Recently, we attended the Massachusetts Bar Association’s inaugural Dispute Resolution Section symposium, and the annual AFCC meeting, each in Boston. Both programs featured extended discussions of mediation involving a “fourth party”, as in, the two parties, the mediator and technology.
We expected the focus to be running divorce mediations with an absent party or two, attending virtually by Skype or FaceTime, or even the good old-fashioned speaker phone. Most of us have done a bit of this and addressed the limitations imposed by the lack of eye-to-eye contact and the sense that the person on the screen or behind the phone is actually checking his email, or her text chain.
More profound was an AFCC speaker’s demonstration of a Dutch program wherein parties log on to a website that guides divorcing parties through a progression of multiple choice questions that range from the prosaic (biographical) to the attitudinal (“you image your child living…”) to the transactional (“you propose to…”). The notion is that mediation does not even have to be synchronous. As one speaker put it, in essence: “the client can sit in bed with a glass of cabernet and ponder a response…and we don’t often have a chance to mediate with cab.”
The upshot of the Dutch notion of online mediation for family law is that the mediator may just be reduced to the “chat” person you get when you go on a retailer’s website: “may we help you select a model?”. The Dutch model will even assign a mediator to “run” the process, taking our theoretical descriptor of “facilitative” to a new low, or new high, depending on your perspective.
We get how for many divorcing couples, whose issues are fairly rote and shaped by state-mandated formulas, much resolution can emerge from hi-tech questionnaires. But we, who spend our days doing the intensely personal work of educating, observing, empathizing, encouraging and reasoning with emotionally fraught parents and spouses, have a hard time seeing how the application of this kind of dispute resolution will translate to the population whom we generally serve.
Another AFCC speaker pointed out that we who pride ourselves on the personal attention we devote, are already engaged in Online Dispute Resolution when we email, text, spreadsheet and utilize cloud based services to communicate with and assist our clients. So, maybe we have the best of both worlds already.