November 20, 2007

Using Email in Dispute Resolution

Although the use of email by ombuds remains limited because of confidentiality concerns, disputants continue to rely on email to discuss their concerns. Ombuds therefore should coach their visitors to use email more effectively. David A. Hoffman, a mediator, arbitrator and collaborative law attorney, provides some guidelines for using email and for overcoming the inherent problem of misinterpretation that can derail negotiations. He observes that "in a medium such as email in which there is such a narrow bandwidth for emotion to be expressed, communication of positive emotion must be intentional and robust in order to be unambiguous." He offers these examples of positive elements for an email:
  • Personal salutation – using the other person's name is a signal of respect;
  • Appreciation – a sincere "thank you" is always welcome;
  • Taking the recipient’s prior message seriously;
  • Openness – such as a request for discussion;
  • Acknowledgment - "I know you’re busy";
  • Flexibility – "please call when you have a chance";
  • Validation of the parties’ endeavor and common commitment;
  • Optimism – "looking forward to talking to you"; and
  • Personalisation – signing one’s name rather than just ending the message with a signature block.
"Because email is such a new medium," Hoffman says, "the techniques for successful communication via computer may be less intuitive and require more conscious attention." (

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