Technology Creates Opportunities – And Risks

This article originally appeared in the January 1999 issue of Consensus, a newspaper published jointly by the Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program.

When it comes to
traditional, in-person meetings, facilitators,
and mediators are very strategic in thinking
about process design. But the use of Internet
technologies in dispute resolution – from e-mail
exchanges between meetings to mediations taking
place entirely on the World Wide Web – requires a
new kind of thinking and planning.

In my experience, dispute resolution
practitioners do not always think strategically
about who is “talking” to whom
electronically or how these communications can
affect a consensus building effort.

For example, when I ask a group of mediators
during a presentation whether they use e-mail to
communicate with participants in a dispute
resolution process, usually about 80 percent
raise their hands. But when asked if they know
whether those participants are communicating with
each other by e-mail between meetings, far fewer
hands go up.

Proactive process design

The fact is, whether mediators build it into
their processes or not, participants are likely
to use e-mail and other Internet-based
technologies to communicate between meetings.
Indeed, Internet dialogue now almost seems
inevitable in groups, even if it is not a
formally acknowledged and facilitated as part of
the process. The challenge is to proactively
design processes that use the full range of
Internet-based tools effectively.

It is difficult to image a complex dispute
handled completely through the Internet, but
e-mail, Web sites, listserves and other on-line
communication tools offer feasible and effective
means to disseminate information and continue
dialogue between face-to-face meetings. Some of
the tools that can be used in dispute resolution
– in addition, to e-mail, which we can assume
requires no explanation – include the following.

Web sites are an excellent means of
“distributing” documents to parties. A
mediator can post agendas, meeting minutes, draft
reports and news briefings of group activities on
a Web site. Participants can either read the
documents on-screen or download them and print
them out. If privacy or confidentiality are
important concerns, access to a Web site can be
limited to participants through the use of a
password. On the other hand, if broad public
distribution is desirable, Web sites can be
widely announced on-line and accessible to
anyone.

An example of creative use of the Web was a
1996 regulator negotiation sponsored by the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) called
RuleNet. In one instance, the NRC simultaneously
posted a transcript of a 14-way video conference
call to the RuleNet site. Those who weren’t part
of the video conference could log on to the site
and follow the discussion verbatim.

Web forums are on-line “discussions”
in which people post messages on a Web site for
all to read. Web forums allow for separate topic
branches to be created for each agenda item.
Replies to each topic are associated to
“threaded together” and replies can be
made to replies, thus creating a tree structure
of responses.

Advanced forum software eliminates the need to
check into a Web forum to see what has been
posted – it sends an e-mail message to all
participants when a new entry is made in the
forum.

Chat rooms are places on a Web site or other
Internet space in which people can talk to each
other in “real time.” Chat often
involves a fast-paced, spontaneous dialogue with
short messages. Slow typists and thinkers may
find it difficult to get a word in edgewise.
While chat rooms are very popular, they require
parties to coordinate calendars to all be
available at the same time. In many cases, a
phone call is more effective.

Listservers are subscription-based e-mail
distribution systems. Members of a listserve
receive messages via e-mail and can choose to
respond at any time to the entire list or to
individual list of members. Postings and replies
are kept threaded together by subject line. A
consensus building group could have its own
listserver, enabling the facilitator or any
participant to send a message to all group
members simultaneously.

Web forums have advantages over e-mail and
listservers in that information is maintained in
a central repository, available at any time, thus
eliminating problems such as mail being missed,
wrongly addressed, or accidentally deleted.

On-line advantages

The benefits of these Internet-based tools for
a dispute resolution process are numerous.

The beauty of Web forums, for example, is the
ability to engage the dialogue at any time.
Participants can stay away from a forum for a
while and, upon returning, can catch up quite
easily. They can read a posting and link a reply
directly to the wording that stimulated the
response. There’s no need, as in face-to-face
meetings, to wait for a turn to speak and then
say, “I’d like to comment on an idea that
was raised several minutes ago.” On-line,
participants can add replies to a topic that came
up several days, months, or years ago.

For the facilitator, these characteristics
eliminate the challenge of working around the
busy and often conflicting schedules of
stakeholders. On-line discussions can take place
when it best firs each individual’s schedule.

Internet tools also provide a comfortable
communication venue for those who prefer writing
to speaking. Some people find speaking in a
meeting to be a horrible experience. They’d
rather compose their thoughts slowly, and they
often welcome the opportunity to express
themselves without needing to vie for air time,
without feeling “stared at” as they
speak, and without discomfort at hearing their
own voices. The on-line environment can thus be
quite liberating to some people’s ideas and
feelings.

Another self-evident benefit of Internet
communication is that it enables people to engage
in a meaningful dialogue and even build consensus
without traveling to a meeting. Indeed, forums
and e-mail are especially invaluable in dialogue
groups that cross time zones.

The downsides

These tools come with disadvantages too, of
course.

One common complaint is the on-line medium’s
lack of nonverbal cues and its emotional
flatness. It’s impossible to gauge the writer’s
mood, for instance – and sometimes it’s even
difficult to determine if someone is joking or
not.

Also, the impact of an e-mail can sometimes be
underestimated. Senders may dash off quick e-mail
messages without thinking too carefully about
what they are saying or how it’s said. But the
recipient may take the message very seriously, as
if a good deal of time went onto it and every
sentence were carefully crafted. This can create
misunderstandings, or even full-blown arguments.
So for all the convenience of on-line
interactions, sometimes the best approach is to
pick up the phone and sort things out.

There are also basic issues of identity to
consider. If a dialogue takes place entirely
on-line, for example, with no face-to-face
meetings, how can participants be assured that
everyone is who they say they are? It’s often
impossible to be sure.

For mediators, a key question is how to
effectively manage a flow of e-mail and other
on-line interactions among participants. Even
more daunting, how do you balance the needs and
concerns of stakeholders who are not comfortable
on-line even as you also have some, who for
reasons of geography or schedule, can participate
only on-line? We are just learning how to handle
such challenges.

Face-to-face first

One lesson we have learned is that initial
face-to-face meetings are desirable for building
a solid foundation for on-line communication that
occurs among participants in a consensus-based
process.

If the intention is to work on-line between
face-to-face meetings – whether through e-mail,
Web pages, or other tools – the first
face-to-face meeting should focus on getting to
know each other and building rapport.
Interactions on-line are much easier if parties
know something about the each others’ style and
have met them in person.

Face-to-face meetings are also a good time to
familiarize everyone with on-line technology,
protocols and ground rules. Understanding which
medium is best suited for a particular type of
interaction is key. Working with participants to
increase their ability to effectively use the
various media will improve the overall quality of
the interaction.

We also know that if Web forums or listservers
are to be used in a dispute resolution process
between meetings, they should be
“facilitated” just like any other group
interaction.

The facilitator should monitor the
“discussion,” ask questions, suggest
topics to consider, and make interventions when
conversations get too heated or are unproductive,
just as in face-to-face meetings.

Technology provides us the promising new
tools. For practitioners, the challenge is to use
the full range of communication media
effectively.

                        author

John Helie

As a co-founder of Mediate.com (1996), John Helie extended his commitment to dispute resolution and the Internet. John earlier founded ConflictNet in 1988 as a communication forum and information sharing network for the Conflict Resolution Practitioners community. A trained mediator and facilitator, John pioneered work with online conflict and communication from the… MORE >

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