The future of ODR: what are the benefits and drawbacks of F2F negotiation, and its applicability to future ODR design?

This post is by Dr. Emilia Bellucci, Deakin Business School, whose paper was workshopped at the ADRRN Roundtable at Latrobe University on 9-10 December 2019. This is the first of a series of posts related to the Roundtable.

ODR systems provide support to negotiations by facilitating communication online and in some circumstances even provide solutions to the dispute.  An ODR is considered successful if the outcome represents a similar or better outcome to an ADR process, inferring ODR processes should mimic F2F negotiations.  In a recently published paper (Bellucci et al 2019), my colleagues and I report on an ODR study whereby we replicated Boland and Ross (2010)’s finding that the propensity to resolve a dispute is directly related to the EI (Emotional Intelligence) of disputants.  Boland and Ross’ (2010) study involved F2F (Face to Face) negotiation, whereas our negotiations were conducted online.  Underlying this paper was the assumption that F2F is the preferred format of negotiation, and therefore our findings supported the idea that a successful ODR was one which replicated F2F mechanisms.

In this research I want to challenge this assumption.  Why is F2F negotiation the preferred option for negotiation? Do F2F negotiations achieve better outcomes?

In attempting to answers these questions, we need to understand the seminal differences between communicating electronically and in person. These include the use of verbal and non-verbal cues to express ideas, solutions and feedback. Whilst verbal communication is often supplemented by non-verbal cues, such as body language and facial expressions, I am most interested in the effect of non-verbal communication (which is typically missing in an ODR) on a negotiation. 

Facial expressions (smiles, frowns), crossed arms, learning forward or back, micro expressions are all examples of non-verbal communication.  These expressions, together with the spoken word may reveal a disputant’s joy, anger, sadness, happiness with the negotiation.  Whilst emotions revealed during the negotiation may be used to move a negotiation forward, resolve impasses and settle on amicable solution, they can also be used to deceive and unfairly influence the negotiation.  

Emotions expressed during negotiation vary depending on the context of the dispute, and include nasty emotions (anger, jealousy), existential emotions (anxiety), emotions resulting from positive and negative life events (disappointment, happiness), and sympathetic emotions (gratitude). Research suggests positive emotions tend to contribute positively to the negotiation, while negative emotions contribute negatively to a negotiation. 

In the F2F medium, disputants reveal emotional leakage through verbal and non-verbal cues.  Whilst emotions should not be ignored in negotiation, we should not allow emotions to distance the negotiation away from the issues in dispute. Emotions should be managed so outcomes from a negotiation are reflective of the human experience.

F2F negotiation is preferred for two main reasons: 

  1. F2F is the richest form of communication. It allows for opportunities to clarify interests and positons of the parties and allows for quick feedback and opportunities to reassess options to resolve the dispute successfully. Without F2F, many fear they will accept a solution which may not reflect the best solution. 
  2. Lawyers view ODR with a healthy degree of scepticism, due predominantly to a computer’s lack of creative decision making and inability to understand complex issues. There is a place for ODR as a support to communication (ie video conferencing, email, document management etc) and to resolve small disputes such as in e-commerce (ebay, paypal) where outcomes are set. 

So how can apply the positive aspects of F2F negotiation to an ODR?  Can we have the best of both worlds? 

Here are some ideas for future research: 

  1. ODR can filter language initially by expressing negative emotion to more appropriate language conducive to creating a positive environment. Either the software or negotiators may be asked to soften their language for these purposes. Software can also manage a disputant’s emotional responses by using feedback screens to illicit emotional responses,  after which, the system can deliver responses to help disputants manage their emotion. These designs are in research currently. What may be some of the obstacles to mainstream use? 
  2. Research (one study only) suggests there is no difference between F2F and computer negotiations, specifically relating to how emotion is expressed. People were found to supplement text in ODR with emoticons, capital letters or simply wrote more thoughtfully and clearly to supplement their communication.  Future work may involve the design of an empirical study to compare the effectiveness and communication models of ODR and F2F.
  3. It is perceived that ODR processes do not support the law authentically by providing another avenue for legitimate negotiation. How can we change this perception?  

Dr. Emilia Bellucci is a Senior lecturer in the Department of Information Systems and Business Analytics at Deakin University, Melbourne Australia.  Her major research area is in Online Dispute Resolution Systems with a particular focus on electronic support of family law negotiation and mediations. Emilia completed her PhD in 2004, under the supervision of Professor John Zeleznikow, and resulted in the “Family Winner” computer program which was designed to settle family law disputes. Family Winner was the focus of much media in 2005 with a number of newspaper articles, radio station interviews and television appearances including a win on the science and technology television program, ABC’s “New Inventors”.  

Since then, Dr. Bellucci has conducted research in e-health, small to medium enterprises and has recently returned to Online Dispute Resolution with a renewed passion to make justice (through negotiated outcomes) and ODR accessible to all. Dr. Bellucci has published 16 refereed international journal articles, 3 book chapters and 29 refereed conference papers.  She has attended and presented her research at numerous international conferences and workshops. 

This entry was posted in Dispute resolution by Dr Olivia Rundle. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr Olivia Rundle

Dr Rundle is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania. She has worked as a nationally accredited mediator and a Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner. Dr Rundle is especially interested in the role of lawyers in dispute resolution processes and the policy environment that positively encourages lawyers to engage with dispute resolution. She teaches and researches in broad areas of Dispute Resolution, Civil Procedure and Family Law.

2 thoughts on “The future of ODR: what are the benefits and drawbacks of F2F negotiation, and its applicability to future ODR design?

  1. I think the discussion about the nuances of body language and other non-verbal communications in ODR is a fascinating one. The caution to separate the problem from the person might lend support to the view that the nuances of body language and what they say about the person are of secondary significance in considering “the real issues.” On the other hand the claim that “the dispute is never about what it is about” suggests that getting to the real nub of the problem may benefit from the kind of nuanced communication that is really only possible in a face to face meeting. Dr Bellucci’s paper was a thoughtful and well presented piece and I look forward to seeing more of her research.


  2. Pingback: Roundtable Wrap Up and Handover of Leadership Roles | The Australian Dispute Resolution Research Network

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