By Dr. Justin Wood
I recently performed a divorce mediation online and wanted to share some insights, issues and benefits that I came across with the hope it can help you.
First of all, this was the first online divorce mediation I had conducted and really desired to make this a success due to several obstacles. First of many was the couple didn’t want to air their dirty laundry in court. Second, the husband dealt with stress by screaming and yelling. Third, they had to file in Oklahoma but both had moved out of state (Texas and New Mexico) less than 6 months ago. Fourth, the children were of teen age years and needed to be heard.
I started this mediation on video conference and most everything went smooth. The husband and wife at first were polite until we reached the money matters, then everything went south. His opinion was she was just being greedy and her opinion was he was being cheap and both loved to share that insight every 2 minutes. When the tirades started I was able to mute and even go to caucus quickly and tell the other to vent for a while and we would be back. This ability to caucus within seconds REALLY helped as it allowed us to continue through our discussions while the other had a blow out. As I was able to see the other video, I saw things fly across the room, faces turn red and even cry and this gave me a point to reconnect the couple after tempers calmed. Without this being on video, the police would have shown up but in their own respective domiciles they could do what they wanted. The monitoring aspect was invaluable.
We were able to reach an agreement on child support and alimony and the wife who was taking custody of the children. The standard schedule for visitation for Oklahoma or the other states was a complete failure to negotiate. Again the tirades started and I went to caucus with the wife while he exploded. When we returned I could sense she was at her wits end and suggested a caucus with him. I could see the breakdown of her demeanor and knew when to reconnect. This gave me time privately to work with each person and find their solutions to work out pro/con scenarios.
As this was a several day mediation stretched over three weeks, I was able to keep the couple focused and protected. I could NEVER allow this in an office and even in private caucus informed them that the tirades could get the police called locally.
When we were able to listen to the children this again seemed greatly beneficial. The oldest had a touch pad and wanted to conduct her side from a friend’s house. This was pre-arraigned and I had interviewed the adult at that dwelling previously and decided that would be acceptable due to several factors I can’t disclose. As the parents broke down, I was again able to save face for them and provide a little hospitality and humanity to the situation by stopping for just a second to exclude them from the discussion, always with permission. This became greatly essential when the girl broke down and started striking out in anger. The adult there was able to help her as she too was in the conference and I could exclude them but see the progress.
When she returned she had made several heated remarks about abuse and I again could go to caucus with her and the support person to clarify the situation which turned out to be anger.
Enough about the benefits, on several different occasions we had difficulty with seeing each other and hearing each other. I found that when people started getting theatrical with their bodies the video and audio started having problems. By getting the participant to relax and not use hand gestures or move rapidly it cleared several problems. Also we had storms on some days and I now know to avoid those times, if possible, to relieve signal issues. I had another issue with tone. When people get loud over conference all you get is blurbs of noise. Even something getting knocked off the table sends signals to everyone and changes the audio structure. I used the mute function to un-mute the talking person but this at times stopped me from hearing an interjection from someone. So, I used a raise your hand button on the video conference and instructed, just like in face-to-face mediation, to take notes but press the raise your hand and I would come back to you. This was a breakthrough and provided an enhanced experience. When people would want to make smart remarks, it was not heard and we were able to stay on track.
Anyone doing online mediations please consider a few things.
- Are there storms in any of the areas where someone will broadcast from? This is simple and free by using any weather checker and put in each location.
- Have people not move around, use hand gestures and don’t yell (of course).
- Mute everyone till it’s their turn, you pick up outside noise, page turning, etc.
- If the software has a “Raise Your Hand” feature, highly consider using it.
- Watch the private text function, I had one occasion where the daughter starting picking a fight with the mother in private text through the system. Disable this or watch it, don’t just close it.
- Don’t let the participant leave the video with their eyes unless you do a caucus. This causes dysfunction and shows disrespect. If they are not watching the screen their doing something else and NOT paying attention.
- Watch for them talking to someone else or using their cell phone. You can see this by moving shadows, the person tracking with their eyes or reacting differently than what is being said. I caught the wife talking to a friend after we agreed no one else was to be in the room and caught the husband texting his work which was a point of contention with the wife.
- Have clear rules added to your mediation meeting where they agree to these extra terms.
- Be in a private place, no public internet connections.
- Be in a room and place you can talk privately the whole time.
- No roving connections (not in a car traveling).
- No one else in the room or listening.
- No recording.
- No texting, emailing, chatting, etc with anyone else including each other.
- Nothing else on the screen or doing anything else on the device. Full screen only
- Stay in the frame unless excused.
- Zoom in to head and shoulders, no wide angles as it picks up movement and you can’t see their eyes.
- Eyes on the screen.
- Move slowly, no hand gestures, no combing hair.
- Instruct them that their behavior may not be seen but could cause them local issues.
- Don’t talk when someone else is talking because they see the movement. This is an issue as they may interpret something that was not said by lip reading. The mouth movements for Forward and F* you are the same as well as several others.
- No music or TV on during the conference.
I hope this helps someone as it was a great experience for me. This could not have been possible without video due to several factors and personally think things could have become serious. Learn your software and its functions just like anything else you employ.