In mediation, disputing parties meet with an impartial third party — a mediator — to negotiate a settlement of their case. Mediators are trained to help disputants explore their interests, discuss alternatives, and reach a mutually acceptable resolution. Unlike a court hearing, mediation is voluntary, private and confidential. It also provides a more efficient, less expensive way of settling disputes.
The first step in the mediation process is for disputants to consider whether a dispute is appropriate for mediation. The next step is to schedule the mediation. Mediation sessions are typically held in the offices of a mediator or other neutral venue. Mediation participants may include disputants, lawyers, witnesses, subject-matter experts, interpreters and family members.
Once the mediation begins, the mediator will ask each side to present their opening statement. The person who requested the mediation session will usually go first. The purpose of this is to give the parties a chance to frame their issues and to help the mediator better understand each side’s emotional state. The mediator will also listen carefully to the statements and offer comments and questions.
Throughout the discussion, the mediator will ask open-ended questions to get to the emotional undercurrents. She will summarize often, and she will work to help the parties create options for solving their dispute. She will also help the parties “think outside of the box,” to consider options that might not have occurred to them on their own.
At the end of the joint session, the mediator will usually transition to a second stage of separate meetings with each party called caucuses. During this phase of mediation, the mediator will move between rooms so that each side has the opportunity to talk with the mediator privately. This is an important part of the process because it allows the disputants to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and to exchange offers.
Once both sides have the opportunity to speak with the mediator, the mediator will return to the joint session and attempt to determine if there is any area of agreement. The mediator will also work to identify the obstacles that might prevent a resolution.
It is common for a settlement to emerge at this point, though sometimes it takes several hours, days or even months for a resolution to occur. The mediator will help the disputants draft a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that outlines the topics discussed and any agreements that have been reached.
A key to the success of mediation is for all parties to participate in a spirit of good faith and professionalism. Each participant must come to the mediation with a willingness to negotiate, and a desire to find an outcome that satisfies all parties’ needs. Often, that means compromising. If a party insists on an inflexible position, it may be necessary to withdraw from the mediation or consider other dispute resolution methods. Fortunately, approximately 80% of all mediated cases reach a resolution. For many disputants, that is a win-win situation.