Philip Mulford has heard many misperceptions about mediation: It's not legally binding (in fact, it is); it works only if the people involved are amicable (it works even if they're hostile); it's only for simple cases (usually, the more complex the case, the more mediation outshines the alternatives).
On his weekly VoiceAmerica Internet radio talk show, Divorce Mediation: Myths & Facts, Mulford works to educate the public about the effectiveness of mediation as an alternative to what he says is often protracted and costly litigation. "Mediation is turning the legal system upside down as more and more people recognize the limitations and costs associated with litigation," he says. "Divorcing couples are seeking an alternative."
The show, now entering its second year, has one of VoiceAmerica's fastest-growing audiences. In its first ten months, the show more than tripled its listening audience. The Association of Attorney-Mediators, a national organization promoting high ethics, standards of training, and qualifications for attorney-mediators, recently endorsed the show. Each episode features Mulford discussing a particular theme, and listeners calling in with questions.
A former practicing lawyer, Mulford was drawn to mediation while working in the aftermath of the savings-and-loan crisis in the 1980s. Frustrated with the contentiousness of settlement efforts between lenders and borrowers, Mulford felt that there had to be a more productive way of resolving disagreements. After exploring the relatively unknown field of alternative dispute resolution, he opened Mulford Mediation in 1990, with the idea of offering a range of mediation services. Because of the complexity of separation and divorce issues (including child custody, alimony, and financial and property division), Mulford Mediation, with two office locations in northern Virginia, now focuses primarily on divorce mediation, as well as family-owned business mediation.
"When a couple comes to see me, I never know what the final agreement will look like," says Mulford. "There will almost always be two different versions of the same experiences—his and hers—and both of those versions are correct, legitimate, and strongly felt. My role as a mediator is to help people create solutions and gain control over their lives at a time when everything seems out of control."
Mediation is really about changing the way we communicate, he says. "Communication should not be about doing battle; it can and should be peaceful and productive. The only way the process works is if the mediator helps both people walk out of the room feeling that they have arrived at a solution that is mutually agreeable, rather than forced into accepting something they don't want."
He cites the case of a couple on the verge of separation. The wife was fed up because her workaholic husband was never home with the family. During mediation, the husband shared his perspective of feeling intense pressure to earn an ever-higher salary to cover the private schools, showcase home, and other amenities he thought the wife demanded.
"I asked each person to listen to what the other person is saying—not to agree with it or claim to understand how that person is feeling, because no one can own someone else's feelings," says Mulford. "What I help people do is identify what it is they really want, not what they assume the other person will or won't agree to. Because often, people—all of us, not just couples in mediation—make conclusions based on assumptions that are, for the most part, incorrect."
Through his radio show, Mulford would like to change the culture of divorce. Today, it's often a destructive process, he says. But it can be an opportunity for couples to plan their future and the future of their children "in a creative and constructive manner where all involved treat each other with respect and dignity," he says. "And that's really what most people want."