Mediating in lockdown – bringing trauma informed design to the online setting

Damn Delta variant ….. Sydney has been plunged back into its longest Covid lockdown to date; and with no real end in sight … however with the learnings of lockdown #1 under our belts – mediations have seamlessly moved over to various AVL platforms. Once I finished brushing up on the updates (thank you Teams for breakout rooms) – I have turned my mind to how mediating online can be further improved.

With a significant portion of my mediation practice involving claims of high emotional content and, not infrequently, private “apology” sessions, or expressions of regret or sympathy being given – it is important to me that these sessions can be conducted effectively in the online setting. When I mediate face to face I endeavour to adopt the trauma informed principles of safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment  into how I conduct a mediation.

But how is that done in an online mediation?

Preliminary steps

An important first step is the pre-mediation conference with the parties lawyers. The information gathered in that conference can be critical in designing the online environment. It is in that conference that I enquire whether their client has any concerns about the technology or the mediation process. I always offer to do a trial run of the platform being used with the parties and provide them with access to my online FAQs chatbot. This really is the first step towards enabling a party to feel safe in an online mediation.

I always ensure that I utilise waiting room features on whatever online platform I am using so that I can have a further discussion with the parties before the mediation starts. During that discussion I ensure that the parties are comfortable with the platform and provide them with information about how the mediation can proceed logistically; so that they have a sense of choice and collaboration in the process. For example, I may ask whether they prefer not to see any of the other mediation participants; would they like to meet everyone online; do they want to participate in the open session; do they want to explain the impact of the incident upon their lives to everyone or privately to a particular person; do they have access to a support person ?

Throughout the course of the mediation I am also at pains to foreshadow each stage, tell parties who will be appearing on their screen; what they can expect to see as we move between breakout rooms; how they can mute themselves or turn off their video if they need to and how they can contact me if they experience any technological glitches or difficulties. Again, it’s about ensuring that the parties feel safe and some sense of power and control over the process.

The mediation itself

Taking it one step further – how can trauma informed design be implemented in an online mediation? Below are a few ideas that I have seen successfully implemented over the past 18 months:

Layout: A sense of safety is generally increased when the environment is open, uncluttered and with unnecessary and distracting sounds removed. When mediating face to face, you wouldn’t meet with someone in an office cluttered with boxes, piles of papers on the desk and the radio on in the background. So when joining a mediation online, be aware of what is around and behind you in your screen – try to be in a space that appears open and uncluttered. If you have the luxury of an defined office, then ensure it is tidy; if you don’t, consider using one of the virtual backgrounds of an open and airy office space, or at the very least blur your background. If you’re not sure how to do that – ask your mediator, they will undoubtedly be able to show you how to do it.  And – if the mediation takes place at the time that your dog is barking at the DHL delivery man or uber eats driver, make sure you use mute.

“Furniture”:  In a face to face mediation, I always take into account the arrangement of furniture and how it can impact participants’ sense of safety and power. For example, if a room is small and it is likely to be filled with a large number of people, I am aware that the crowdedness may be overwhelming or leave someone with a feeling of entrapment; in which case I may suggest moving to a larger room, or limiting the number of people who meet in the smaller room. I am also aware, particularly during personal apology sessions, that sitting face to face across a desk can feel confrontational, whereas sitting corner to corner is generally more conducive to conversation and interaction.

How does that translate to the online environment?

First, when thinking about the number of participants and that feeling of crowdedness, talk to the participants about the likely number of people that will appear on the screen and then show them how to change the display so that they can control what they see – for example do they just want to see the person speaking (ie speaker view) or do they want to see everyone (ie gallery view – some people use the “together mode” in Teams, however I find that too artificial). Let people know who they can expect to see on the screen and their role ( I also “rename” people when they join an online mediation so that their name and role is always visible).

Second, if someone is giving, or receiving, an apology; think about how far you are sitting from the camera – it is incredibly hard to build rapport with someone if they appear as a small face in a large meeting room, or are not looking at the camera directly (which is not uncommon when people have two screens). As the mediator, I will always suggest that, if possible, both parties in an apology session are looking directly at the camera, preferably on a laptop or tablet so that they face fills at least a third to a half of the screen.  If you have any uncertainty about your set up – ask the mediator how you appear on screen and how it can be improved. I regularly suggest people reposition their camera so that their appearance on screen is as similar to meeting them face to face as possible – the most common reposition is tilting the camera so that a person’s face is not cut off, or  telling someone not to lean over their ipad (a very, unintentionally, domineering look) but rather propping it up so you look into it, not over it.

 Visual interest: This one ties into the layout point – having a busy background , or too much visual complexity, can be distracting and overwhelming – which in turn can increase stress and anxiety. So look carefully at your background, are there distracting patterns on the walls or floor ?  is there something in the background that may be  a distraction to what someone is saying? It is very hard to concentrate on what a person is saying if you are trying to subtly look at the family photos in the background, read the names of the books on the coffee table or distracted by the TV on in the background (yes I’ve seen that!).

Art can fall in this category also. A painting or print in the background can provide a distraction that may be a welcome distraction for someone who is feeling stressed, anxious or embarrassed. However it should not overwhelming or controversial – think of something neutral – like landscapes, nature or indigenous art in calming hues – abstract art in bold colours can be triggering for some people.

It may not even be what is in the background, think about what you are wearing and how it will appear on the screen – small checks and stripes can strobe online, adding to the visual complexity and subconsciously increasing stress and anxiety for someone who has experienced trauma.

Light and colour.  Many of us have seen the you tube videos showing the difference when a person is backlit, is in a dark room, or using an o ring for soft lighting. Many of those videos are focussed on ensuring we “look good onscreen”. A trauma informed design focus is about ensuring that the light and colour do not present a distraction or arouse negative emotions.  A simple tweak is to ensure that the lighting in the room you are sitting is not flickering, buzzing or cutting in and out. Each of these factors can be challenging for those with light sensitivities or impairments. For those of us that mediate a lot, or do a lot of apologies. you may wish to consider the colour of the room you are working from, or the virtual backdrop you use. My family were stunned when I painted the wall behind my office desk a sage colour – however I find it a calming colour and it’s amazing how my husband’s colleagues have complimented him on the wall when we are sharing the office space. Not everyone has the luxury of painting a wall, so if you are utilising a virtual backdrop, look for something that has light and cool colours (blues, greens, mauves) which are calming; as opposed to deep colours such as red, orange or yellow which can be seen as confronting or dominant. Generally lighter coloured backgrounds appear more calming and safe.

Plants – one final feature, which I think is a simple tweak that everyone can make, is to add a plant in the background. It is now well known that environments that include plants tend to reduce stress and bring a sense of peace, calmness and tranquility. Pop an indoor plant next to you on the table, or behind you in the corner of the office, and the overall visual image you are portraying will instantly be calmer and a less confrontational environment for the people who are meeting with online.

In lockdown #1 we focussed on learning the nuts and bolts of mediating via AVL. In this lockdown – let’s start focussing on how we can continue to improve the way we mediate by implementing trauma informed design principles. If you would like to discuss how you can implement a few of these changes for your own practice, please contact me on 0421 048 456 or by email – You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to share information in relation to mediating generally. My available dates, and bookings, for both face to face and online mediations can be found on the website, or by calling me.