In March of 2022 when the Courts closed and stay at home orders were issued I had mediated a total of zero divorces by way of zoom video conference. I had handled a few via phone conference out of necessity where one of the spouses lived out of town, which was less than ideal, but my mediation practice only provided the option for in person meetings. My thinking at that time was that divorce is a very personal thing that required everyone to be in the same room, that my job as the mediator involved hearing the words that were being said, but also reading the facial expressions, body language and overall mood in the room and adjusting the process accordingly. Trying to tackle these issues remotely seemed too cold, and lacked the clear communication allowed by being in the same room. Fast forward nearly three years to the start of 2023.
I now provide my clients the option to either mediate their divorce remotely via Zoom or come into my office and handle it in person. Initially, providing this option was purely by necessity given health concerns and stay at home mandates. Having handled many mediations successfully via video conference, my views on providing it as an option have changed. I now happily provide the remote option. Couples will ask if I have a preference on whether they come in for an in-person session, or whether they proceed by Zoom. I think my preference will always be to work with the couple in person, but I am perfectly comfortable working with couples over Zoom and in some situations it is much more practical to do so.
So what are the benefits to Zoom mediation? One big benefit is it eliminates the commute. About two minutes before our mediation session begins, the couple can open up their computer in their home, click on the Zoom link and viola, they are ready to dive in. It doesn’t matter if they are right down the street, in another part of the state, on the other side of the county or even in a different country. I only handle California divorces, but since providing the remote option I have been able to help couples all over the state. I recently handled a San Diego case where the other spouse was in Japan. Zoom mediation allows couples to work with a professional they are comfortable with that is not necessarily in close proximity. There are some locations in California where there are not many good mediator options so unless those couples are willing to travel a great distance, they would not have a mediation option but for video conferencing.
Whether or not distance is an issue, mediating in the comfort of your own home is convenient. Couples with children would otherwise need to make daycare arrangements to attend an in-person meeting. Being home can help them avoid this cost and hassle. While I always attempt to have couples gather all the necessary documents and information they need prior to their first session, their mediating at home might provide them with more access to paperwork or information that is helpful while we mediate. I strive for a sense of comfort and informality in my mediations and being in the comfort of their own home and maybe wearing something more comfortable is helpful in establishing a more relaxed atmosphere for our work.
Some couples do not necessarily want to be in the same room with each other so not needing to meet in-person is a bonus for them. I try to handle my mediation work with the three of us at least together on the same screen, but if a couple is insistent that they not be together on the same screen, I can set up separate breakout rooms and meet with one then move into the next room to speak with the other. Zoom does give the option to provide as much separation as is needed to make both sides comfortable with the process.
So what is the down side of Zoom? The most obvious is the possibility of technical difficulties. Communication becomes very challenging when somebody’s internet connection is spotty or glitching. I have tried to conduct mediations where a spouse is constantly losing signal to the point where there is no certainty in how much is being heard by the participant. Clear understanding and communication is essential and if proceeding via Zoom is creating a challenge in this regard, it is a big reason to consider going with in-person. I insist in my Zoom mediations that the participants keep their video on to maximize my ability to see how things are going and to keep an eye on if they are each hearing, understanding and following the conversation.
Zoom can certainly feel less personal. It is easier as a mediator to keep a finger on the pulse of how the mediation is going in person. It is easier for me to pick up on non-verbal communication such as facial expressions, body language, sighs, etc. While the level of communication achieved through Zoom is acceptable and sufficient to accomplish what we need to accomplish, not having the couple in front of me adds some challenges in monitoring how things are going. In challenging mediations being in person also provides a better opportunity to control the process. It is a little harder to control interruptions and both parties speaking at once when not in person. These issues can be overcome, but challenging mediations are definitely easier to manage with the couple in the room. Being in the same room does also add a personal touch. Some of the issues we deal with in divorce are quite personal and it just feels easier to connect and express support when I am with the couple face to face.
There are often distractions at home that we don’t encounter in my office. I mentioned the benefit of not necessarily having to make daycare arrangements to proceed at home via Zoom. It can be very distracting for the couple when their children get bored with whatever arrangements have been made to occupy them, and want to barge into the room during the session. It can be the barking dog, somebody coming to the door, a neighbor deciding to mow their lawn, or any other similar distractions. Most of the couples I have worked with have made suitable arrangements to minimize the distractions, but occasionally these issues do arise and create a challenge to having an efficient and productive mediation.
Zoom has been a great addition to my practice. It is nice to be able to give couples the option to choose between in-person and video conference mediation. It has expanded my practice so couples who live a long drive away from my office can use my services from the comfort of their own homes. The challenges with Zoom are manageable. The couple can work to assure they have a good connection, and no distractions. While it might be easier to monitor non-verbal communication in person, having video feeds still allows the mediator to keep a close eye on how things are going. Zoom features such as break out rooms allow for separating the spouses if helpful. Over the past few years I have worked with hundreds of couples divorcing via Zoom. I have not noticed any significant difference in the success rate of my Zoom mediations versus my in-person mediations. Both processes work. The question comes down to the preference of the couple; To Zoom or not to Zoom.