The mediation is a negotiation between you and your spouse, with a third party who has experience in helping you reach agreement. Although the mediator has an obligation to the fairness and practicality of the agreement, you are the one who has to keep track of your interests and concerns.
If there are financial issues, it is usually a good idea to have completed a financial worksheet. It's legitimate to ask your spouse for any details you may be missing, and to ask for verification of the figures if you feel a need to check. If there are support issues (and especially if spousal support is an issue), you also need to fill out a monthly income and expense worksheet. Persons who are employed and receive a regular pay stub can take the income figures from a representative pay stub (but remember that these are monthly figures, so that if you are paid every two weeks, you multiply the biweekly figures by 26 and then divide by 12 to produce a monthly figure).
If custody is an issue, it may be a good idea to have a proposed schedule.
Remember that the main person you need to convince is your spouse, not the mediator. Too often statements are made in mediation sessions which not only don't convince the other party, but may actually make it more difficult to get her or him to agree as to what you want. Make effective negotiation your goal.
Good negotiation requires effective listening as well as talking. It's all right to take notes during the mediation.
Sometimes it's a good idea to put your ideas (or relevant figures, or a proposed custody schedule) in a handout. If so, bring copies with you so that the mediator doesn't have to interrupt the mediation session to make copies.
Don't be afraid to ask questions
The mediator, in his role as an impartial third party, will often provide useful legal, financial, practical and tax information. This is not intended to tell you and your spouse what to do, but to provide a framework for the discussions. If you don't understand something or want more information, please ask. But remember that the mediator's role is not to be your advisor. Rather, he answers questions from his role as an impartial third party.
Remember also that nothing says that you have to agree with the mediator or that you can't express a disagreement to the mediator, either in the joint session or privately.
Make appropriate use of any private session with the mediator
If you have a good reason for doing so, you may request a private session with the mediator. Also at times the mediator will suggest a private session with each party. The purpose of a private session is not to share some great secret with the mediator, but to discuss your goals and expectations in the mediation process. Or there may be some matter which concerns you, but is too sensitive to discuss in an open session.
It's up to the mediator to make sure that private sessions are used appropriately. Remember that the mediator's job is to be impartial. If you tell the mediator in private something you consider very important, the mediator may take note of it but it cannot be a factor in the outcome of the mediation unless you "put it on the table". If you tell the mediator something in confidence, he will keep the confidence until you release it, but the mediator won't use such information in any way in the mediation until and unless you release the confidence.
Read and mark up draft agreements
The outcome of the mediation will be a signed, legally binding agreement. As much as possible, the mediator will strive to draft the agreement in plain English so that each party can read and react to it. Remember that drafts (and especially first drafts) are meant to be marked up. You may want to e-mail any typos and missing information to the mediator in advance of a session at which a draft is to be discussed, so as not to take up time with these matters in the mediation session.
Often a draft (and especially a first draft) may contain some blanks. Some blanks may refer to controversial points, such as the amount of support or the buyout figure for a spouse's interest in the family home. Think carefully about how you would justify the figure you would request to fill in such a blank. Other blanks just need to be filled in with the correct information, such as who gets each of the family vehicles.
If the mediator inserts a provision (even a so-called "standard provision") with which you disagree, let him know what is the nature of your disagreement. One of the purposes of draft agreements is to help us focus more narrowly on the areas of disagreement, and to understand that the provisions which are tentatively agreed to are part of the total context.
Don't be offended if there is something you don't like in a draft. Again, the purpose of drafts is to work toward a more finely-tuned agreement. Be prepared to discuss why you think that the matter should be handled differently.
Get advice from your attorney as needed
It's usually a good idea to check in with your own attorney as you go through the mediation process. Your attorney can give you legal advice; the mediator can't.
On rare occasions the mediator will require that one or both parties check with their attorneys. This would be the case if one party is taking a position which a skilled attorney would recognize as quite unreasonable, and therefore not conducive to effective negotiating. Another example would be a situation in which one party is acting with a serious disregard of his or her own legitimate interests.
If you don't have an attorney and want the mediator's recommendation as to a lawyer who is a skilled professional, just ask. Normally the mediator will give you at least 3-5 names. If you want an attorney from a particular area (i.e., Reston, Manassas, etc.) please so indicate.
Be ready to make decisions
One of the greatest causes of the failure to reach an agreement in mediation is the inability of one or both parties to make decisions. It's appropriate to delay a decision until you have enough information to make it intelligently, but it's quite another matter to just let the negotiations drift.
Be honest with your spouse
The financial worksheets which are used in most mediations are useful for four separate reasons: (1) they're good "homework" to help you prepare for the mediation sessions; (2) they are an appropriate and necessary disclosure to your spouse; (3) they help the mediator conduct the mediation more efficiently and more effectively, and (4) they will help your attorney give you more accurate and responsive advice.
It's legitimate to ask for verification of the figures on a financial worksheet, and you shouldn't be offended if your spouse requests it. If you have any doubt, error on the side of requesting verification.
Most people who self-select into the mediation process do so because they want to be treated fairly, and they also want their spouse also to be treated fairly. Remember that the mediator also has experience as an adversarial attorney (but never mixes these cases with mediation cases), and is skilled in noticing when the figures "just don't add up". Try to make sure that your figures are accurate, and that they tell the whole story.