We are truly in the age of wonderful new technologies. I realize this as I watch my son, Alex, getting tutored by his math tutor. Years ago when I was being tutored in math, I had to travel to the tutor’s house and then sit for an hour with the tutor while he tutored me on the latest math concepts. Now, however, my son can get tutored from anywhere in the world. He converses with a math professor in India who is teaching him geometry today. Alex has a complete conversation with his tutor on the internet service skype.com. In addition, the tutor writes problems on the whiteboard and Alex then responds from his computer; two people thousands of miles away interacting through the wonder of the internet. What does that have to do with mediation?
Well the answer is simple. As a mediator, and as a prior communications major in college, I recognize and accept the fact that complex mediations often require an interpersonal touch that can only be achieved in person. However, that is not always possible. In some cases, parties or their representatives cannot make it to the mediation. Sometimes it is the family from out of town, other times it is the insurance adjustor in a foreign state who cannot travel, and on some occasions, it has been the attorney who became deathly ill on the morning of the mediation.
In those circumstances when people cannot be present, with technology there are ways to allow them to interact with you.
Many times, I will use Skype to communicate with the clients. Skype is a free internet service that allows people to make free calls anywhere in the world to other Skype users directly from your computer. In essence Skype is a sophisticated video conference calling system. There are many things that can be done to have better meetings on skype. Many of these things are listed on the blog by internet marketing consultant Chris Garrett Better Skype Meetings. This article, however, does not focus on the general meetings, but instead on the specific things needed to use skype and other technologies during a mediation.
First, I agree with Chris that preparation is necessary. Find out early if any of the parties are not going to make it to the mediation. This also allows you to have discussions regarding authority before the mediation. Once you know who is not going to be present, let them know that you want them to be ready to appear virtually. Usually, they will be more than happy to do so.
Then, give them detailed instructions on how to download Skype onto their computer and ask them to buy a small web camera if they don’t already have one. If you are worried about communicating these details over a long distance call, then communicate by email. Or you can use any of the many internet phone services.
Once the other person has bought the camera, plugged it in, and downloaded skype, I will generally have a dry run before the mediation. My assistant also has skype on her computer with a camera, and she is able to test the calls out before hand. If you need to do it yourself, you simply make sure that you and the other person have coordinated the time, and then call that person (by their skype id) on skype. This is fairly simple, because you will have input the contacts previously, as suggested by Chris Garrett.
Skype acts simply as a phone. You will identify the contact, and then press dial up, and it starts to dial. You will hear the Skype phone ringing.
The graphic below shows the main page from where you can make a call. You can make the call a video or regular audio call. I like to initiate the call without video first. Then once I have the person on the phone, I then press the start video button and video then becomes operational.
On the left side of the screen you will see people’s names in green or grey. Green means they are online and ready. Grey means that they are not online.
Once you make the call, you will connect with the person just like a regular phone call. You will need to press the video camera button to turn your camera on and ask the other person to do so also. Once the camera is on, you will be able to see each other and communicate over the internet with very little, if any, delay. As you can see below, the picture is clear and you can then scale the picture to your needs.
Now that you know how to communicate through skype, let’s figure out other logistics that occur at mediation. First, I generally let the people know that they need to be available throughout the entire time of the mediation. I also make sure to get alternative phone numbers in case a connection is lost. Then when I am ready at the beginning of the mediation, I simply use my laptop computer, which is equipped with camera and microphone and make the call on Skype.
For me, I find that attaching separate speakers to the computer helps with the communication because the speakers on my computer are not that powerful. This allows me and anyone else in the room with me to hear the other person clearly.
Just like in any other mediation, at some point I will have to leave the room to meet with the other side. I provide the parties a choice of how they want to proceed. Some people want to keep the remote person on the “phone” or online throughout the entire mediation. Others want to shut down the connection and will want to re-establish the connection when I return. Either way is fine. The only thing with re-establishing the connection is that you have to make sure that the person remains at their computer.
One advantage of skype video conferencing is that if the remote person has to leave the location and then go somewhere else, the conference can still be continued once they arrive at the new location if they have skype installed at the other location.
Another program that allows a similar videoconferencing experience is google. What doesn’t google do? Once you have a google email account, you can then install the google video chat ability and have the same videoconference.
Sometimes I find that I have a need to share documents with the remote person. First, if I have written something on a whiteboard, since there is a camera, I just turn the computer towards the whiteboard and the other side can generally read the text on the whiteboard. If I need the person to review a word, excel or pdf document then I can email it to them and then they can review it.
If, on the other hand, I need to review documents simultaneously with the remote party, then I will use a third party meeting software like Gotomeeting or Webex. Both of these programs allow virtual meetings to occur and to review documents together.
Programs such as Skype or Webex have opened up the world of mediation and have allowed mediators to have a greater connectivety with parties that are in remote locations.
The next step is probably one from star wars where a holographic image says to me “help me Mediator Kenobi.”