What exactly is family mediation?

What helps to resolve family cases? In examining which cases ultimately resolved, what seems most important …was how willing (the parties) were to accept the family dispute resolution paradigm and how able they were to uphold it— given their perspectives and circumstances.”[1]


The summary above, from a study published in the most recent issue of the Family Court Review, goes to the heart of what family mediation is all about: a safe place to have difficult conversations.

The more parties buy into the process, the more likely they are to have good outcomes from it.

As we launch another year of our Family Mediation Certificate training, we wanted to stop to ask the question: what exactly is family mediation?

All mediators are asked it, and we all have our own answers.

This is mine:

Family mediation is an opportunity.

Nothing more, nothing less.

It is an opportunity to explore possible outcomes of the matters separated parties disagree about and cannot resolve on their own.

It is the job of the family mediator to help the parties find a solution that they each consider to be better than their alternative.

Family mediators, therefore, spend a lot of time with each client, before even accepting the file, to understand how each perceives their alternatives, how well informed each is, how well each understands their legal rights and obligations and how ready each is to negotiate.

Then the mediator guides them both in a process that is designed to help them find outcomes that they both consider to be better. For them. And for their children.

Outcomes that each can live with. Not necessarily outcomes they wanted, but ones that are good enough.

Family mediation is an opportunity to short-cut the corrosive, exhausting and expensive conflict that separating parties often cannot navigate on their own.

It is an opportunity to experiment, in a safe place, with other ways of being as a separated couple. To try out some other ways of communicating together. To consider other ways of seeing each other.

It is an opportunity to bargain, hard, for what is important. Each party in a family mediation is asked to make offers that they believe the other party will want and accept. Each is asked: what are you prepared to offer the other side to get what you want?

Family mediation is a learning opportunity. It is a process that takes whatever time each situation requires. Whether parties reach agreements or not, if they bring the right attitude they should have many positive take-aways that will benefit them and their children.

As mediators, we want all of our cases to settle, of course. But the settlement, at the mediation itself, should not be the measure of success. We know from experience that most cases that do not resolve in the mediation itself almost always resolve on their own, often with the assistance of counsel, soon thereafter.

Family mediation is like a stepping stone in a fast-running brook. It usually will get you to the other side safely and dry. But sometimes the stone wobbles and another stone must be tried. Sometimes it is too difficult to cross and you must turn back to the bank to try something else. But by trying the stone, you have learned something and are better able to find your way across, if not now, then later.

We have trained many hundreds of aspiring family mediators and hope you will consider joining us to share your thoughts and experience.


[1] We make new families: findings from a family court mediation study, Fam Court Rev 2022-60 391-410.

About Hilary Linton

Hilary Linton is a senior family lawyer, mediator, parenting coordinator and arbitrator. She founded Riverdale Mediation after litigating family and civil matters for 14 years including as a partner in a Toronto boutique law firm. Riverdale’s team of highly skilled family mediators, parenting coordinators and arbitrators resolve high conflict and challenging disputes. Riverdale is also internationally known for its high calibre online training programs in Family Dispute Resolution.