Mediation is sometimes referred to as assisted negotiation. The main difference is that mediation involves a third party whose role is to help the parties reach a mutually agreeable solution to the problem or conflict or disagreement. Mediation is a voluntary process. The exact process of mediation differs from mediator to mediator, and according to the culture in which mediation takes place. In general, there are four stages to mediation. The descriptions that accompany these four phases relate to mediation in a North American context:
- Introduction. During the introduction, the mediator greets the parties, describes the process and the role of the mediator. The parties, together with the mediator, establish the groundrules for the mediation session(s) before entering into the story-telling phase.
- Story-telling. During this phase, each party tells their story from their own perspective. The mediator usually summarises each of the stories after the party has told the story. The mediator lists the issues for resolution, and the parties agree to this list.
- Problem solving. During the problem solving stage, parties engage in a problem solving process to generate and then evaluate various options for resolving their conflict. At times, the mediator uses a caucus, which is a separate session with each party, to explore emotions, unstated interests, or goals.
- Agreement. After evaluating various options for resolving the disagreement, the parties decide on a solution. The mediator facilitates a discussion about the details of the agreement – who will do what, when, and where. This is often written down, with some details about what to do if either party does not uphold his or her part of the agreement. In a western context, mediators are seen to be impartial or neutral. This means they do not show bias toward either party but instead work to help the parties reach an agreement that is mutually acceptable. In other contexts, mediators might be seen as partial but they are acceptable to both parties. For example, a family member of one of the parties might be an appropriate mediator, provided both parties agree on the choice of a mediator for their conflict.