July, 2019: I sit in my car, waiting another ten minutes before going in to mediate. I sip my coffee, listen to The Piano Guys, and sketch out some strategies for the session. Feeling ready, I watch a cloud drift lazily in the hot summer sky.
July, 2020: 10:59am, I excuse myself from an interesting mediator discussion. Run downstairs to chug a cup of water, check on the clothes and add 20 minutes to the dryer, and run back upstairs. I open up my notes from my intake call, slip in my headphones, and click "New Zoom Meeting" as the clock rolls over to 11:00am, just as I see the parties enter the waiting room.
This format change is something the entire world is experiencing together. Albeit under difficult circumstances, we have moved online with grace and flexibility. We have learned the specifics of mediating online, new intake, new tech requirements, new clauses in our mediation agreement. We have learned how to become more efficient, with multiple programs open at once, perhaps participating in multiple breakout rooms concurrently.
We have comiserated with the rest of the world about Zoom Fatigue. Simply put, Zoom Fatigue is when you stare endlessly at a screen and the monotony exhausts your brain.
ZOOM FATIGUE: The Science
*Note: While "Zoom Fatigue" is the current nomenclature, there are of course a variety of softwares available for meeting online. MS Teams, Skype, Google Duo, WhatsApp, etc. can all result in a similar effect. It is our directed focus on the computer screen, being "on-camera," that causes Zoom Fatigue, regardless of the videoconferencing software in use.
According to The Wall Street Journal, there are multiple causes of Zoom Fatigue:
- Lack of transitions. Our brain pays attention to change, and something new, and the lack of change when looking at a computer screen causes our brain to get sleepy. Sitting at a conference table, our head is constantly turning to look at faces, whiteboard, windows, longingly at the bagel stand across the street, etc. But with Zoom, etiquette says that we must continue to look at the screen or people think we are not paying full attention.
- Forced new communication style: Many of us used Zoom before the pandemic, but the number of users and the time spent on Zoom has skyrocketed (from 10 million users to 300 million since April, 2020). This means that our brain has not gotten used to the new method of communication. Just as you get a headache when you begin wearing a new prescription, our brains are adjusting to the importance of stillness in front of the camera, the microsecond delay, allowing only one person to speak at a time, and needing to modulate our voice patterns (too loud is a staticky shriek, too quiet and it won't be picked up by the mic).
- Subconsious intake now requires purposeful thought: Our brains used to absorb nonverbal cues subconsciously--a fast intake of breath, a tightening of the shoulders--that gave us cues about how to proceed. We now have to be more intentional about reading facial expressions and picking up on verbal communication cues. Being more aware of the impact of our vocabulary will likely end up making us even better mediators--but it is still exhausting to learn a new method of communicating.
- Less satisfying feedback: I found myself teaching a group of 40 students in the spring who typically had their audio and video turned off. Do you know how annoying it is to tell a joke to 40 quiet, black squares? Without the feedback of hearing a chuckle or seeing a smile, I found I had to draw on more of my inner energy reserves to keep the lesson interesting. In mediation, I enjoy watching the body language as parties begin to relax and hear each other. This encourages me and motivates me to keep mediating. While Zoom allows me to see more microexpressions on their faces, I miss the full sensory feedback.
- Feeling invaded: Many of us rushed to get larger screens, making it easier to see faces, read documents, etc. Yet researchers found that when you are meeting with clients, their faces are so large and intrusive that it stimulates a fight-flight-freeze response in our parasympathetic brain. We have learned to squash that response, typically, but the result of ignoring our brain is not only tiring but it puts us just a bit more out of touch with our valuable instincts.
- Unclear hierarchy: Our brains can relax when there is clarity. Seeing who is at the head of a conference table, allows our brains to know who to turn to for the final decision. This lack of leadership is unnerving for our brains.
- Physical constraint: Have you ever seen a 3-year-old strapped into a shopping cart at Costco? Watching them try to restrict their movements while they are fairly vibrating with energy is comical (unless you are their parent. Then you are just praying that you make it out of the store before the explosion). Our bodies are designed to "move-it-or-lose-it." The more we run, the more energy we have for running. But if we force ourselves to sit motionless in front of a screen for 9-hour-stretches, then our bodies begin to decrease the amount of energy created. In other words, the long-term result of sitting makes us tired. In 2012, the Huffington Post describes this as the Tin Man effect. They stated that when inactivity becomes habit, we rust up and slow down.
There are of course positive side effects to this transition. Imagine a world where we never had to sit in another traffic jam! Even more exciting than no traffic, however, are the potential changes in social dynamics (not being able to interrupt each other and everyone having an equal amount of power). These will hopefully have a powerful and positive long-term effect. Imagine if our brains got used to the idea of everyone speaking to each other respectfully, and every voice being equally valuable! However, we need to understand that during this transition time our brains are learning something new.
This exhaustion means that by the end of a full day of videoconferencing, we are simply more tired than a typical day in the office (social engagement over coffee, interactive meetings, then a break, then another conversation, then alone time in a quiet office, then brainstorming with a team, then time to process and recharge on the drive home).
ZOOM FATIGUE: Uncovering Mediation's Mysteries
While the rest of the world is discussing Zoom Fatigue ("so tired at the end of the day," "cranky with my family," "feeling drained even though I am just sitting there"), mediators have noticed something more.
There is a decades-old debate: Is mediation an art or a science? We have subconsciously resisted anything that implied we were robots, without completely understanding why. As more and more disputes are being resolved via a program, we have worried and argued that mediation is not just about applying a process. We have been arguing that most mediations still need a human voice, with a presence and a listening ear and thoughtful validation. We have been stating that relational mediation is not a science, it is an art. "We have value! Our thoughts, our instincts, our reactions--those can never be replaced by an algorithm!"
Zoom Fatigue ends the debate by making us realize that when we are too fatigued we are less valuable as mediators. We become robotic and scientific, therefore the losing the art that makes us so powerful as mediators. While online ecommerce mediations can be resolved by science, and the mediation process can be aided by scientific theory, nothing can replace the power in a relational mediation of a perfectly crafted, validating reframe. When we are drained, we cannot extend compassion or be creative. When we are refreshed, we can make a difficult conflict beautiful, deftly painting strokes of grace and forgiveness into the conversation. The debate is settled: True mediation is an art.
Yes, this secret that mediators have kept hidden so well, from even themselves, has finally been revealed. Our value as mediators comes from the ability to value others.
Zoom Fatigue has proven our instincts to be correct.
Mediation is an art; not a science. When we think that mediators just show up and do a job, apply a formula, stick to the process, we miss the magic of mediation.
I am lucky enough to speak to mediators around the world everyday who have expressed this same thought:
When I spend too much time without breaks on Zoom, I am not as good of a mediator.
The Secret Sauce, the je ne sais quoi of mediation, is that it is not just our technique that makes a mediation powerful, it is our presence. There is a peace within us that allows us to hear our clients' conflicts and still be able to give off grace and patience. We need energy to sustain us through their trying moments. We need our brains to feel settled so that they can generate creative solutions.
Mediators around the world are reporting that by being home and scheduling back-to-back meetings, they are not scheduling time for themselves. Without this self-care, mediators are running on empty. And this is how mediators have discovered that the beauty of mediation is not just about showing up and doing a robotic job. It is about being so full of peace that you can give some to your clients, being so full of energy that you can help your clients to keep going when they don't have any hope, being so full of excitement with your world that you inspire your clients to find a solution in theirs.
So, my fellow mediators, do not discount the amazing work that you do and how important it is to take care of yourself. You have to put your own mask on before you take care of those around you (more so now than ever). Schedule time in-between meetings for a walk, or change some of your video to audio calls, sit near a window, turn the tv off at night, and give your brain time to sort out its thoughts and recharge. We are no longer driving to and from meetings, or sitting in waiting rooms to recharge, so we need to schedule that time for ourselves. Many mediators have said that scheduling 45 minute sessions, then giving themselves 15 minutes in-between to relax and prepare away from a screen, allows them to be fully present for the next session.
Ensure that you allow time not just to relax, but also to move. Bike desks, walking desks, or bluetooth headphones that allow you to be active while on a call help your brain and your body to stay engaged and excited. Current research shows that 30-minutes of a run is much less effective at maintaining mental and physical health than continued movement throughout the day.
The impact of Zoom Fatigue has made us realize that as mediators we are not robots. Rather it is our energy, our chi, our peace that makes our skills so valuable and impactful to our clients. This is something we always knew, but it was never revealed so clearly until we moved online. While videoconferencing has allowed our profession to flourish, videoconferencing also requires increased focus. To offset this, mediators need to find ways to make a day of videoconferencing less tiresome. Break up the increased focus required in videoconferencing by including more transitions, more audio-only calls, more walking around, more breaks, more enoyable chatter, and more movement in-between calls. If we can recognize our strength comes from our unique energy, then we might be able to come out of this pandemic prioritizing new valuable habits. It is important to find the right balance of working hard and resting hard, because the world needs you and your conflict resolution skills now more than ever.