I have been engaged in a long distance divorce mediation recently - the wife is currently residing in another country with the children, and the husband is here in the U.S. The challenges, of course, have been to bring the parties together for the mediation sessions, along with being able to share information on a real-time basis to facilitate the negotiations.
Dealing with Time Zone Differences
In terms of bringing the parties together at all, the time change has been enough of a challenge. In this case, the country in which the wife is located (Australia) is across the International Date Line, so she is already into the next day when we meet. With that much of a difference in time zones, and with two working spouses, finding matching times led to difficult negotiations at the outset! We found the most successful time during weekdays has been to convene during our afternoon here in the U.S., when it is early morning there in Australia. Saturday evenings also seem to be a good choice, when it is the middle of the day on Sunday there.
Using Skype for Video Conferences
To facilitate joint sessions, with the help of Skype and my webcam we have been able to conduct our mediation sessions via video teleconference, so that all the parties can see each other. The call clarity is quite good, and although the video is sometimes a little out of phase or jerky, and even freezes occasionally, in general it works pretty well. The best thing, of course, is that it is free!
We have found two small inconveniences - one is that the webcam does not have a very wide “field of vision.” If one of us sits in the foreground, and the other in the background (for example, on the other side of my desk), the one farther away from the camera really cannot be seen very well at all. So the husband and I have to sit fairly close to each other to both be seen on camera. At this point, Skype does not support three-way video conferences (although several parties may have a teleconference with voice only).
The other is that the microphone built-in to the webcam does not have enough fidelity to capture both of our voices very well. So we are forced to use a separate mini-microphone and pass it back and forth between each other, depending on who is speaking.
Using Google Docs for Visual Aids
We also found that trying to keep a flip chart visible and readable in camera range was not really practical. So we have been using googledocs (http://docs.google.com
) to keep track of issues and resolutions. Googledocs really is a marvelous tool. Again, signing up for an account is free. Once you have an account, you can upload a word processing document or spreadsheet, and it will be converted into googledocs format. You can then allow others to view or edit the document over the internet by sending them a link to their e-mail address.
The fabulous thing about editing a googledocs document is that it updates itself in real time while it is on everyone’s screen. So if text or data is inserted into the document by one party, it shows up after only a few seconds’ delay on everyone else’s screen who is viewing the document. Agreements on particular issues can immediately be recorded so that everyone has the ability to keep it in front of them during the negotiation.
We found that by minimizing the video image into one corner of the computer screen - and by using the zoom feature of the spreadsheet we were using to compress the spreadsheet we were working on - we were able to both see each other and the data we were working on at the same time.
Needless to say, even the best of technology cannot substitute for a face-to-face meeting. But when that is not practical or feasible, the tools available can at least provide “the next best thing to being there”!
© Glenn M. Gottlieb, 2010. All rights reserved.