This is an issue that we are all focused on at present! I was very lucky recently to be able to discuss this important topic with my great friend and colleague Marlene Ebejer. She is a leader in the family dispute resolution field, and it was a great privilege to have this discussion with her. Marlene is a family lawyer, ICL, author, lecturer, FDRP and so much more!
I attach the video and summarise my recollection of our discussion.
Posted by Creative Family Law Solutions on Sunday, May 3, 2020
The priority, particularly in this time, is for the safety of clients, staff and other colleagues. Although we are regarded as an “essential service”, being able to work remotely does promote safety, and if managed carefully, does not detract from the work that we do. The focus has to be on maintaining and ensuring good quality communication with all involved!
There are some distinct advantages in communicating with others remotely.
- They can remain in their familiar environment, which can assist to make them feel more comfortable, particularly in times of great stress and uncertainty.
- They have a greater ability to manage their own comfort levels, as they can leave the remote space quickly if they sense that they are feeling overwhelmed and not coping.
- The Zoom space is a very flexible one, with features including waiting rooms, breakout rooms and a chat box, which can be used to advantage to suit the individual needs of particular participants.
- The share screen feature of Zoom allows the moderator to combine various different ways of providing information and structure for a difficult discussion, again to suit the individual needs of each meeting.
- This way of working requires a greater effort for deep listening, to ensure that there is good engagement, understanding of individual needs, and clarity of goals and process.
Options for working remotely
There are many different options, but the most popular ones include:
- Video-conferencing with Skype, Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
Any of these need to be integrated into office processes and policies to ensure consistency and clarity.
All participants must have the necessary technology to support the method of choice, as well as an understanding of how to manage this technology, not only when things so smoothly, but also when they do not go according to plan. For older users, a-go-to person when there are difficulties is essential!
Marlene described how she makes an appointment with all of her clients to discuss how they will work remotely, to discuss what will be required and to talk about their comfort levels in using the technology. A practice session in advance of any consultation can be very useful. Marlene also assures them that when Covid-19 is over, she will make an appointment to meet with each of them face to face.
Groundrules for making this work best
I have found that it very important to discuss not only the technology, but how any consultation will take place. Managing participant’s expectations in advance can go a long way to ensuring that any meeting runs smoothly and the focus can then be on the issues to be discussed, rather than difficulties encountered.
I have developed an Information Sheet that I provide to all participants in telephone or Zoom meetings which covers:
- The need for the meeting to take place in a quiet place where there will be no interruptions;
- The importance for me as convener to be notified as soon as possible if this changes, so that any impact on the conference can be well managed;
- The need for all participants to speak slowly and clearly so that they can be easily heard and understood;
- That all participants put their microphone on mute except when they are speaking so that any background noise is minimized;
- That I as moderator will ensure that each person has a chance to say what is important to them, and that this be able to occur without interruption;
- It is recommended that everyone have pen and paper and note any issues that they want to address when it is their turn to speak;
- The importance of preparation which will be discussed in detail in advance of the meeting;
- That confidentiality is observed and there are no recordings of meetings without the agreement of all participants.
Adaptation for multiparty situations
In my experience, where there are a number of different parties, the biggest difficulty is knowing who is speaking at any given time. The best way to manage this is to ask have introductions at the beginning, and then ask that each person announce their name before they speak. In this way, everyone will know in advance who is talking and where they fit in to the conference overall.
- The most common problem is where a participant does not have an internet connection, or if they do, it does not support the recommended method of communication. Some examples include:
- older clients who do not use the internet at all;
- others who only have the internet on their phone and are not familiar with many of the features on their phone to be able to manage more sophisticated programmes such as Skype, Zoom or even FaceTime;
- on many occasions I have experienced a participant who believes that they have an adequate system and can manage the technology, but on the day they struggle to effectively use the technology which results in a negative experience and frustration;
- an internet connection which seems to keep cutting in and out;
- sound quality that is very poor and makes hearing clearly very difficult.
- Confidentiality- the cornerstone of our solicitor/client, or mediator/participant relationship is confidentiality. The ability to manage this by the professional is compromised when working remotely. We can only see what is happening in the screen or know what we hear through the phone or microphone. We have little control over the space that the participants are in, and rely on them to advise us if someone else enters the room, or can overhear the discussion. This is a particular problem with Covid-19 with many adults working from home, and children being home-schooled. A very clear conversation needs to take place about the expectations around confidentiality, and a commitment from all to comply with these.
- Communication- in some situations, communication remotely can be a great challenge. Some participants find it confusing and they do not trust this space. They find it unfamiliar, unfriendly, and foreign. In these situations, it takes a great deal of creativity and patience to find the best method to meet the needs of all.
- Home schooling- I have found that parents have had to find innovative ways to have a difficult parenting discussion when their children are home, and may need support from that parent during the meeting. This needs to be discussed in advance to that there is a clear plan as to how to manage this. The important principle for me, is that parenting issues should not be discussed within the hearing of children, so if they approach a parent during a meeting, then this should be put on pause until the child has been settled. During one mediation I did recently, the parent had to sit in her car while we had our discussion to ensure that she had some privacy and would not be overheard!
- Signing of documents-these issues remain challenging, but the recent Practice Direction from the court has provided some much needed guidance.
- Clients and other professionals are generally feeling very anxious about the current challenging times. They need to feel that someone understands, is able to provide them with some support to manage their issues, and will always be able to listen to them. We need to be sensitive to the mindset of those we cross paths with in our lives, and if we sense that anyone is struggling, listen to them, check in with them regularly, and make sure that they are aware of other professionals supports if needed. Compassion, kindness and patience are crucial to connect with the humanity of others!
Please see the attached resources that may be helpful.