Though the two terms have a number of similarities, there are also some differences between conciliation and mediation, no matter which definition is used. In both cases, a neutral third party seeks to help two, or possibly more, opposing sides find a suitable resolution to a conflict. In some cases, the differences between these two processes will determine how that neutral third-party acts. No universal definition currently exists for these alternative forms of dispute resolution, but there are still some distinct differences.
In some cases and jurisdictions, the differences between conciliation and mediation is determined by the amount of power the third party has. In mediation, the mediator will facilitate a discussion between the parties, and may or may not offer opinions on the strength of each side's argument. When no opinion is offered, it is called facilitative mediation. In cases where an opinion is offered, it is evaluative mediation. Overall, no matter which method is chosen, the mediator still does not have the right to impose his or her will on the two parties.
This could be the major difference based on some definitions of conciliation and mediation. For example, a conciliator will not only offer an opinion on the relative strengths of the case, but also issue a binding opinion, if the parties agree to that ahead of time. The opinion offered is likely to be based on the law, but may factor in other less concrete considerations if the parties agree. This type of dispute resolution process is often more formal, simply because the decision will be binding, at least on a temporary basis.
In some localities, the difference between conciliation and mediation is the same as the difference between facilitative mediation and evaluative mediation. In other words, under this definition of conciliation, the conciliator can still offer an opinion, but that opinion has no legal weight, though it may be based on legal concepts. Therefore, unless the parties agree, the conciliator's opinion makes no difference, but it may be used by one party or the other in court to bolster a case.
No matter what definition is used, the major difference between conciliation and mediation ultimately is the power of the third party. In all cases, conciliation gives slightly more power to the third party than the mediation. Conciliation or mediation may be ordered by the court system as a way of resolving disputes and relieving some of the pressure on court calendars. This is especially true in the case of marriage dissolution in some countries, though it could also be used for labor disputes, or nearly any type of contract disagreement.