Conciliation is a method of alternative dispute resolution sometimes used to help settle some sort of disagreement between two parties. This process utilizes a conciliator, who meets with both parties separately and then actively works with both sides to achieve a resolution. Unlike arbitration, the conciliation process does not legally bind the parties in any way. There are subtle differences between conciliation and mediation, generally concerning the role of the conciliator, who is a much more active participant than the mediator. European countries which focus on civil law are very reliant on conciliators to resolve disputes, and the process is very common in Japan as well.
When two parties engaged in a dispute agree to the process of conciliation, a conciliator is chosen with working knowledge of the dispute at hand. He or she then goes back and forth between the two parties, seeking to dissolve tension and get the principals to figure out what they want most out of the process and also what they are willing to give up in the negotiations. In this way, a conciliator can actively bring about the terms of a settlement.
This differs from the process of mediation, which is a similar concept but one in which a mediator plays a more passive role. In conciliation, the two sides rarely meet to discuss the dispute, leaving the conciliator with the heavy burden of having to communicate between the two sides. The conciliator is trusted by both parties to come up with a solution that's amenable to both.
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Although the conciliation process is not legally binding, this is often a selling point for disputing parties to choose it over arbitration. The decisions of an arbitrator or arbitration panel are final and often have the power of law, which means that a party involved in a dispute has little recompense if a crucial aspect of the decision goes the other way. By using a conciliator instead, the outcome is usually assured to at least partially please both sides of the disagreement.
The process of conciliation is relatively rare in the United States, at least compared with certain European countries. Since civil law plays a more predominant role in Europe than in the U.S., conciliators are heavily relied upon to settle disputes. Japan also makes great use of its own system of conciliatory law. In Japan, conciliators actually work in tandem with the court system and help to resolve everything from small lawsuits to domestic issues like particularly contentious divorces.