Most mediations go through a series of five stages—not necessarily in this order, and some of them may be repeated at various points during the mediation. Your own mediation may be different, but here are the basics of each stage.
In this first stage, the mediator works with you and your spouse to lay a foundation for the rest of the mediation. You give the mediator background information about your situation, and the mediator explains how the mediation will be conducted. Depending on how well you and your spouse communicate and what the issues are in your case, the mediator suggests an approach that should optimize the chances of reaching an agreement. You'll assess the issues on which you and your spouse agree or disagree, helping you to work together on an agenda for the rest of the mediation.
In order for the mediation to be successful, you, your spouse, and the mediator all need to be as fully informed as possible about the facts of your case. This is the information gathering stage. Sometimes it begins during the first session; sometimes it starts after that session. If information that you and the mediator need is unavailable or in dispute, the mediator will try to help you find ways to get it or to determine what is correct. For example, you might need the policy number and other details of a life insurance policy. If you can't locate your copy of the policy, the mediator might suggest ways to get this information, such as contacting the broker who sold you the policy or writing to the insurance company.
During this stage, the mediator may first begin to discuss the general legal rules that might apply to your case. This can include the laws of your state dictating how a judge would divide your assets and debts, how child custody and child support would be decided, when and how alimony can be ordered, and laws dealing with related issues like taxes and life and health insurance. This general legal information will help you decide how to approach the issues in your case.
The mediator will also ask you and your spouse to bring in financial documents such as tax returns and bank and mortgage statements. As you progress, the mediator will summarize the information being assembled. If you agree that additional research is needed or a neutral expert is to be consulted, that will go on a "to do" list. This second stage of the mediation can span two or more sessions, especially if you need to do outside work to obtain additional information or appraisals. If you feel that you already know enough about your situation and have definite ideas on how to work out a settlement, you may find yourself impatient with this stage and anxious to move ahead with the negotiations. Even though you may want to rush on, the mediator's job is to make sure that both you and your spouse have all the facts and information you need to negotiate an agreement that is legally binding and that you won't regret having signed.
In the framing stage, the mediator helps each spouse outline that person's reasons for wanting certain outcomes in the settlement. These reasons consist of individual concerns, priorities, goals, and values. They are often referred to by mediators as "needs and interests." Here, we use the broader term "interests." Identifying interests helps to frame the core goal of the mediation: finding a resolution of the issues that successfully addresses each spouse's most important interests. In most divorces, many issues need to be examined in light of each spouse's interest. These include property and debt division, child custody, child support, and alimony.
Often, spouses' interests will overlap. This is especially likely if the interests involve a concern for other people, such as children. When an overlap like this occurs, it increases the likelihood of finding settlement options that address their common concerns. Of course, it's not always possible to negotiate an agreement that satisfies fully all of the interests of the disputing parties. Some interests may have to be compromised, especially in divorce, where limited resources must be divided between two households. But if the focus is on identifying and addressing each person's most important needs and interests, the resulting compromises will be ones that both spouses can live with.
Some mediators prefer to conduct the framing stage in separate sessions, as they believe it better prepares each of you for the next stage: negotiating. Other mediators favor joint sessions because they believe that hearing your spouse work with the mediator to formulate interests lays a better foundation for the give and take of the negotiation stage. Either way can work, although separate sessions make the mediation cost a little more and take a little longer, because anything important that is said in the separate session will have to be repeated to the other spouse.
Once the mediator has helped the spouses frame the issues and interests clearly, it is time to negotiate an acceptable settlement. This usually begins with an exploration of possible options. With the mediator's help, the spouses discuss and evaluate the options, until eventually they narrow down the options to the ones that work best for both spouses. Getting to the final combination of options will involve compromises and concessions on both sides
Most mediators will emphasize the problem-solving aspect of negotiation at this stage. The problem to be solved is finding settlement options that address each spouse's most important interests as fully as possible. With this focus, you'll be able to negotiate by trading off acceptable options instead of getting locked into zero-sum bargaining, where one spouse's gain is the other spouse's loss.
In this stage, the tentative settlement agreement is put into writing and circulated to both spouses for review with their advisers. If the issues in your case are simple, the mediator may prepare a memorandum outlining your settlement and give you an opportunity to sign it before you leave the mediation session in which you finished up your negotiating. The memorandum can summarize the essential points of agreement and can be used as a basis for preparing a formal settlement agreement that will be filed with the court as part of the now-uncontested divorce case.
Many mediators, especially those who are also lawyers, will prepare the written settlement agreement that will be filed with the court. However, you should also have a lawyer of your own look over the draft agreement on your behalf.
Adapted from Divorce Without Court: A Guide to Mediation and Collaborative Divorce, by Katherine E. Stoner.