Old Friends, the Internet and Mediation

by Jim Melamed
October 2009 Jim Melamed
A short trip to the SF Bay Area this past weekend provided me with an enhanced understanding of how integrated electronic communication has become with the coordination of complex face-to-face events, be that a soccer game, hospital visitation or, perhaps, a difficult mediation.

My first mission was to attend and play in the Stanford alumni soccer game. Previously, I had secured a discount hotel room at one of the two “oblique marketing” travel web sites (Priceline and Hotwire). I love them both! These sites allow me (cheapskate that I am) to, as they say in the commercial, “stay in 4 star hotel rooms at 2 star rates.” I also get to exercise my brilliant negotiation skills along the way. I also made my air reservation online using “miles” and secured a discount car rental. Intriguingly, all of these arrangements were made without a single human contact . . . and that is just fine, in fact, I fear, preferred by me. I have never found calling for hotel reservations, airline tickets or a rental car to be particularly enjoyable experiences. Is it ok that I prefer to communicate with a capable machine than a fallible human? That I can do this 365/24/7 and send all the arrangements automatically to my iPhone is kind of nifty also.

For the Stanford gathering, the facilitator used “Evite” to coordinate the whole thing. Attractive and informative invitations were sent, as were updates, and you could see who was going to attend and who could not, and each person could also make a personal comment. All of this capable communication allowed us to coordinate a meeting with the Stanford coach, to watch a Stanford game together and to have a “tailgater” afterward (including meal, beer and payment coordination). A top quality face-to-face experience was here choreographed by capable online communication, including follow up picture sharing. There was no conflict between the online and face-to-face here. Each supported the other quite wonderfully.

There turned out to be a more heartfelt reason for my going to the Bay Area. One of my best high school buddies, “Cary,” now Rabbi Chanan Feld, was stricken a number of months ago with cancer and was now back in the hospital.

In ways again showing a wonderful and creative mixture of face-to face and electronic communication, the Feld community at the hospital (averaging at least 25 people per day) ensure that Chanan is saturated with love.  In addition to his wife, Jody who is inseparable, Chanan’s devoted children, parents, his Bet Midrash (learning center), other rabbis, physicians, current friends, old friends, everyone is pouring love upon Chanan both physically in person, spiritually and, for purposes of this article, electronically.  My little contribution is at www.mediate.com/Feld and hopefully this article as well.

Before I went to San Francisco, I was able to stay up on Chanan’s condition and coordinate my visit with text messages to his brother.  I came to send images by email saying "Show Chanan this and see if he remembers . . .."  Months of coordination of Chanan's care have been based at LotsaHelpingHands.com. Chanan's home page is here. This system does many valuable things. Those present provide updates on Chanan’s condition and encouraged prayers which are instantly emailed to over 500 online community members. Further, this site allows for anonymous contributions to help support the Feld family. 

Now that I am back home, I have grabbed some photos of Chanan showing more joyous times and his transition from dear friend and soccer star into dear friend and revered rabbi.  I also note that I have personally taken to a bit of chin growth of late.  Where Chanan’s beard ends, mine now begins. 

The reason I share all this is to illustrate how important life events are being buttressed and enhanced by electronic communication and I know that this is not an isolated event.  I was not the one stimulating this use of technology. This was all just "happening" on platforms (evite, lotsahelpinghands) that offer valuable coordinating services, remarkably for free.

In spite of often vast physical distances, our important relationships now survive and thrive specifically because of phenomenon like email, attachments, the web, facebook, twitter, skype, evite, lotsahelpinghands, on and on.  When we have a chance to physically get together, those experiences are made easier and more satisfying by online reservations, comparative pricing sites, hotwire and priceline.

But we need to be smart about this stuff! Here is an example.  I recently sent my son (age 17) a couple of heartfelt emails and I was surprised that there was no response for weeks. This was unusual as Jer is a wonderfully considerate guy.  I then finally asked him, “Hey Jer, did you get a couple of emails that I sent to you after our trip . . .”  His response, “No, I’m just texting these days.” I then realized that email for him is already "yesterday."

And so, what I think I am trying to say first of all is that there is a fascinating, ever-evolving relationship between online communication and experience and face-to-face communication and experience. Well-utilized, each wonderfully enhances the other.  For these reasons, we are wise, I believe, as mediators to pay attention to the wide variety of enhanced communication options that are "out there." It is in their sequencing, integration and timing that future mediation magic may lie. Second, we need to understand that the participants that we are working with are themselves evolving in their communication capacities.  We need to ask how can we best serve in this enriched communication context.  The CommunicationSphere is here and real.

Before departing San Francisco, I had a late night pizza dinner with Chanan’s brother, Michael, who is two years younger and a well-regarded child psychiatrist in Chicago.  We talked about the impact of electronic communication on relationships, families and children, both positive and negative.  One thing we agreed upon was that all of these electronic options are in fact being used and they are changing the ways people relate, want to relate and are capable of relating. 

We as mediators are in the business of managing communications with people in difficult circumstances.  I plead with all mediators, let us begin to pay full attention to complimentary online communication capacities and use all available communication tools to buttress and enhance the important face-to-face work that we do.  Younger generations communicate in different ways than older generations.  If the mediation industry wants to be relevant in the future, we need to meet people where they are and that is online.  The online world is both an extension of the physical world and offers new capacities that have not previously existed.  

Mediation intake needs to be as simple as reserving a flight online.  Sending information encouraging the other participants to join the discussion should be as easy as copying them with an itinerary.  Meetings should be set as if selecting seats.  We should be able to have real time intake assistance, be that by chat, phone or video.  We should encourage and provide resources for participants to self-educate, so that the come to any face-to-face meeting, or even if they don't, more capable of reaching agreement.  And, while online joint problem solving is admittedly difficult, online caucusing works great and is like finding a new trusted pen pal. Think "emissary mediation." Disputants can now consider solutions that have worked for others and actively participate in drafting their understandings, all without leaving home.

It is the most capable integration of online and face-to-face communication where mediation’s greatest potential lies. I am hoping that others will now join in this conversation.

Thanks to old friends for showing me new ways.

Biography


Jim Melamed co-founded Mediate.com in 1996 and has served as CEO of Mediate.com ever since.  Mediate.com received the American Bar Association's 2010 Institutional Problem Solver Award.

Before Mediate.com, Jim founded The Mediation Center in Eugene, Oregon in 1983 and served as Executive Director of the Academy of Family Mediators (AFM) from 1987 to 1993. Jim was also the first President and Executive Director of the Oregon Mediation Association (1985-86). Jim's undergraduate degree is in in psychology from Stanford University and his law degree is from the University of Oregon.Jim has received the following awards: The Oregon Mediation Association's 2003 Award for Excellence; The Oregon State Bar's 2006 Sidney Lezak Award of Excellence; The Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) 2007 John Haynes Distinguished Mediator Award; and The 2012 Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM) "Getting To Yes" Award.



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