This is a Frederick Review interview with Kate Cullen. Kate is a long time professional practitioner of mediation who works publicly as well as privately with Mediation Services of Frederick.
Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your business.
My name is Kate Cullen and I’ve been a mediator for almost 20 years. I do mostly family, I also do some family businesses and elder care mediation. I do neighborhood mediation sometimes and I do small and large group facilitation. I also consult with nonprofit boards and nonprofit organizations in the state of Maryland. I’ve got three boys who are in their late 20’s and early 30’s, so a lot of mediating going on in my house when they were teenagers. I have a masters degree in community organization and social administration with a minor in policy analysis. So I really enjoy the community organization piece and that’s what I considered the facilitation piece to be part of that. I get court referrals, I’ve worked for four different circuit courts, including Baltimore City. So I get the court cases as well as people calling me, coming to me on their own who want parenting plans or divorce mediation or, “what do we do with mom and dad? The electricity is getting cut off in their house, we don’t know what to do, can you help us talk to them?”
I also teach at Mount St Mary’s. I teach the mediation class and conflict resolution class at Mount St Mary’s and I’ve been doing that since 2006. I train with the national center for mediation education, so I’ve been all over the country and to the Ukraine to help them start their mediation program. It is very exciting stuff
What was it that make you want to start the business?
The University of Maryland graduate school was where I got my masters degree. They had a class where they were offering 80 hours of mediation training. 40 of it was basic and 40 of it was family and divorce. It peaked my interested in 2000-2001 and so I went ahead and took the training, it was pretty intensive training, one week was in May, one week was in June and after the first half day I called my husband and said okay I figured what I want to do for the rest of my life. This makes so much sense, it’s logical, it’s thoughtful, it takes in to account people’s emotions without doing therapy and getting really messy in to the emotions. I don’t tell them what to do, I am the third neutral in the room that’s helping them have a conversation. It just seemed like the least stressful way to deal with conflict.
So I was really psyched about it, I finished my training and in August I got a job with a then community alternative, Mediation Inc, which is now closed and we are re-energizing it under a different name. However it first closed in 2017, I was the director there from 2001 until 2011 and so in addition to my private practice I was really involved in the community and partnering with lots of agencies like the court system, the DJS, the office of children and families, and FCPS, to bring mediation to all of those agencies and all of those worlds. So that we could work with teenagers as well and we could set up mediation programs in the schools and stuff. That is kinda how I got started and I just got really involved in it and got on some state wide committees and just ran with it.
What sets your business apart from your competitors?
Well I offer sliding scale fee because I believe that mediation should be available to everybody in the community regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. So I think that sets me apart from most mediators. I do not come at it from a legal background. Mediation actually started through the human services background with social workers, psychologists, counselors, and that has been what a lot of us are talking about now.
On my Linkedin there is a whole group of us talking about how the legal system has hijacked it at some level. So what happens is that I don’t do settlement conferences, I do mediation. So that if you come to me you are getting an open, fair, and transparent process. I’m not invested in any way shape or form in either of the parties and I am definitely not invested in the outcome. Mediation is all about them mediator controlling the process of the mediation and the participants controlling the outcome. So whatever decisions they make they make based on who they are and their lifes and what they know they can live with. Its needs based. It is not, you know, based on greed or financial whatever, it is basically a needs based process. What can you live with, what do you need in order to survive?
If you could go back in time, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give yourself?
When you are in conflict, to figure out a way, and I teach this in the communication workshop that I do, figure out a way to back yourself up, take the responsibility to say to the other person hold on wait a second I need to think about this cause it sounds like we are really invested in this topic and I would really like to have some time to process it. Cause I don’t process things really super fast on the spot, like it gets said and a second later I’ve got my statement you know? There are times in my life where I wish I had taken that step back and said okay wait a minute Kate, think about this for a minute, tell this individual that you care about them and you really want to work through this with them but you need some time to think about what your next steps are going to be. Ask them if it’s okay if you meet another day or another time and resume the conversation when we’ve both had an opportunity to think about what are our individual goals in this conversation. What do we each need to get out this, what can we get out of it, what can we live with getting out of this conversation. Rather than continuing to stand there and fight with them.
So that would be my advice to myself because before I did mediation I think there were many times that I can think of where I just dug my heels in and just battled it out, and whether I “won” or not it still felt really bad afterwards. It still felt like there was no victory in it. It was like geez that was really tough and now I have affected my relationship with this person or that person and chances are we won’t be doing that again or you we won’t be friends like we were before or whatever. So I think that is important.
The best thing that has ever happened to me through the process is watching my oldest child, who is 33, parent his own children using mediation techniques. Then seeing the four year old totally responding to it. “So we don’t want to do that to our brother let’s sit down and talk about what we are doing here”. So not saying to the child that is bad behavior stop it, instead it’s “wait a minute I’m not sure you want to do that to your brother, can we sit down and have a conversation?” And literally taking the child over and getting down to the child’s level and just having a conversation and not reprimanding, not telling the kid he’s wrong or there is something wrong with him or her. Just having that conversation, and my four year old grandson even said to me one day while I was watching them, they started to fight over the toy train and I raised my voice, not as loud as I could have but just enough because I wanted to get their attention, and the four year old went right upstairs to my bedroom and closed the door.
So I gave him a few minutes and then I went upstairs and I said can we have a conversation and he said no not yet, I am angry with you and this is my time out and I need to have some time to think about this. And I was like oh my god this kid! When I said something to my son he said yeah well that’s what they’ve been taught, that when they get angry whether it’s with one of us as their parents or with their brother they can have a timeout until they are ready to come out and talk to us. So the two teams that struck me was getting down on his level eye to eye very gently saying we need to have a conversation about this and then the whole thing that when you are angry take some steps back, take a timeout, think about it, when you are ready we can have a conversation.
What’s your favorite thing about being a business owner?
I enjoy being able to help folks come to their own decisions and come up with their own agreement. I like the feeling that they give me when they leave and say this was really helpful we want to really thank you for helping us. As my youngest son always says to me, you actually are making an impact now, when you die we are not going to hear all the stuff about you know, “she did this, she was great, whatever”, you’re doing it right now. You make a difference in families in our community right this minute. I thought that was so touching for him to say that. Cause he has watched me go through the process and he’s observed his mom doing mediation cause he’s a mediator too for the schools. I think the point is that I impact people now, and because we are planning for the future, because mediation is 80% about the future, i’m not only impacting them at that moment I’m impacting their next steps. I also haven’t told them what to do, I’ve just literally sat there and allowed them to figure it out.
What’s the toughest thing you face being a business owner and how do you handle it?
I don’t find anything in mediation particularly difficult in the process itself and when I am doing the process itself. I think the most difficult piece is when folks try to call you on the phone, email you, or come by to talk to you individually and you have to say you know I can’t have this conversation with you, if we are going to have a conversation through email we need to include the other person. Unless they’re sending me an email that they want to send to the other person, and part of what I do in my practice is if they have an email they want to send to the other person they can run it by me first and I can take out all of the inflammatory language and I can say, “So is this what you’re asking for, is this what you want to say to the other individual?” Then I can send it back to them without all of the “stuff”, the big red angry letters or whatever. Then they get to review it and they can decide yeah this is what I want to ask or say, and then they can send it to them. That takes time sometimes, a lot of time. I guess that whole process of them just trying to get you on their side can be tough sometimes because they clearly still don’t understand the process of mediation.
What’s the number one way you currently bring in new customers?
Word of mouth. People that come to me and then will call and say, “so and so referred me”. Really because of confidentiality, and in Maryland there is a confidentiality act, I really can’t say, “Oh yeah I saw Jay and John, I can’t do that so I can just say, “Oh so you were referred by a former client”. I just write them on the intake and I write on where or how they heard about me. Word of mouth is the main way that people hear about me, also other referrals from other mediators. I just got a referral the other day from a Montgomery County mediator who I know, who referred somebody to me who’s one person lives in Frederick. The court system of course as well, I am on the court panels with four courts. So I get cases from those places. Most of my caseload on the court rosters comes from Baltimore City and Anne Arundel county.
How has technology played a role in your business?
Well Baltimore City is now sending me a lot of cases where I have to do telephone or zoom conferences. Where one person is in a totally different state. Anne Arundel county has done that a couple of times too. They’ll send them to me because they know I have zoom and i can set that up. So that’s how technology has affected it. I have a website too and I have clients that will say they want to post something on my website. So I will give them access to do that, so they can post their experience in mediation on the website. I do a little bit through Facebook with my private practice but not much.
But I would say that the way that technology it really impacted is the zoom conference type mediation meetings, which we never used to do before. We had to wait for the person who lived out of state to come in to state to do the mediation, where often times that would be just before a court date so there was a lot of pressure. So this way I can set it up months before the court date and we can do it by then. Then you have to fax the consent forms for the mediation, so having access to fax or email or whatever just helps the process even more.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to others thinking about getting in to mediation?
Don’t quit your day job, the field in Maryland is really flooded with mediators and a lot of trainers. I sit on the MPME training committee and the last time we met there were 35 of us around the table so there is a lot of trainers in the state. So I would suggest that you not view it as your only means of employment. I’ve had lawyers who I’ve had in mediation training will say well I am just here because I want the extra skill set and I will admit that I went off and said that this is not a skillset this is really important stuff that you are doing, this is not something you just add to a huge toolbox and you dump it in there and say okay so when I want to mediate I will mediate or when I want to strategically listen I’ll pull it out.
This is a lifestyle change, you have to figure out how to walk the talk. Frequently when people are communicating with me they’ll say, “Well that or this”, and I’ll literally say, “So what is this that you’re talking about, what is that? help me understand”. Cause I want to know what we are talking about. I think that’s a really important piece to remember and to clarify. I think you can use that in any place that you are. So you need to really walk the talk, with family, with your colleagues, with your coworkers, with your participants, just with everybody.
For more information about Kate Cullen and Mediation Services of Frederick please see the information below: