The Australian Mediator Standards Board defines mediation as:
…a process in which the participants, with the support of the mediator, identify issues, develop options, consider alternatives and make decisions about future actions and outcomes.https://msb.org.au/about-mediation (accessed 8 April 2020)
So, what does that mean? Let’s break it down.
First and foremost, mediation is a structured process. There are many different ways mediations can unfold—as a colleague once told me, “Mediation is messy!”—but the mediator will always try to guide the discussion back to the process to give the parties the best possible chance of successfully resolving their differences.
Second, the mediator will help the participants identify the really important issues. Sometimes the biggest issues are not clear or obvious—just like the biggest part of an iceberg is hidden under the surface. The mediator will try to help the participants to identify the crucial issues so that they can be discussed and addressed.
Third, the mediator is there to support the participants, not to impose upon them. The participants themselves decide if and how to resolve their differences, not the mediator. A mediator might ask questions to test (or “reality check”) options put forward by the parties to encourage further consideration and discussion. However, the mediator will (generally) not impose their own views on the parties. Some exceptions to this might include a hybrid process like “Med-Arb” or “Arb-Med”, in which the mediator also acts as an arbitrator (or the other way around) and can make a binding decision if the parties are unable to come to an agreement.
Finally, do you notice that the definition above doesn’t specifically mention disputes? At its heart, mediation is about effective communication. Mediation is not confined to the area of dispute resolution, which is perhaps its most powerful feature. Employed at the right time, mediation can be just as effective as a dispute prevention tool.