frame questions. I tend to ask more meaning questions when using ODR. In my initial post I mentioned that I found it important to discover what the norms mean to each party. Meaning questions require people to be more precise, they can also move people from their head to their heart. As rational as we'd all like to think we are, many decisions and responses come from emotion not reason. I find that when I uncover the emotion it is easier to identify the underlying need. When conversations address underlying needs, the heart of the issue, I find resolution, not just solutions are the result. These meaning questions often provide a blueprint for how a person relates to a situation and reflects that person's reality.I approach it in four elements value - what a person believes, emotion- what someone feels, reasoning- what someone thinks, and behavior - what someone does. Meaning questions might look like "What does _____ mean to you?" "What do you believe about _____?" "How do you feel about _____?" "What do you think about _____?" or "What were you thinking when______?" "What was it like for you when _______?"

Once meaning is clarified I find it easier to support trust building because it can clarify expectations, foster transparency, give opportunities for accountability, support parties in listening at a deeper level, and encourage people to act with integrity and honesty.

After reading the original post and several comments I began to think about the following. Although there are certainly "meaner" online environments, with anonymity being a factor, meanness vs. courteousness (often times representative of a presence of trust, respect, and a vested interest) pretty much runs the gamut.
I am now online a lot. In chat rooms with colleagues, informally on Facebook, facilitating for Soliya, and I can honestly say that being online has evolved to such a state of normalcy, that it has started to be more representative of a cross section of people. In other words, there are jerks everywhere and nice people too. If one is a trusting, intelligent, authentic individual ... They probably will be online as well. If they love the sound of their own ranting and delight in 75 ill-willed responses from people they hardly know, just to keep the feverish pitch going on as long as possible, they are probably an asshole in public too.

This is just my experience, but I really do think online communication has reached that level or ... Sunk to that level. Which would it be?


Hi all, I want to thank all of the contributors and especially my co-moderators, Jon and Gini, for the conversations here on our topic, online communications and trust.  

Perhaps I can spawn just a bit more conversation with some thoughts on our topic, online communication and trust, by Cyberweek booster,Giuseppe Leone, who this year has been participating in the program,  Which Video Conferencing Software Works Best for Online Mediation, Here is some interesting perspectives which I snipped from a post of his here at ADRhub in another forum about a month or so ago to add to what we have going here (1) the security and safety afforded a mediation party in being able to participate from their home and (2) pre-mediation intake utilizing online communication for mediator to build trust with mediation parties.

Why a Skeptical Face-to-Face Mediator Changed Her Mind About Online and Mobile Mediation After a 60-min Hands-on Training

On September 18, 2013, seven ACR (Association for Conflict Resolution) Chicago members participated in our 1-hour "Learn to Mediate Online with PC Mac and Mobile Devices" training

After the training, we asked participants to give us their feedback by taking a quick online survey. Here are the answers of one participant.

Question 1 - About This Training - What did you like the most - or the least - about this training? What did you learn? Did something surprise you?

Her answer - "Going into the training I was skeptical of online mediation, but this training left me feeling more intrigued by the potential. The thing that caught my attention the most was the advantage of parties having the security and safety of being at home. The convenience factor had occurred to me, but the idea of mediation going better because participants were in their comfortable, safe place had not."

Question 2 - About Online and Mobile Mediation - Has this training changed your previous views about Online and Mobile Mediation? If so, how? Are you now more - or less - interested in online and mobile mediation than your were before attending this training?

Her answer - "I am definitely more interested than I was before. I was interested to learn that online mediation can be a supplement to in-person mediation, not a full replacement. I also like the idea of utilizing online meetings in the beginning to build rapport, since the client can interact with the mediator on a more in depth level than by phone or email."

- - - -

Have a great weekend, John

I just gave this forum a week's-end view from top to bottom, and I'd like to invite others to do the same - it is a real trip! Huge thanks to our moderators, and to all participants! Have a great weekend (but first, I hope to see you in the final webinar at 2pm Eastern).

Hello all. I am new to ADR and even newer to online discussions. I was totally baffled by the idea of doing a mediation online without the use of something like Skype. However, this discussion has brought up some interesting things to ponder. I think it would be very challenging to build trust and also to percieve it strictly by reading posts. You miss the nuances, the non-verbal clues, the "feeling" you intuit. Even when I text or post on Facebook, I sometimes think what I intended to communicate could easily be misinterpreted. Consequently, I sometimes way over-think what I type and that could be too time consuming for a mediation. Which brings up another issue - how does one interpret the time taken between posts?

It occures to me the online format might be the most appropriate way to go for certain disputes. Perhaps the face to face would be too uncomfortable for one or more of the parties. Perhaps the power imbalance would feel more balanced. Or in cases where it would be too expensive or physically challenging to have a face to face.

Since I am new to the field and somewhat technologically challenged, I will probably stick to face to face mediation. But, I do see ODR is here to stay and I will need to get some training eventually.



For one new to the game you have ticked off a bunch of important points that are to be taken into account as we evaluate the role of computer mediated mediation in dispute resolution and focus, as we are doing  here, on how best to make the most of its strengths and minimize its weaknesses. I think we will live to see the day that the O is dropped from ODR as we adapt more and more of what we do to email, keyboard chat, audio voice and video communication ... some folks are already there.


Cheryl Lewis said:

Hello all. I am new to ADR and even newer to online discussions. I was totally baffled by the idea of doing a mediation online without the use of something like Skype. However, this discussion has brought up some interesting things to ponder. I think it would be very challenging to build trust and also to percieve it strictly by reading posts. You miss the nuances, the non-verbal clues, the "feeling" you intuit. Even when I text or post on Facebook, I sometimes think what I intended to communicate could easily be misinterpreted. Consequently, I sometimes way over-think what I type and that could be too time consuming for a mediation. Which brings up another issue - how does one interpret the time taken between posts?

It occures to me the online format might be the most appropriate way to go for certain disputes. Perhaps the face to face would be too uncomfortable for one or more of the parties. Perhaps the power imbalance would feel more balanced. Or in cases where it would be too expensive or physically challenging to have a face to face.

Since I am new to the field and somewhat technologically challenged, I will probably stick to face to face mediation. But, I do see ODR is here to stay and I will need to get some training eventually.



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