A Guiding Light

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Diane Petropulos is a lead mediator and trainer for Maui Mediation Services, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides alternative dispute resolution, facilitation and training to Maui, Molokai and Lanai residents.

Diane Petropulos has always had a knack for seeing both sides of an issue. Perhaps that’s why, as an elementary school student, she wrote an essay titled: “I want to be a judge when I grow up.”

Today, Petropulos isn’t presiding over court proceedings — but on any given day there’s a good chance you’ll find her seated in a courtroom. As a certified mediator, she is often on “standby” while a judge determines whether to refer a civil case to mediation. This happens more often than you might think — and if you ask Petropulos (or any other mediator, for that matter), that’s a good thing.

Mediation not only offers a more cost-effective way to settle disputes, but also provides an alternative to a protracted, unpredictable and emotionally draining trial. Rather than leave the resolution of their conflict in the hands of a judge, the parties retain control of the outcome.

Here’s how it works: During a mediation session, individuals entangled in a conflict meet face to face and work together to find a mutually acceptable solution to their problem. Each party is assisted by an independent and impartial third party, called a mediator, who facilitates the process. Mediators do not give legal advice or determine who is right or wrong; instead, he or she works as a go-between, helping the parties get to the root of the problem, find common ground, explore all options and negotiate a solution.

All mediation sessions are confidential and any information exchanged during the session cannot be used in court. However, if the parties come up with a workable solution, a signed agreement can be used in court. At the end of the day, a successful mediation is entirely dependent on the willingness of both parties to listen to one another and reach consensus — something Petropulos has witnessed countless times. “My favorite saying is: ‘The best way to get your own way is to have more than one way,'” she said.

Petropulos’ journey to becoming a mediator began a few years after she penned her somewhat prophetic school essay. After earning a degree in international relations from Pomona College, the California native decided to pursue a career as a paralegal. In the years that followed, she worked for law firms in Minnesota and California, unraveling the intricacies of criminal defense and federal Indian law.

Petropulos went on to earn a master’s degree in educational administration, and in 1983 became the coordinator of Sonoma State University’s paralegal program, a position she held for 16 years. (During that time, she also served as the president of the American Association for Paralegal Education.) Not long after she joined Sonoma State University’s faculty roster, Petropulos was asked to serve on an advisory board overseeing a new conflict resolution certificate program.

That’s when she discovered the “magic of mediation.” It’s an oft-used term — and for good reason, Petropulos said. “Why is it magic? People walk into a room in opposition to each other, and when they realize the mediators are genuinely interested in what happens to them, the walls start to come down,” she explained. “When people are listened to, validated and acknowledged, they become more willing to see solutions they were never willing to see before. That’s the magic of mediation.”

So, when Petropulos moved to Maui in 1999, she didn’t waste any time signing up for a basic mediation training through Maui Mediation Services, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides alternative dispute resolution, facilitation and training to Maui, Molokai and Lanai residents. Since she became a certified mediator in 2001, Petropulos has mediated hundreds of circuit, district and small-claims court cases.

In 2005, she became a trainer, and since then she’s brought new volunteer mediators into the fold, helped advanced mediators hone their skills and facilitated “Civility in the Workplace” workshops throughout the state.

Like Petropulos, Maui Mediation Services’ volunteer mediators are community members who have completed specialized training to handle a range of disputes, including, but not limited to, divorce, child custody, landlord/tenant, consumer/merchant, neighborhood, real estate and workplace conflict. (The organization notes there are situations in which mediation is not appropriate and will not work, such as cases involving domestic violence or child abuse.)

As for the cost, fees are based on an individual’s annual income and range from $60 to $350 per party, per session; Maui Mediation Services will not turn anyone away because of an inability to pay.

The organization will host a hands-on basic mediation training in February (led by Petropulos) that will teach participants how to manage and resolve conflict, improve interpersonal and professional communication and work effectively with parties involved in disputes who need help. These skills and techniques are beneficial tools, even if you don’t have your sights set on becoming a mediator.

“Whether I am teaching new mediators, or presenting ‘Civility in the Workplace’ or mediating, empowering others is very important to me,” Petropulos said. “I would like participants in a mediation to leave with a better sense of how to manage a conflict in the future and, of course, when I am teaching, I hope that the students will apply the skills across their lives with family, friends, co-workers or others when they relate with them.”

Maui Mediation Services will host a “Songs of Frank Sinatra and the Big Band Soundtrack” fundraiser concert on Oct. 12 at 7:30 p.m. in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s McCoy Studio Theater. The one-man show will feature singer and Maui Mediation Services co-founder John Wilt, who will perform the hits of Ol’ Blue Eyes. Tickets are $25 per person and proceeds will benefit Maui Mediation Services.

For tickets, visit www.mauiarts.org/sinatra or call 242-SHOW. To learn more about Maui Mediation Services or to inquire about the basic mediation training in February, call 244-5744, email info@mauimediation.org or visit www.mauimediation.org.

** Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.