When can we mediate in person again?

When can we mediate in person again?

Mediator Greg Eaton shares his thoughts below.

After weeks of empty streets and sidewalks, Vermont and New Hampshire are starting to show signs, however small, of life before the pandemic.   Retail stores are welcoming masked customers, restaurants are open for outdoor dining, and hair salons are busy with patrons who have gone too long without a haircut.  In recent days I have seen more people walking on sidewalks, sitting or playing in parks, just happy to be outdoors again.  The cautious reopening of Northern New England has coincided nicely with the advent of spring.

So it’s not surprising that people are increasingly asking “When can we go back to doing mediations in person?”  The answer is that it is hard to say right now.  In person mediations pose serious challenges to effective social distancing measures.  Most mediations take place in small to medium sized conference rooms where keeping everyone six feet apart is difficult if not impossible.  Expecting participants to wear masks for long periods of time is unrealistic in most instances.   When you consider that a mediator comes into contact with many people over the course of a week, the risk of spreading the virus is high.

Required social distancing measures and masks can also have a detrimental effect on the mediation process.   Communication is the cornerstone of an effective mediation.   Masks are a necessary safety measure, but they cover the facial expressions so essential to nonverbal communication.  I imagine a mediation where everyone is wearing masks and standing six feet apart would feel far more remote and uncomfortable than anything online.

Mediating online is not without its flaws.  Things do feel distant with everyone on a screen and the mediator and participants have to work a bit harder to overcome that distance.  I’ve noticed, however, that the more people do mediations online the more comfortable they are.  Once people get used to the idea of being “on camera” they begin to relax and act more like they would in a live mediation.  With no masks you can actually see people’s facial expressions be they frowns or smiles.  As people adapt, cases are settling at the same rate as prior to the pandemic.

One day things will get back to normal.   We won’t have to wear masks or stand six feet apart.   The pandemic will be a part of history.  And of course, we will once again do mediations in person.  But we need to wait until it is safe.  Until then, we will continue to mediate, and settle, cases online.