Mediation Training Online

Can a mediation training course fully online equip a participant to mediate effectively?

That’s the question I set out to assess this spring, at the behest of Michigan’s State Court Administrative Office, which oversees mediation training for both courts and community mediation programs in Michigan.  The basic training for general civil mediation is a 40-hour course, offered several times a year by a variety of trainers around the state, including as a for-credit course in law schools. The government-ordered lockdown that started March 23 curtailed several trainings that were planned or already underway, preventing them from completing in person. Those trainers appealed to the State for permission to teach or finish their trainings online. Seeing that in-person trainings might not be feasible for months, the Office of Dispute Resolution authorized those trainings to occur online as a pilot project, and asked me to evaluate their efficacy.

The trainings all occurred via Zoom. I observed portions of four trainings—three for law schools and one offered through a community mediation center. Fortunately for the participants, the trainers are all excellent, experienced mediation trainers who quickly adapted to Zoom. Most of the participants were also new to online education, so everyone learned together.

Conclusions: All three trainers agree that online mediation training is inferior, and I concur. I see two major drawbacks: one is the artificial way that roleplayers must conduct the caucus online, and the other is the difficulty in learning how to establish rapport and empathy through an online format. Also, the social aspect of training is diminished – participants don’t “mingle” as well, and they don’t have as many informal inter-actions with the trainer(s). It’s not as fun. With effort, the trainer can create opportunities for social interaction, but it’s unlikely to develop as fully as it does in person.

Nevertheless, I don’t think the drawbacks are serious enough to dispense with all mediation training until it’s safe to train in-person again. The skill gaps can be addressed when the mediator observes actual mediations, and is observed by an experienced mediator—both requirements for mediating at community mediation centers or receiving court referrals. Michigan requires a trainee to observe two mediations and be observed once (MCR 2.411(F)(2)(c)) in order to be eligible for court rosters; perhaps graduates of online training courses will need to be involved in more actual mediations before they’re eligible.

A corollary question is whether online training equips mediators to conduct in-person mediations, online mediations, or both. While the mediation process is standard, the two formats require some different skills; ideally, mediators would be trained for both.

Suggestions for making online mediation training effective:

  • Less than 8 hours/day: 8-hour training days are standard for in-person courses but feel excessive online; shorter training days, with frequent breaks, even hourly, would help participants retain attention.
  • Two trainers: The training needs to have two leaders present at all times, one of whom is adept at handling technical challenges.
  • Limited class size: I recommend no more than 18 participants. Most people cannot see more than 25 boxes on Zoom, and it’s a lot of work to re-assign roleplay groups continually. I observed three courses that each had 24 participants, and both the trainers and the participants agreed that was too many.
  • Technical requirements: All participants need to meet certain technical requirements: have computers (not just smart phones); have two-way video (see and be seen); have two-way audio (hear and be heard). They also need reliable broadband access, and a quiet place from which to participate. These are useful for all Zoom meetings, but they become critical in a 40-hour course.
  • Pre-training practice session: A practice session prior to the training familiarizes participants with Zoom and tests their technical capabilities.
  • Caucus roleplays: Zoom cannot give roleplayers the experience of moving parties in and out of caucus, so trainers need to create alternatives, and then discuss the “artificial-ness” of the training caucus compared with in-person mediation and online mediation where the mediator is the Zoom host.
  • Building rapport/showing empathy: Mediators must work harder to develop and use these skills online, in part because body language is not as evident.
  • Whiteboard/flipchart: This is an essential mediator tool that should be practiced in the training. Zoom alternatives include “chat” and “Share Screen” but require thought, preparation and practice.
  • Encourage social interaction: Trainers intentionally need to insert opportunities and activities for participants to interact and “mingle.”

I look forward to implementing these ideas when I lead my first post-lockdown 40-hour mediation training in September, at least part of which is likely to be online.