• a voluntary process
  • confidential (with few narrow exceptions)
  • facilitated by a neutral 
  • aimed at helping parties state issues, understand different perspectives, find common interests, look at options and reach a mutually agreement all parties can live with

That's mediation in a nutshell. 

A mediator or neutral plays an important role in the process guiding the parties on the road to a compromise. Parties, however, must make an initial decision to mediate their divorce or break up. They can either choose to mediate their entire divorce or mediate a single issue. A mediator, who is also a family law attorney, can prepare all the necessary filings and disclosure documents. Attorney-mediator does not give advice to either or both parties. Instead, attorney-mediator explains the law. Usually, the mediator emphasizes the importance of having independent counsel review the final agreement. Attorney reviewing the agreement for each party can then advise him/her on the legal ramifications of the agreement as applicable to that party. The mediator remains neutral throughout the entire process. If there is an imbalance of power between the parties, the mediator does ensure that both parties are heard and understood. 

At the outset of the mediation process, the parties with the assistance of the mediator, establish ground rules which help them adhere to forward movement and to getting stuck.

The mediator facilitates the process and ensures that the parties then stick to their own ground rules. Sometimes mediators have their own ground rules, as well. 

The parties may choose to do an opening statement to each other to start the mediation on good note and/or address some of the underlying emotional issues. The mediator ensures that there is productive venting and issue identification. Sometimes, this is a good moment to talk with each party separately in a so-called caucus to explore the underlying issues deeper.