Six Tips for Making Emotional Connections Virtually

by Eileen Carroll KC (Hon)

In all the years of mediating I have witnessed a high degree of emotion. It does not matter whether the dispute is around intellectual property rights, a failed joint venture, the dispute over construction of pipelines, a power plant failure or issues arising from the 208 banking crisis.

They all have in common, deep deadlock and lack of trust.

I remember a mediation where a Dutch businessman showed me a video of the failure of the refrigeration system onboard their fishing vessels and the awful conditions affecting his workers.

He was in tears.


Emotion isn’t just at home in employment and family business disputes; it is centre stage in almost every conflict.


In any human communication, an emotional connection is vital.

Listening, Truly Listening

In difficult disputes, the parties need to have emotional time and space to be heard. This requires a well-designed process. Therefore, it is always been important to me as a mediator, to get to know the clients as well as the lawyers.

Active listening is at the heart of all difficult negotiations and so much so, the FBI spend several weeks training their hostage negotiators to in this individual skill. CEDR is fortunate to have a number of ex-hostage negotiators on our training and negotiation faculty, from whom I have had the opportunity to continue to develop this skill.

If you actively listen to those in conflict you start to build trust.

It’s not just enough to listen you have to really engage and ask good questions which are open and allow some of the realities to be exposed. Engaging at this level with the lawyers and the clients definitely develops connectedness and engages emotions.

Emotion in the Virtual World

Until COVID-19 I had assumed that this kind of engagement would only be possible face-to-face.

If someone had told me in January that by May of this year I will be mediating totally in a virtual environment, I would have said like most mediators, it’s not happening.

What I am finding is necessary to develop the appropriate emotional connection and trust when working virtually is you need to have a series of shorter meetings working with clients and advisers.

The mediator needs to get to know the client and it’s also an opportunity to navigate around the geography of mediating in the virtual world.

There is no doubt that mediating at this particular point in time, with all the challenges that have surrounded us, creates a sense of level playing field but also a sense of connectedness.

A sense of sharing of as many have said to me the weirdness of this time.

I found a sense of humour is imperative, particularly if there are technology problems, or if a builder starts working with the drill or the delivery man arrives with the groceries.

I have not tried it yet, but I might start inviting clients to come early with their croissant and coffee and suggest we have breakfast virtually – this is something which has worked well for my American colleagues.

If I reflect on what I’ve enjoyed most in my mediation career, it building relationships with people and helping them construct effective business communication even in difficult circumstances.

One of the things I’m taking away from this time is the opportunity to have more preparation involving clients.

They all like the efficiency of cutting down travel time and are prepared to meet you on via video-conference.

I think this will be sustained in the mediation playbook going forward.

How Does it Play out in Real-Life Cases

A dispute I was mediating recently involved a global manufacturer who is now advising his US clients on how to assemble his machines over videoconferencing. He would normally have had to fly engineers to the US.

The dispute was with the UK party who failed to take delivery of one of these machines on the basis of an alleged failed acceptance tests. The trial was set for the autumn and although they previously refused to mediate, they now agreed to do so virtually.

The lawyer for the manufacturer told me his client was a very tough negotiator and it will be difficult to settle. The other client was very upset, they had to commission another machine for their factory and they wanted their money back. Over the day, because I’d met the clients privately, we already had an understanding and developed enough trust for me to be able to be robust about the difficulties, but also to give them advice about the negotiation. Without this connectedness I would not have been able to persuade the clients to move.

At a very difficult point the other party became quite upset even though we seem to be quite close to a settlement. I needed to listen, I needed to give them the space to be heard and to ensure I conveyed their frustration and emotion to the other party. I did and we got a settlement.

Six Tips for Making Emotional Connections in a Virtual Environment

  1. Focus on the mediation and developing a relationship with the client. The technology is just a tool.
  2. Get in touch with your mediator early and start working together to build a relationship.
  3. Remember, all good communication is conducted at a human level. Take time to understand the clients’ needs and get to know their advisers and their team and how they work together.
  4. Active listening creates respect and reciprocity. This kind of environment better enables clients to think more clearly about options.
  5. Remember to be curious in a good way. Ask yourself what are you assuming. What is it you do and don’t understand.
  6. In the virtual environment, think about your surroundings, your own dress, your voice. Are you creating as good an environment as possible. Be yourself and think about really connecting.


Listen to the CEDR BetterConflicts podcast on this topic below.

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