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[Template Public article] Telephone conciliation: what, why, how, challenges and answers

Many years ago I was working at Financial Industry Complaints Service in Melbourne. The way we handled most complaints was either an informal or formal decision. So I decided it was time to implement a proper mediation/conciliation service. I undertook a number of successful conciliations and we decided to expand this service. However, as we covered the whole of Australia from our Melbourne office and often had members in one state and a complainant in another it was proving difficult to provide the service to all our stakeholders.

To address this problem I designed a telephone conciliation process. At the time this was quite ground-breaking. There were of course challenges and we learnt a lot in those early months and in time perfected the process which continues to be used up to this day.

This article shares the what, why, how and more importantly the challenges and how we addressed them to use telephone conciliation as a practical dispute resolution process.

What is conciliation?

There are a number of definitions of conciliation. For the purposes of this article I am going to say it is mediation where a ‘conciliator’ may have advisory role on content or outcome (but not a determinative role) and actively encourage the parties to reach agreement.

Why?

Generally speaking the best method to conduct a conciliation is using a face-to-face process. However, there are occasions when location, time and cost does not allow for this to happen. In such cases, we need to look for other methods to allow consumers access to dispute resolution. One method is telephone conciliation.

Before looking at how to do telephone conciliation and the challenges, I need to acknowledge that there are more modern methods of distance communication such as video conferencing. Although these have become more accessible and affordable, not all people have access to computer video and/or reliable internet connection. Some people are also not as comfortable as others using video conferencing whereas most are with telephone conversations. This will no doubt change in the very near future.

Having said that many of the challenges and answers that apply to telephone conciliation equally apply to video conciliation.

How?

Telephone conciliation follows pretty much the same process as a mediation. The main difference is that instead of booking a location and time you need to confirm a time and telephone numbers.

Challenges and answers

Telephone conciliation has some of the same challenges as a face-to-face conciliation or mediation, such as: connecting and building trust with the parties; ensuring the parties have an understanding of the process; finding the underlying motivations and focusing on resolution, to name just a few.

However, there are a number of challenges that are unique to telephone conciliating. Following are some of these and suggestions to overcome them.

  • Telephone Equipment: Conference type phone drop out or voice ‘cut-over’, equipment needs to be ‘hands-free’ and able to hear and be heard.
    • Use telephone with head-set, ensure equipment is designed for multi-party calls and test equipment before the conciliation.
  • The Setting: A different event in your normal work space, distractions from surroundings PC etc and cramped conditions at your desk.
    • Don’t use your normal work space, work in a closed/private space, turn off any PC or mobile device, and ensure the workspace is large enough.
  • Private Sessions: Privacy breached due to failed mute option on telephone or party not contactable after private session break.
    • Disconnect one party for the private session (don’t use a mute button option) and estimate and meet private session length.
  • Listening and Understanding: Harder to do when not face to face, parties talking over each other, not hearing what was said and distractions.
    • Confirm/clarify what was said, remove distractions, use good quality equipment, pause and have only one party speaking and practice, practice, practice!
  • Reference Documents: Parties do not have all documents that will be referred to or parties not clear which document is which.
    • Use intake to ensure all documents exchanged, clearly mark documents and establish at intake if scan/email available.
  • Option Generation: Nowhere to write them in view of parties, who said that / two speaking at once and silence from parties;
    • Instruct parties to take notes as options arise, explore some options at intake, record options with note (initial) of who made the suggestion and practice prompts to increase conversation.
  • They Can’t See You: Parties cannot see your physical gestures and maybe / probably different to your normal style.
    • Be aware of the difference to face to face, concentrate on words, use full language and close eyes to increase concentration on sound.

Trevor Slater
Client Director, Financial Dispute Resolution Service