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Ten Top Tips for Better Mediation Outcomes

Resolving disputes is challenging and if you don’t keep in control of it a dispute can quickly escalate into conflict, abuse, violence or costly legal battles.  Sound too dramatic? Often that is the path people choose or they may choose to cut the relationship and stop all contact, breaking apart families and leaving work they used to love.

These ten top tips for Mediation are designed to help keep you in control of your own decisions regarding what is and isn’t acceptable to you.

Disputes in any situation can quickly take on a life of their own. It doesn’t matter whether it relates to issues at work, with your neighbour or with a former partner. It’s stressful to be in conflict with people, especially if you feel like you are without a way to resolve it.

That is especially true when we are talking about relationship conflict. Separation and divorce are, for most people one of the most stressful and emotionally taxing times in your life.

You have to come to terms with the reality that the future you had imagined for yourselves is never going to happen. You have to deal with all the issues related to sharing care for your children, dealing with finances and how you will each have the financial support you need after separation. You have to work out your property settlement.  It’s hard and while it is tempting to throw yourself on the mercy of your lawyer and let them sort it out that isn’t really a good idea. You have to live with the outcome of the dispute so we encourage you to remain in control of the process to resolve it by engaging with mediation.

Wasting time and money on expensive legal processes that reduce your ability to make your own decisions isn’t usually the best choice.

On the other hand, there are legal protections and obligations that you may not be aware of. Trying to resolve difficult disputes yourself, especially if there is an imbalance of power, can lead to you feeling coerced into agreeing to unfair outcomes.

Mediation is the recommended approach to dispute resolution. In the majority of cases, you’ll be able to fully or partially resolve the issues. Avoiding or reducing the time, cost and complexity of other processes.

In this article I will share with you my top ten do’s and don’ts for mediation in order to help you to make informed decisions and improve the experience for you and the outcomes for all involved.

1. DO: Only use mediators qualified to help you with the type of dispute you have

Qualified mediators are either accredited and/or registered under one of two different systems in Australia.

For basic mediation  – use mediators who are accredited under the National Mediator Accreditation System (NMAS) which is administered by the Mediator Standards Board (MSB) www.MSB.org.au.  These mediators are re-accredited every two years and must meet practice and professional development requirements. Someone who says they are a mediator but isn’t NMAS accredited may not have any training, may not be keeping current with professional development and doesn’t have any ethical standards they must maintain or a complaint handling service that you can approach if you have an issue. You can check if a mediator is accredited on a register on the MSB website.  All Mediation Institute members who indicate that they are a mediator must be NMAS Accredited.

For family law mediation – use a Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner to assist you with your post-separation mediation. FDR Practitioners have post-graduate qualifications and must meet standards to be registered as a FDR Practitioner with the Australian Attorney Generals’ department. They have training in screening for and understanding the consequences of exposure to family violence, child development and how to help you to negotiate parenting, financial and property settlement decisions. They can provide you with legal information (but not individual legal advice) to help you with any unknowns that may prevent a fair settlement.  NMAS Mediators do not have this training and we don’t recommend using someone who only has NMAS training for your family law mediation.

You can use our Find a Mediator listing to find and contact a suitable Mediation Institute Member to assist you https://www.mediationinstitute.edu.au/find-a-mediator/

2. DON’T: Expect mediation to be completed in one session

It depends of course but often mediation may require more than one session, and that’s OK.

In situations where it is a bit more complex or there have been higher levels of conflict or even abusive behaviour, the mediator in the middle is required to keep the process civil and shift the relationship dynamic towards one that is more respectful. There may be a number of decisions to be made, the need to trial proposals over some time to build trust and issues that need to be dealt with in sequence.

If the mediation is occurring in a court diverted process they may only allocate a limited time and no option to go away and reflect and then re-commence the process.

Consider the benefits of engaging with a private mediator.  In private mediation, you have the flexibility to have a mediation process tailored to your needs.

Often workplace mediation occurs in a single session but a check-in may be scheduled afterwards to help keep everyone accountable for what has been agreed.

Family Dispute Resolution will usually require several sessions, especially if there are parenting and property decisions to be made.  Often there is a parenting mediation session and an interim parenting agreement is put in place to get things started down a more collaborative path.  Then the FDR Practitioner will work with you on the property settlement and any financial negotiations such as spousal maintenance or covering additional costs for the children that are not appropriately covered by child support.

With parenting mediation, you can return to mediation as often as you feel the need because you can’t reach an agreement through direct discussions.  If you see articles indicating that mediation is a session rather than a process it is probably written by someone who doesn’t understand mediation.

3. DO: Get advice from qualified experts

Do get advice to make sure you are fully informed about your rights and obligations. Who you get advice from depends on the type of dispute you have.  Often it will be a lawyer.

A question that many people have is do I go to a lawyer first or a mediator?

The legal advice you get will only be as good as the “instructions” you provide. Instructions in legal jargon which means the information and outcomes that you tell the lawyer about.  The process of giving the lawyer all the information they need, especially in a family law property settlement, can be quite expensive.  During your pre-mediation session with your Mediator, they will help you to prepare the information needed so that when you go to a lawyer for advice you give them good quality information and have a better chance of getting good quality advice. We recommend you ask for your advice in writing.

If the dispute is in the workplace you may need to get advice from HR or your union. Check what resources are available.

In other contexts, it may be your local council, a finance provider, a financial advisor or another service that can assist you to understand your rights and obligations or consider your options.  Again your mediator should be able to refer you to suitable services or help you to identify services you already have access to.

The saying “knowledge is power” is true but only if what you know is accurate rather than something you think you know. With the internet, it is easy to research but not always easy to work out the quality of the answers you come up with. Australia’s legal system is different to that of other countries so it is important that you get advice from experts in Australia, not from other countries.

In family law situations your lawyer will be able to provide legal advice on the likely range of outcomes if your case went to court and the likely cost of court proceedings. These can only ever be best guess estimates as there are too many variables to come down to a single outcome with any accuracy. That means that within a certain range whatever works best for your family is going to be considered fair and equitable. Your mediator will usually encourage you to consult with your lawyer on the settlement offer and they can help with applying for consent orders (a way to get a binding court order that is administrative and doesn’t require you to go to court).  Some people are willing to bear the additional expense of having their lawyers present with them throughout the mediation and that can be accommodated.

4. DON’T: Expect the mediator to decide for you

A mediator is an independent third party who facilitates the negotiation process. Their job is to remain impartial and keep the process safe, respectful and productive.

The styles of mediation vary from transformative mediation where the mediation isn’t about a specific issue but rather focused on helping to transform your relationship with another person or people.

Facilitative mediation is an approach that is more focused on problem-solving and reaching an agreement on how to resolve specific issues such as how to work together, co-parenting a child or dividing up your assets and debts after separation. The mediator won’t give their opinion or tell you what you should do.

Evaluative mediation is a style where the mediator may be more directive and give you more direction and opinion. It is important to make sure that the mediator is actually qualified and knowledgeable if you do want to use this type of mediation.  Also, remember that the mediator can’t make you agree to anything. They do not have the power to impose a decision on you and most will not try.  If you feel like your mediator is trying to pressure you into an agreement, speak up and tell them what you need. You may need more time, more information or more advice before deciding. That is OK too.

Your mediator can not provide you with independent legal advice, even in evaluative mediation. It is unethical for a lawyer to advise both people who are in a dispute with each other so make sure you speak with your own advisor if you have any doubts about the best course of action for you.

5. DO: Engage in the mediation process

Mediation is a process of negotiation and decision making and that means that the people who have to live with the agreement need to be present at the mediation. You can’t send someone else!

There are lots of flexible ways that you can participate now so if you are concerned about safety, would rather not travel or the person you have a dispute with lives a long way away you can mediate remotely.  Many mediators have learned how to facilitate mediation via video meeting and many clients prefer that approach to meeting face to face in a room.

Mediation is a voluntary process. You can always refuse however depending on the circumstances there may be consequences for refusing.

This is particularly the case in Family Law situations. There is a requirement to participate in pre-action procedures. That includes Family Dispute Resolution for children’s matters and ideally for property matters as well.

If you refuse the mediator will provide a section 60i Certificate which tells the court that you have done that. The court has the power to order you back to mediation and can make an order requiring you to pay costs associated with court actions.

Even if you think it isn’t going to be possible to reach an agreement, speak with the mediator and tell them your concerns.

In the event that proceedings end up being filed in the court, the court may take into account a party’s decision to not attend family dispute resolution when deciding whether to make a costs order against them (being ordered to pay the other person’s legal costs) or in ordering you back to mediation.

6. DON’T: Be intimidated by mediation

Due to the confidential nature of mediation, there isn’t as much information out there as there could be and some of the examples provided in movies are just plain wrong. There won’t be any yelling, screaming or intimidation if you are working with a qualified mediator.  Or at least if someone loses their cool the mediator will take control and shut that down immediately.

Mediation is a form of facilitated negotiation. The mediator’s job is to help you safely discuss the issues, consider your options and come up with an acceptable solution that you are both willing to agree to.  The mediator will at some stage have a private session to check in with you if you are not doing “shuttle” mediation where you are in separate rooms. You can also ask for a break, time to call your advisor or anything else you need during the process.

Some mediators think it is their job to keep you there until an agreement can be reached. If you end up with one of these types of mediators don’t be afraid to ask them to end the session and reschedule when you are feeling fresher and have had time to reflect on what has been discussed and proposed. It’s your mediation and you have to live with the consequences of the agreement you reach and put into effect so don’t be intimidated. Speak up and tell the mediator what you need.

7. DO: Be prepared to discuss your interests

If you could get everything on your wish list agreed to by the other person you probably wouldn’t be in mediation. The mediation process is designed to help you both to identify your interests, and what really matters to you.  Once those are understood by you both there is usually a way to get them met.

For example, you might want 50/50 time with your child.  That is a position. It is what you want and if the other person doesn’t agree there will have to be a compromise. You can argue about that and whoever is stronger or more determined is likely to win and a compromise will be reached.

With a well-trained mediator that won’t be the approach. They will ask you to explain to the other side why 50/50 is important to you. There are probably a couple of reasons.  You may not want to be seen as the “lesser” parent. You may miss your child terribly and think that 50/50 is the fairest outcome if you can’t be with them all the time. You may think that is what your child wants.  You may be worried about affording child support and think that will prevent the need for it.  That last point isn’t actually true as time is only one factor used to calculate child support.

Some of the reasons you have reached your position may be driven by things that have nothing to do with your child’s best interests and developmental needs. If that is the case the mediator will help you to consider the impact of what is being proposed on your child. Especially if your child is very young and having a secure attachment to caregivers is vital for normal emotional and relational development. Ask your mediator about what the research tells us about children’s early developmental needs.

That example is for family law mediation but the same principle of looking below the positions to what really matters to you, your interests, is how mediators help to break deadlocks and create the environment for you to come up with creative ways to get what you need without giving up what you can’t live without.

At the other end of that collaborative process, there will be a solution that is different from your opening position but hopefully, you won’t be thinking in terms of compromise or win/lose by then.

If you are working with a mediator who goes straight to positional bargaining, trying to get you to compromise with no exploration of the issues and what really matters to each of you they may be lacking training in collaborative negotiation.

Concessions and compromise are some of the building blocks of consensus so please go to mediation with an open mind and be willing to speak up about what you need but also listen to the other side when they express their needs and concerns. The fact that you think they are wrong doesn’t mean that their concerns are not genuine or something that has to be addressed in some way that is acceptable to them.

8. DON’T: Lie or mislead

Mediation is a process that relies on building trust that you will each comply with what you agree and that the information you provide is truthful.

In most cases, if you reach an agreement that is made legally binding but is based on false or misleading information the orders or contract may be challenged and overturned. You’d be back to a much worse situation than you are now.

Be truthful about the facts, to the best of your ability. Don’t make “ambit claims” and take extreme positions in order to be able to compromise as you may find that it breaches trust so much you won’t get anywhere in the mediation and end up wasting a lot of time and money in court because of your posturing.

In Family Law Mediation because it happens in the shadow of the court you have the same duty of disclosure obligations that you would have if you went to court.  Being truthful and genuine is going to give you the best result in mediation.

9. DO: Consider your proposals ahead of time

The mediator will have a pre-mediation meeting or meetings with you. These are private and confidential and are used to make sure that mediation is appropriate and to help you to prepare for the mediation sessions.

They will help you to consider your options and potentially to develop some proposals. If you are not prepared for that they will encourage you to speak with an advisor and get the information you need to develop your proposals. Again they will be working from an interests-based perspective (what really matters to you) so will be encouraging you to think about a variety of ways you could get what you need from the situation.

In facilitative, narrative or transformative mediation you will usually not be asked to exchange proposals in advance because the options and proposals will emerge out of the discussion. In evaluative mediation, the mediator may ask for position papers or proposals to be exchanged in advance. This tends to be a more formal style of mediation that is a bit more like positional bargaining with a focus on compromise and nutting out an agreement to avoid court compared to other styles of mediation which are more focused on collaboration and reaching an agreement that you both find meets your most important needs.

That said, in most cases, there have been proposals and offers made. The mediator will definitely ask you what you think the other side wants and your thoughts on their proposals, if they have been made, as part of your preparation.

When we are in conflict it is easy to underestimate or overestimate the strengths of the other person’s position and likewise our own. Taking through prior proposals with your mediator can help to identify gaps in your understanding of the legal or other rights that relate to your situation and can provide the opportunity to get some more advice before your mediation session.

10. DON’T: Think of it as winning or losing

Mediation is a voluntary but often required first step in resolving a dispute. Depending on the situation you may be required or strongly encouraged to participate but you can never be required to agree to any specific outcome of mediation.

That is what is voluntary about it. The mediator can not impose an outcome on you, even in evaluative mediation where they freely give their opinions. If you don’t agree, you can say “No deal!”.

That protects you from a win / lose outcome as long as you remember that you don’t have to agree unless you agree. That said, remember if you have a positional attitude and are not willing to listen to the other side and are unwilling to compromise on your opening position you will lose the opportunity to get a resolution to the dispute and move on with your life.  Often uncertainty gets in the way of agreements. This is especially the case in parenting agreements so the final thing to think about is that you can give a provisional agreement. For example trial parenting arrangements for an agreed period of time before making a long-term commitment.   Of course, that isn’t always possible in every type of dispute but if it is, and trust in the other party and the solution’s workability is low, a trial period is a great way to move forward.

When thinking about whether to accept a proposal remember to calculate the tangible and intangible costs and benefits of not reaching an agreement in mediation.  If you can’t resolve the dispute what happens next? If you don’t know ask your mediator and your lawyer.

Lawyer negotiations even if you don’t go to court can quickly balloon into tens of thousands of dollars and extend over many months. Going to court, even as a self-represented litigant, is expensive in terms of time, money, distraction and the emotional toll it takes.

So think about these ten tips, prepare well by getting advice, thinking about what really matters to you and give mediation a red hot go. With that approach, you increase your chances of being one of the majority of people who reach an acceptable agreement and resolve their dispute through mediation.

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Ten Top Tips for Better Mediation Outcomes

by Joanne Law time to read: 15 min
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