Zoom Mediations And “Trust”: A Study

Trusting? (Photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L Swanson

A 2019 study [Fn. 1] examines whether mediating parties will trust a mediator when the mediation occurs over Zoom (or similar platform), instead of in-person.

Here are the study’s conclusions:

  1. all fifty-nine study participants “felt that they could trust the mediator and perceived the mediator as trustworthy”—whether the session occurred in-person or on a Zoom-type platform; and
  2. “there is no statistically significant difference” in the parties’ trust level between in-person and Zoom-type mediations.

Such conclusions are consistent with the experiences and perceptions of many mediators, everywhere, who have conducted mediation sessions by Zoom or similar platforms.

“Trust” Defined/Explained

“Trust” in this study focuses on “interpersonal trust,” which is shaped by interaction and communication between people. It is:

  • a subjective concept based on perceptions — feelings of trust must be inferred indirectly;
  • defined as “an expectancy held by an individual or a group that the word, promise, verbal or written statement of another individual or group can be relied upon”;
  • strengthened when someone demonstrates care for the needs and benefits of another;
  • affected by perceptions of satisfaction or attraction, which are based on interpersonal visual cues (e.g., smiling) and on perceptions of ability, integrity, and benevolence; and
  • a social concept that relies on human interaction.

Benefits of trust include:

  • a trusting person lets down his/her guard and cooperates;
  • the fulfillment of a promise or duty creates, validates and reinforces a special bond and connection between people; and
  • when people are willing to trust another, they tend to be more cooperative and trustworthy themselves—a person who receives a benefit will feel obligated to reciprocate by returning some benefit.

The Study Process

The study is of subjects participating as parties to a simulated mediation session.  The mediation is built around a fictitious fact pattern involving close friends who encounter a personal conflict that results in a lawsuit, which they agree to mediate without attorneys.

The study solicited students (law, pre-law, business, and management students) to serve as the disputing participants,

Half of the participants communicate with the mediator in a face-to-face setting while the other half communicate via Zoom or similar platform. 

Prior to the mediation session, participants complete a survey of questions that test their predisposition to trust others. After the simulation, they answer survey questions relating to their personal interaction with the mediator as well as their personal perceptions about the mediator.

Conclusion

The experiences and perceptions of many mediators and mediating lawyers, during the recent pandemic, is that Zoom mediations are effective—with no fall-off from in-person mediations.  

The study described above confirms what such mediating professionals have experienced and perceived.  

———————

Footnote 1.  The study is titled, “Building Trust Online: The Realities of Telepresence for Mediators Engaged in Online Dispute Resolution.”  Its authors are Susan Nauss Exon and Soomi Lee, and it is published at Vol. 49 Stetson Law Review 109 (2019).

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