As the number of commercial transactions on the Internet explodes, so do complaints about poor service, shoddy workmanship and outright fraud. Resolving these disputes, which often involve people who have never met one another, is the newest challenge for conflict mediators. Alternative dispute resolution, which uses mediators rather than the court system to resolve conflicts, has grown in popularity as people search for time- and cost-effective solutions to a host of civil disagreements.

As online disputes escalate in number, conflict mediators are not only spending more time on them but are developing new negotiation strategies appropriate to “cyber-conflict,” including e-mail, instant messaging and threaded discussion, experts say.

Hoping to set the gold standard for the profession is the Mediation Information and Resource Center, which launched the Web site www.onlinemediators.com earlier this year. An established Internet-based mediation community with some 3,000 members, the center in its latest endeavor will concentrate on business-to-business disputes. But it also plans to advocate generally for mediation as a way of establishing trust between online vendors and their customers.

“What we’re really hoping to do is place links to online mediators on any and every site we can get, as a pledge and indication to the consumer that these people prefer to mediate,” said John Helie, founder of the center and the new site. The fees for the center’s service range from $50 to $100 per hour, based on the dollar value of the work or product in dispute.

Anyone interested in using online mediation can go to the site, fill out a form detailing their grievance and submit it by e-mail. The center then contacts the other party. If the other side agrees to mediation, the center selects one of its members whose expertise matches the dispute. All parties then communicate with each other by e-mail, instant messaging and even group discussions until they solve the problem.

“Meeting face to face, the traditional method of mediation, is still an option but often isn’t essential,” said Colin Rule, general manager of the site. “With the Internet, you have disputes arising between people who will never meet. If it’s just about money, online (communication) is probably better.”

Helie agrees and takes it one step further. “Yes, you don’t have the nonverbal cues, but the face-to-face in most cases is overrated and not necessary,” he said. “In many cases, the face-to-face gets in the way,” particularly for people who are uncomfortable with the way they look or are hesitant to interrupt someone else to state their opinion. For them, negotiating online is much preferred, he said.

Having time to think is also important, Helie said. In-person mediation often involves putting two people in a room and pressuring them to come to an agreement before they’re ready. Working online eliminates that tension, he said.

Not that face-to-face meetings are being ruled out. For clients who wish to negotiate in person, the center will also provide the names of five mediators in their geographic area. Those meetings help build rapport among the parties and the mediator. But exchanging information and negotiating agreements are best done online, Helie said.

“You can mix and match. An online mediator needs to know when to go face to face,” he said. Just as body language matters in negotiation, small details are going to make a difference online, said Rule. Feedback from clients has already shown that people prefer polite, formal language rather than the casual communication and typing shortcuts often associated with the Web. “Emotions are a big part of the mediation process,” he noted.

The profession is catching on quickly. In addition to the center, numerous other mediation groups offer their services on cyberspace. The auction house e-Bay has partnered up with SquareTrade, which helps resolve misunderstandings among the site’s customers. The Better Business Bureau, which already accepts complaints online and refers them to local affiliates, is exploring how to automate consumer disputes that involve international transactions.

“The potential is staggering,” said Rule. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the legal system evolved to encompass the way business is done online, but that’s decades away. We want to be on the cutting edge.”

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by American News Service
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