There has been enormous progress made in recent years towards the use of mediation (or ‘alternative dispute resolution’) to deal with disputes. Many conflicts which previously would have gone through formal channels, such as court hearings, are these days being dealt with through a process of mediation. This involves the parties to the dispute meeting with a trained mediator. Each party is given the opportunity to present his or her side of the story, and it is then the mediator’s task to help them move towards a resolution of the conflict through a process of what in some respects resembles ‘shuttle diplomacy’ (although it is, in fact, much more complex than this simple term suggests). That is, the mediator meets with each of the parties in private but may bring them back together again at any stage in the process if this is felt appropriate. The idea is that, gradually through this process, the parties to the dispute move closer towards an agreement. This is not simply a compromise arrangement, but rather a constructive process of trying to find opportunities for identifying and building on areas of common ground. The process can sometimes involve a degree of trading off, but this is not simply a matter of compromising in any simple or straightforward sense. In fact, a mediation can often result in a way forward that is acceptable to all parties, but which involves little or no concessions on anybody’s part. Much depends on the skill of the mediator. Mediations are seen as legally binding, in the sense that the parties must enter into the arrangement voluntarily, on the understanding that any agreement they reach by the end of the process is something that they are prepared to stand by. The mediator is not an arbitrator who makes a decision or forms a judgement; rather, he or she is a neutral, independent facilitator who helps to establish a way forward. The main benefit of mediation (apart from its effectiveness – rated at 80 per cent) is that it can allow the parties to the dispute to work together constructively in future. This is unlike court proceedings where the ill-feeling and expense involved can combine to make it virtually impossible that the parties to the dispute will be able to do business together at any stage in the future. If people agree to enter into a process of mediation and this proves to be unsuccessful, then this has not necessarily ruled out other possibilities for dealing with the matter, such as litigation. However, in the vast majority of cases, a successful outcome can be achieved to the satisfaction of all concerned (usually within a day), thereby avoiding the need for costly, time-consuming and stressful legal processes. Mediation is not simply a case of getting the parties together and trying to persuade them to come to an agreement. Rather, it is a highly skilled process which involves analysing the various aspects of the situation and helping the parties move towards a mutually acceptable resolution. Throughout the process the mediator remains neutral and the responsibility for resolving the dispute remains with the parties. It can be hard work for all concerned, but is usually well worth the effort.
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