Although this white paper is about business meetings, much of it also would apply to conflict resolution sessions. From the Executive Summary of the white paper "The Future of Meetings: The Case for Face-to-Face" (found on the Web site of the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research):
With the advent of virtual-meeting technology, the issue of how to format group meetings and events has become remarkably complex. Meetings can be completely virtual, completely face-to-face, or a hybrid of the two. Leading companies are using all three formats. The challenge for meeting planners is to decide which format is most effective for important business outcomes. Rather than rely on personal preferences or currently popular approaches, the decision regarding meeting type is a strategic one that should rest on specific, scientific criteria. This paper examines those science-based decision criteria to help executives determine when face-to-face is the most effective approach to large-group meetings or events. This decision is important because face-to-face meetings require the greatest investment of all meeting types, and thus carry the greatest expectations for a strong return on investment. Face-to-face is most likely to be the best approach in the following three business situations:
(1) To capture attention, particularly when you want to initiate something new or different;
(2) To inspire a positive emotional climate, as a way to catalyze collaboration, innovation, and performance; and
(3) To build human networks and relationships, realizing that information can increasingly be shared virtually whereas the greater value is in people networks and relationships.
You download the white paper at the above link. For another summary of it, read Why Invest in Face-to-Face Meetings? Look to Neuroscience" (Corporate Meetings & Incentives). Excerpt:
“What is the value that is created through face-to-face meetings that is very difficult to replicate in other ways?”
[Mary Beth] McEuen found some answers from a network of academics and neuroscientists and their research. There are five “intangible” qualities that face-to-face meetings enhance:
Mirroring: Research has revealed the existence of “mirror neurons” that react in response to visual cues—for example, in a conversation, the speaker’s body language causes a reaction in the listener’s neurons that would create the same action.
Emotional contagion: The report cites recent research confirming that emotions “ripple out from individuals and influence not only other individuals’ emotions … and behaviors, but also the dynamics of the entire group.”
Empathy and trust
[T]he brain remembers better when multiple senses are engaged, something that happens naturally at a face-to-face meeting. It’s a way to “break through autopilot”—the tendency of the brain to take in new information and make it conform to what it already knows. Engaging multiple senses “wakes up” the brain and increases attendees’ ability to see things from a new perspective.
For those of you who have conducted online, phone, or other kinds of non-face-to-face mediations, what are your thoughts about its advantages and disadvantages, in light of what is said in the white paper? Obviously, cost can be one big advantage of the tech-mediated conflict resolution. What else is weighed in deciding against or for face-to-face?
Note (added October 22, 2010): Another article about the research: "Study Finds Virtual Communication is Less Effective than Face-to-Face Methods" (The Cornell Daily Sun).