In these strange and challenging times, many mediation and ombudsman programs are having to make the switch to working virtually with visitors using a variety of web-based and telephone-based meeting approaches.  While much of my mediation and ombuds work has been based out of “brick and mortar” programs, since 2011, much of my work has also been global and virtual. 

Making the switch from face-to-face, in-person meetings to more distant substitutes poses some challenges, but over time I have discovered some tips that seem to help close the gap between the comfort and ease of sitting down together in an informal setting to building connections with visitors and others via phone or via conferencing software.  The goal of this posting is to offer a few tips to successfully bridging the gap between the comparative ease and comfort of in-person meetings to holding those meetings from a distance.


Tip 1: Observe ceremony.  When a visitor comes to me for an in-person meeting there are several things that are important:

  • I am dressed appropriately to receive the visitor.  Typically, I dress at “one degree” above the standard dress of the community that I serve.  For example, as a University ombudsperson, who serves students, faculty and staff, I would set my dress standard at one notch above the typical faculty member.  This conveys respect, and subconsciously also conveys gravitas.  – In a virtual setting, if I am participating in a video-based meeting, I observe the same formality, even though I am working from the comfort and informality of my own home office.
  • It is a well-established axiom that, for participants in any conflict resolution process to feel satisfied with the outcome of the process, requires and acceptable balance of three sources of satisfaction: 
    • Substantive – the visitor’s sense of a fair substantive outcome
    • Procedural – satisfying the visitor’s need to have a process and to be heard, and 
    • Psychological satisfaction – providing the visitor with a sense that they were heard and attended to, in any event.

Typically, the mediator or ombudsperson does not have (or want) direct authority to impose a substantive outcome.  We encourage our program users to find substantive satisfaction though reaching their own outcome in a way that they find is acceptable. So, we have less direct control over providing and assuring substantive satisfaction.  But we do have a significant ability to influence the visitor’s sense of procedural and psychological satisfaction set the tone for our ombuds and mediation work by providing a sense of ceremony, attentive listening and dialoguing, and being “available” for the person.

How do we meet these needs?  Providing a sense of ceremony and formality even at a distance goes a very long way.  I work to observe the same rituals that I would were I meeting the individual in person.  Depending on the nature of the visit, these formalities can include, among other things:

  • Beginning with a formal introduction
  • Setting the tone by explaining what the virtual visitor can expect from you in terms of confidentiality, neutrality, independence, availability outside of the constraints of formal processes.
  • Slightly over-compensating in terms of acknowledging what you are hearing and reframing, so that the distance-based dialogue has a feel that is similar to what it might be, were the meeting happing in person.
  • Explaining what the visitor can expect in terms of note-taking, follow-up steps, and boundaries.

Tip 2: Put yourself in a comparable “mind space” for working with your visitor. As professionals in dispute resolution and as ombudspersons, who often see back-to-back visitors, we each develop techniques that enable us to sustain ourselves through our work day.  We develop routines that allow us to remain effective as we work with a string of visitors and remain in the middle of other peoples’ “bad day.” I have found that the same techniques that allow me to sustain an ombuds practice, where some days involve back-to-back appointments of up to nine visitors a day, allow me to sustain a bustling distance-based program.

  • Maintain a sense of schedule – schedule your appointments in a way that helps you develop a sustainable routine.  This does not mean that you cannot take advantage of the flexibility that distance work enables, but it does call upon you to create and observe your own routine, so that you are not mentally jostled from one mind space to another without allowing yourself the opportunity to adjust.
    • Consciously “go to work” and “leave work” at lunch, during breaks, at the end of the day, and over the weekends.
    • Immerse yourself into your work with the visitor by observing your own proven ceremony.  For me, I prepare for many visitor sessions by first preparing a cup of hot tea – something that I have always offered to my in-person visitors as a part of creating that in-person sense of ceremony that enhances my ability to provide process and psychological satisfaction.

Tip 3: Ensure that you provide the same opportunities for the visitor to feel heard, respected, and the essence of their concerns acknowledged as understood, as you would were the meeting occurring in person. Most practitioners develop their own approaches that work to ensure this.  For me, over the years I have come to recognize that my visitor meetings involve the same phases that enable me to work through similar steps. 

Simply stated, the “phases” I observe during an initial visit with a program user are:

  1. Orientation – 
    • Ceremony – giving the person time to “settle in” and appreciate their surroundings, allowing them to calm and center themselves. To accomplish this virtually, I do this by asking them questions about themselves that, while business oriented,  are not necessarily linked to the visitor’s immediate concern. This helps me “get to know” them and to build basic rapport.
    • Sharing with the visitor what they can expect of and from me in terms of approaches, ground-rules, and follow up – emphasizing the control that the visitor has over the process, approach, and outcomes.
  2. Story – Actively listening to the visitor in using tools and approaches that compensate for the distance.  Frequently the person begins the conversation by saying that they “don’t know where to begin.”  I always assure them that if they just jump in and tell me the story of their concern that the pieces will all fall together.
  3. Explore Options and approaches – once the person had told me their story, I often lead them through a very short guided imagery process, where I describe the “magic wand” that I literally have hanging on the wall in my office.  I ask them to envision me taking the wand in hand and waving it to grant their wish regarding the outcome of their concern. This enables us both to gain an understanding of the visitor’s desired outcome and reinforces that they are in control.  Once we know the desired outcome, we can discuss the full range of reality tests, limitations, potential consequences and build out from there to explore options.
  4. Commitment – I use this stage to seal the relationship with the visitor and to clearly define next steps – what they will do and, possibly, what I will do,  in terms of follow-up. I find that a clear understanding of “the plan” and steps involved in that plan often gives the visitor a sense of control, which they may have felt they had lost coming into the situation.

Tip 4: Make the adjustments necessary for the inherent limitations of distance-based meetings.  In my “brick and mortar” practices, I am able to take advantage of the conscious design elements of my office to help “set the tone” for the visit.  Among many other things, these elements include conscious proxemic choices about seating and seating arrangement, wall color, artwork, privacy, and projecting an informal, atypical setting that is more living room or coffee shop-like than business setting with desk and paper clutter, etc. In the distance setting, I maintain a professional-but-informal looking background for video conferencing and ensure that calls are made in a quiet setting, in front of my secure, electronic tracking system for any needed notes or reference. We know from research that in typical face-to-face discussions, 55% of the communication is visually based, while 38% of the communication stems from para-lingual information – that is, the way a person says what they say. Ultimately, this leaves only 7% of the total communication process being derived from the specific words themselves. The obvious implication of these statistics is that the more remote and words-only based our communication is, the greater the challenge in gaining full understanding and appreciation of the visitor and their concern.

I do not necessarily have control over those design elements, but I do have the ability to, in some ways, accommodate these inherent limitations:

  • Where possible use distance media that enable visual cues, i.e. video conferencing.
  • If limited to telephone conferencing, pay special attention to the para-lingual cues that your visitor provides.
  • Avoid relying on written media alone.  It is well-established that the tone and intention that the reader derives from a written communication is more dependent upon the reader’s own state of mind than it is on the writer’s true, underlying intentions.
  • Understand that the person on the other end of the communication is working with the same limitations and take it upon yourself to work to off-set those limitations by rephrasing, using active voice inflection, and sending visual cues where possible in video-based settings. 

Tip 5: Develop approaches and techniques to enable you to reliably follow up with your virtual visits and visitors.  In my in-person visitor sessions, typically I do not take notes, but focus on attentive, active listening.  Sometimes the meeting concludes with me taking notes to reinforce that I take the situation seriously and that I am prepared to stand good to my promises and follow-up commitments. Personally, I am a very visual processor Often this means that my recollection of my commitments is very closely linked to my visual connection recollection of the visit and the visitor.  In many distance-based discussions, I do not have that tool available to me as a resource. So, to ensure that I am reliable in my follow up, I compensate by taking more detailed and accessible working notes.  My notes are entered in a highly secure, passworded tracking system, and they are destroyed as soon as possible. But I find them very helpful as a way to offset my default reliance on visual cues.

Copyright, Bruce MacAllister, 2020

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