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Mediation after the Covid-19 pandemic

Updated: Apr 27

The study conducted by the author in the first quarter of 2023 explored the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on mediation. In principle, mediation in its application in the digital space is largely judged by those surveyed to be balanced compared to face-to-face mediation: those who suspect or have experienced challenges are compared to a similarly large group of mediators who even support the pandemic-related changes with improvement, especially if experience in the use of digital tools has already been gained.

50% of those surveyed were not yet carrying out digitally supported mediation at the time of the online survey (December 2022). Either they did not carry out mediation activities during the pandemic or they did not use digital tools. Older mediators with longer professional experience were somewhat more open to digitalization, although all mediators were characterized by a high level of digital maturity in their private environment.

At the time the study was carried out, the use of digital tools was largely limited to the function of audio/visual exchange via video conference systems. Additional functions of these systems or additional applications (e.g. gaming) were only used by a minority (e.g. for documentation).

The experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic show that online mediation is just as successful as in person, even though mediators who practice this way identify more challenges in the mediation process. The focus lies on the following phases:

  • Preparation/entry: A high proportion of mediators see problems in establishing a trusting climate for discussion. However, they are not alone with this challenge, as mediators without the use of digital tools faced similar problems during the pandemic. At the same time, however, the experts in the quantitative study attest to the enormous advantage of quick and flexible appointments and location-independent meetings, especially in this phase.

  • Final phase: Due to the lack of physical presence, the solutions developed are less sustainable. This assessment by the mediators is not yet reliable due to the proximity of the study to the end of the pandemic.

However, these problems are not reflected in reduced success rates or there is an assumption that if these issues are addressed appropriately, the success rate can be further improved and will therefore be higher than that of face-to-face mediation.

In principle, Austria's mediators are open to the use of digital tools - they attach increased importance to digitalization for the future. However, this assessment does not correspond to one's own use of these options. The possible future use of AI is also viewed critically. In any case, mediators who actively took advantage of the changes induced by the Covid-19 pandemic recorded an improved order situation and a much larger professional catchment area.

Mediation after the Covid-19 pandemic
Mediation after the Covid-19 pandemic

Pandemic-related changes in the mediation process

If mediators decided to practice during the Covid-19 pandemic, they did so while largely maintaining the previously known processes (5-phase model of mediation) and using methods practiced in the presence.

The majority of the digital tools were limited to the use of video conference systems, although further options (e.g. whiteboards, chats, online games) were hardly used. Accordingly, most of the challenges occurred in the first phase, the preparation. Mediators had to be trained in the new setting and, if necessary, differences in knowledge between the mediators had to be compensated for by the mediator. In this respect, the mediator's fulfillment of his/her tasks has expanded.

Feedback from the expert interviews suggests that the changes in the process have not yet progressed to such an extent that any deficits that arise can be compensated for. This is how e.g. B. the lack of non-verbal communication, which is an important source for tapping into emotions, is not compensated for by other appropriate means. The transfer of methods practiced in person is only possible to a limited extent.

In addition, it should be noted that due to the pandemic there has been a shift in the mediation topics (school, neighborhood, divorce/separation) and an increase in the willingness to escalate.

Effects on communication

The original research question related to an analysis of the individual phases of mediation. In fact, the study showed that the factors described below are determining factors for all phases. For this reason, we speak here of general communication-determining elements.

Two main topics appear particularly critical in the context of communicating mediation using digital tools, although it should be noted again that this does not reduce the rate of successfully completed mediations:

  • Building trust with clients is considered more difficult by 80% of mediators in the digital setting. Experts counter that with the appropriate use of hardware (e.g. camera orientation) in the digital setting, it is much easier to give the impression that mediators are addressing the mediators equally. With appropriate preparation by the mediator, mediators would feel safer in the environment they are familiar with, as if they had to go to a meeting room where they were sitting directly opposite the conflict partner.

  • Dealing with emotions: The problem here is not in dealing with the emotions - once recognized, mediators see themselves as sufficiently capable of dealing with them - but in recognizing them. Training and technical aids for better recognition of voice modulation and, in the future, AI could make an important contribution here.

In addition, more mediators (48.23%) believe that dealing with power imbalances that may arise in the digital space is impaired. At the same time, for the experts in the qualitative study, this circumstance is less often present in the digital setting.

Experts believe that the occurrence of excitement, which is assessed as detrimental by 59.86% of mediators in the digital setting, or the handling of aggression (55.63%) can be dealt with just as well in the digital space as in person. On the one hand, these circumstances occur less often due to the physical distance, and on the other hand, they can be better controlled by the mediator using software functions (e.g. muting).

How sustainable are the changes?

For almost 50% of mediators, the digitalization brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about lasting changes. These will continue to take hold.

  • Mediators have realized that with online mediation they can act more cost-efficiently and flexibly and can massively expand their sphere of influence. Digitalization has therefore become an important competitive factor for mediators.

  • The more mediators are familiar with digital tools (e.g. video conference software), the more they will request mediations in a digital setting themselves. This not only saves them travel time, but also allows them to remain in their own surroundings, which they perceive as safe.

  • The short-term nature of the pandemic has pushed forward digitalization in mediation, but not all possible functions of available tools are yet being used. The concerns highlighted by the mediators can be partially covered by existing functions. It is also possible to use AI as a useful assistance function for mediators, although the majority of mediators still view its use critically. AI could provide assistance in terms of assessing mediators, diagnosing conflicts, checking proposed solutions and improving documentation.ext

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