Conflict and Connection in the Era of COVID-19
A Conversation with Creative Mediation
Creative Mediation at Wilshire Community Services is an essential program of the Wilshire family, helping people in our community navigate challenges in their life and have tough conversations. Just like everything else, Creative Mediation has had to adapt to the virtual landscape and innovate new mechanisms for providing service to those in conflict.
We had the opportunity to chat with Creative Mediation’s Programs Manager, Nicolina Galante, to discuss how mediation, conflict, and connection has evolved through this pandemic and how virtual mediations offer more benefits than previously expected.
What did a mediation session typically look like before COVID-19?
Typically, we get to meet people in person. It starts with a handshake and a smile which is the first opportunity to build trust with the parties. Most of the time, the people that we are working with are not only nervous about the mediation process, but they are feeling all the negative emotions that are connected to the conflict. As they enter the room where they’ll be talking about their conflict, it’s an opportunity for us to assure them, through a lot of non-verbal communication, that this is a trusting space and we are people who are going to do our best to help you.
We’re usually sitting around a table and having that conversation with them in person. Sitting across the table or next to someone you are in conflict with can be really uncomfortable. In some ways that discomfort helps with the process because the parties are able to read each other’s body language; sometimes that’s really disruptive and difficult and other times it’s really helpful because they’re able to gauge insight that they didn’t have before.
A lot of times in mediation, we utilize something called caucus, where we meet with the individual parties independently in the middle of the mediation before coming back together and continuing the conversation in a group. The caucus is an opportunity for each party to relax, take a breath, and consider their options in a way that allows the mediator to reality test and help them to think through things. Doing that in front of the other person they are in conflict with can often be really uncomfortable.
As you can tell, there are many aspects of mediating that are dependent on the in-person experience.
Describe what first happened after the COVID-19 pandemic and the shelter in place order became a reality?
At Wilshire, our team at Creative Mediation was one the earliest adopters of working from home. We did not know how long this was going to last, if we were just going to manage for a couple of weeks or if this is this something we will adjust to doing for a long time. When it became apparent that this was going to be the new normal for a while, we got serious about adapting and we heavily researched the features of Zoom.
Our priority was to continue to provide mediation services, so we needed to figure out how exactly to do that remotely. Secondarily, we needed to figure out how to stay cohesive as a team while working from our respective homes. It’s important for us, as mediators, to stay connected to one another and to debrief on mediations regularly. We weren’t able to just pop into each other’s offices anymore, so we had to figure out how to keep connections with each other.
Once we got Zoom down, we learned that it lends itself pretty well to the work we do and we are still able to do all the things we were doing before. I cannot imagine what it would’ve been like if the pandemic happened 10 years ago.
What are some of the benefits to mediations on Zoom?
Building trust with someone on a computer screen looks a lot different compared to building trust in person.
One of the benefits is that you can see everyone at the same time, including yourself! Some of us are aware of our facial misbehavior, which is when you have a visible reaction to something someone says. A lot of people don’t realize when they are doing this. However, when you can see yourself on the screen, you become quickly aware of what you look like to the other people you’re talking with. There is also a benefit to being able to “read a room” on a single screen.
One of the biggest things we learned early on when we were adapting to Zoom was, we had to create an additional role in the mediation and that is the role of the technical host. So far, only staff have acted as tech hosts because it requires a lot of Zoom maneuvering. We had to learn how to utilize all the different features of Zoom to maximize our ability to recreate as many of the same conditions online as we were able to create in person. The tech host is how we deal with the technical needs of the mediation on Zoom. For our volunteers to mediate conflict, which is hard enough as it is, and to also navigate an entirely new platform, is a big ask. The tech host takes the technical burden off the mediator entirely so that they can focus on the process and helping the parties have the conversation. Another benefit of the tech host is that they also open the mediation with a warm greeting and can set the tone with positivity. After introducing themselves, the tech host remains present through the entire mediation, but with their camera off and microphone muted. They are available to help with whatever comes up and everyone feels like they’re being taken care of in this virtual space. This role does take a lot of staff time, but it is necessary. We do hope to fill this role with volunteers as we move forward.
Is there more flexibility with the ways in which people are resolving their conflict?
I don’t know if it’s changing whether the parties come to an agreement or not, but I’ve seen how it has changed how they’re relating to each other in mediation. There was an instance during a mediation in Small Claims Court where the parties were really at an impasse and I told them that this is typically where I’d break them out into individual rooms to give them each a breather and talk them through their options, but we can’t do that now (online court limitations). So, I offered them both a chance to take a break for five minutes, turn off their cameras and mute their microphones, and to think about how they felt about their options. It helped to diffuse some of the tension. I think people are trying to do their best and they seem willing to do the little extra it might take to work together.
The truth is everyone is struggling in this strange space; therefore, we all appear more human and tend to be more forgiving. There is a lot of grace being given that is inspiring to see. Everyone is just showing up and doing their best.
What do you think will be the lasting impact of this pandemic on Creative Mediation?
We do intend to continue offering virtual mediation even after we go back to mediating in person, because virtual mediation expands the community’s access to our services. We have tried to do mediations over the phone, and it is very challenging to build trust with someone who you can’t see. Virtual mediations allow people to participate from their own homes in their own space. While typically, it would take someone a little while to feel comfortable in the process, we’ve noticed that over Zoom, it actually happens a little quicker because our clients are sitting in their own home and not in a strange office. They are able to be in their own space.
We have also noticed that having a pet “cameo” often diffuses the tension; suddenly seeing a cat’s tail or a dog’s curious nose on the screen is a way for people to connect with each other. Also, too encourage someone who may be feeling nervous about the mediation, we tell them their pet is welcome to join the mediation from home. It helps to have something there that helps them relax.
In addition, the virtual option might also expand the access of our trainings as well. We’re doing our first Elements of Mediation Training on Zoom next week and we’re really curious how the virtual space impacts the trainee’s experience and if they absorb the material differently.
How has conflict changed or evolved over the course of the pandemic?
Because people are spending more time at home, their conflict is manifesting in ways that it might not have otherwise. We did a Zoom mediation earlier on between two neighbors: one who was working at home now and the other who has barking dogs(which was never much of a problem before because the other was always at work). Often it is not a directly COVID-19 related conflict, but it’s how COVID-19 is informing, changing, or adding an additional layer to conflict that was already there. With our parent-teen mediations, the kids are at home and don’t leave for school while the parent is also trying to work from home, so there’s a lot more tension. This time has exacerbated conflict that was already present but may not have exploded as it has if it weren’t for these circumstances.
How has having volunteers as a central part of your services, been impacted due to COVID-19?
Unfortunately, the transition to remote service delivery required that staff step in as mediators more often in order to figure out our systems and processes. So some of our volunteers were on pause for a few months. Once we had these in place though, our volunteers have been eager to mediate.
The first of our programs to launch virtually was our Restorative Dialogue Program. We have been busy with Parent Teen Mediations and our dedicated group of trained volunteers has helped us continue to deliver these services.
While Small Claims Court has resumed online after being closed for a while, the number of cases is dramatically lower than before. Also, the online court limitations mean that most of the day-of-court mediations are provided by CM staff. Our Community Mediator volunteers are continuing to provide mediations in these cases prior to court whenever possible. They also are the main mediators for any case referred through the SLO Solutions program which include neighbor/neighbor, roommate, and landlord/tenant conflicts.
Our volunteer mediators bring talent, dedication, and incredible value to all of our programs. To support our volunteers, we’ve moved our in-service trainings and quarterly book club meetings onto zoom, and we’ve created new ways to stay connected on a monthly basis., Our volunteers are our family and we do our best to support and encourage connection, even if it’s just so we’re seeing each other’s faces regularly.
Thank you so much for this insight into how Creative Mediation is continuing to provide services to the community at this time. Do you have any final thoughts to share?
We often encourage people to get curious about the perspectives, circumstances, and experiences of others before jumping to conclusions and (sometimes) into conflict. With a little grace and compassion, for ourselves and others, we can help each other through the challenges of this year, or any year for that matter.
To find out more about Creative Mediation at Wilshire Community Services, visit our