They said it couldn’t be done. I said it couldn’t be done. Six months ago, running our (normally residential) flagship Summer School (“Using Mediation Skills as Leaders and Professionals”) online while sitting in my study at home would have been unthinkable. I was not in favour of online anything in connection with mediation. It had to be face to face, intimate, physically present. Anything else would be second class. Or even un-doable.
Well, needs must. Circumstances change. “Adapt or die” as someone once said. I have already written on this blogsite about the revelation (for me) of mediating on Zoom. Could the same apply to our mediation training course?
We took the decision just a few weeks ago to shift from the planned residential setting (not possible or permitted) to an online platform. One or two of those who had registered for the course decided to opt out as they preferred the physical meeting together. Most however opted in. We had a fairly small number registered as we had not promoted the course much since we went into lockdown. To give the most hands-on experience, the maximum for this course in any event is seventeen (that number works for role allocations). We ended up with ten participants, one unavoidably dropping out at the last minute. And four coaches.
In the few weeks ahead of the course, we moved our materials online using the online platform Kajabi. Not only did we move existing material but we had to redesign the course and its delivery to suit this new format. That led to much better quality online documents, newly recorded (on iPhone) demonstrations of the various stages of mediation (performed at home, with family members role playing and a mediator colleague coming along to help).
We devised new formats for some key inputs, including my online podcast series, and the resulting website was a really impressive source of information about mediation generally and this course in particular. Each day was carefully programmed and linked to relevant material such as briefing notes, case studies, role allocations, learning logs and that day’s pre-recorded demonstrations. There was a companion platform on which participants could interact.
We started two weeks in advance of the main course with an Orientation Workshop, three hours of discussion and presentation, covering what we would have covered on our first evening together at the residential retreat (topics such as neuro-science and cognitive biases, and an introduction to the course – and each other – generally). All that was missing was a collective dram of whisky!
The course itself ran over three and a half days for those who wished to go on to our assessment stage (we added an extra half day to accommodate the need for more down time than usual in the first three days). Wow! The plenary sessions worked well with a mix of slides, videos and discussion. Our format is the classic Tell, Show, Do and we reflected specifically on learning styles and methodology. A bit of theory, then a demonstration of mediation in action at each stage (put crudely: opening, exploring, negotiating, deciding) using a mix of recorded vignettes from previous courses (sound problems notwithstanding!) and the freshly recorded material.
Then participants went into breakout rooms; generally two mediators and two or three role playing parties, plus a coach. Sound and vision on mute for those not performing and the mediator and party conducted their meeting…. It worked really well with coaching interventions and summaries throughout. At times, it seemed even more focussed than “normal”. As someone observed: it was surprisingly like “the real thing”. “At times, we forgot we were on Zoom”.
(Incidentally, we were not teaching “how to mediate using Zoom”, but how to use mediation skills, with Zoom as the medium for training – we made that distinction very clear from the start).
For me, the stand-out session was “The Gain Game”, our version of the Prisoners’ Dilemma, that classic trap for negotiators seeking to maximise outcomes. Hitherto, this has been a dynamic, action packed, interactive session in the plenary room. But online? In breakout rooms? Yes! The teams were invited to use telephone, text and/or WhatsApp to communicate confidentially and the facilitators had scripts to mirror the tension and provocation of the face to face experience. Was it an even better experience this way? Certainly all the key learning points emerged.
It was an enormous effort to pull it all together. And tiring of course. But it is the same on the residential course. Any really excellent service delivery needs hard work. We missed some aspects of the social interaction of course, those moments when you just chat privately over breakfast or a cuppa. But the group formed and bonded. Friendships were established. People connected.
And we made space for downtime conversations, one to ones if desired, and had much fun with ice-breakers such as “My first ever gig” – and a counter-cultural drawing class. I even used the flip chart in my study much as I would have used it in the plenary room at the retreat. The flexibility of current technology to deliver this sort of sound and visual experience is remarkable. The one downside can be poor connectivity from time to time and everyone really needs a lap- or desk-top. But these are issues of the times anyway.
Our participants included senior civil servants in the Government, a health care executive, leading figures in local government and a couple of senior litigation lawyers. The two participants who had opted not to undertake our still-to-come face-to-face (we hope) assessment and accreditation module have now opted in! Feedback already is good:
“I thought the course last week was excellent and feel I’ve now got a much greater understanding of how mediation can be deployed to resolve complex disputes.”
“I really enjoyed the course. And got a lot out of it. It worked really well on zoom. Felt we had created a real bond which I was surprised about being able to do virtually.”
“It was a fantastic 4 days and I personally really enjoyed the course and feel the benefits already! Much more awareness instantly and using some of the tools!”
Some take away pointers:
* use a good web platform for your materials and indeed for every aspect of the course – and provide really clear online instructions throughout;
* make sure everyone has the appropriate technology and is able to use it well (for example, knowing how and when to use gallery view can make a significant difference to a session);
* get a good balance to the mix of media and bear in mind that people learn differently;
* make time for individual conversations to help people who may be struggling – and create specific downtime/social slots;
* practice any complex sessions in advance – and make sure video and slide presentations are high quality and easily accessed;
* have a good team, with someone looking after the admin throughout – but the course leader must be able to operate all the technology too (you need flexibility to allocate people spontaneously to breakout rooms, for example, as you would if in a physical space);
* take your time, explain what you are doing, take and encourage bathroom breaks, check in with people, don’t assume everyone is hearing and seeing the same thing;
* have confidence in the quality of what you are offering and have fun – it is all good learning.
There is much to learn from and to do better next time. And there will be a next time. We have already announced dates for our Winter School!
John Sturrock is the founder and senior mediator at Core Solutions, Scotland's pre-eminent provider of commercial mediation services. As a pioneer of mediation throughout the UK and elsewhere, his work extends to the commercial, professional, sports, public sector, policy and political fields. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the international Academy of Mediators and is also a mediator with Brick Court Chambers in London. Who’s Who Legal of the world’s leading commercial mediators describes John as “internationally recognised as a major player”. Who’s Who Legal also lists John as one of the seven Global Elite Thought Leaders. John also specialises in facilitation, negotiation and conflict management training and coaching for public sector leaders, civil servants, politicians, and sports and business leaders. For many years, he has worked with various parliamentary bodies throughout the UK on effective scrutiny of policy. He is founder of Collaborative Scotland, which promotes non-partisan respectful dialogue about difficult issues. In 2020, John published his book, A Mediator’s Musings, available here on Amazon.