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While mediation is not as formal as going to court, the process is more structured than many people imagine. A typical mediation involves six distinct stages.
Mediator's Opening Statement: After the disputants are seated at a table, the mediator introduces everyone, explains the goals and rules of the mediation, and encourages each side to work cooperatively toward a settlement.
Disputants' Opening Statements: Each party is invited to describe, in his or her own words, what the dispute is about and how he or she has been affected by it, and to present some general ideas about resolving it. While one person is speaking, the other is not allowed to interrupt.
Joint Discussion: The mediator may try to get the parties talking directly about what was said in the opening statements. This is the time to determine what issues need to be addressed.
Private Caucuses: The private caucus is a chance for each party to meet privately with the mediator (usually in a nearby room) to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of his or her position, and new ideas for settlement. The mediator may caucus with each side just once or many times, as needed. These meetings are considered the guts of mediation.
Joint Negotiation: After caucuses, the mediator may bring the parties back together to negotiate directly.
Closing: This is the end of the mediation. If an agreement has been reached, the mediator may put its main provisions in writing as the parties listen. The mediator may ask each side to sign the written summary of agreement or suggest they take it to lawyers for review. If the parties want to, they can write up and sign a legally binding contract. If no agreement was reached, the mediator will review whatever progress has been made and advise everyone of their options, such as meeting again later, going to arbitration, or going to court.