Yes, mediation skills can be taught in an online setting – John Sturrock

Any doubts John Sturrock had about the format were dispelled as participants declared it was surprisingly like ‘the real thing’

Monday, 21st September 2020, 7:30 am
John Sturrock is Founder and CEO of Core
John Sturrock is Founder and CEO of Core

They said it couldn’t be done. I said it couldn’t be done. Six months ago, hosting our residential 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 conducted many actual mediations successfully online. Could we do it with training?

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We took the decision to shift to an online platform, Kajabi. We redesigned the course and its delivery to suit this new format. We devised new approaches to some key inputs, including using online podcasts. Each day was carefully re-programmed. This was not teaching “how to mediate using Zoom”, but how to use mediation skills, with Zoom as the medium for learning.

We started two weeks in advance with an Orientation Workshop. The course itself ran over three-and-a-half days. Our participants included senior government civil servants, a healthcare executive, leading figures in local government, HR professionals and senior litigation lawyers.

Wow! The “plenary” sessions worked well with a mix of slides, videos and discussion. I even used the flipchart in my study. 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, using a mix of video vignettes from previous courses and freshly recorded material.

Thereafter, participants moved to 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 well and seemed even more focused than ‘normal’. As someone observed, it was surprisingly like ‘the real thing’: “At times, we forgot we were on Zoom”.

For me, the stand-out session was what we call “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 indeed! The teams could use telephone, text and/or WhatsApp to communicate confidentially, while facilitators used scripts to mirror the tension and provocation of the face-to-face experience. Was it even better this way? Certainly, all the key learning points emerged. 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 and one-to-ones.

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 laptop or desktop. But these are issues of the times anyway.

What have we learned to do which is useful generally?

– use a good web platform for materials and indeed for every aspect of the course – and provide clear online instructions throughout;

– make sure everyone has the appropriate technology and is able to use it well (for example, switching from and to “gallery view”);

– 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 social slots;

– practice complex sessions in advance – and ensure video and slide presentations are high quality and easily accessed;

– have a good team, with someone looking after the admin throughout – and ensure the course leader can operate all the technology too;

– take your time, explain what you are doing, don’t assume everyone is hearing and seeing the same thing, take and encourage bathroom breaks;

– 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! So, it can be done – indeed, we can all do it.

John Sturrock is Founder and CEO of Core

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