Louise Phipps Senft, Esq. founder and CEO of Baltimore Mediation, was interviewed by Nurulayn Noor, MBBI Writer, on June 30th, 2017
Honored as a top CEO by SmartCEO Magazine for her leadership of Baltimore Mediation, the first transformative mediation company in the US, which she founded 24 years ago, Louise Phipps Senft is a recognized pioneer in the field, and a renowned mediation advocate, trainer, entrepreneur and public figure across the US and Europe.
Louise began her journey in mediation when she was dissatisfied by working as a litigator in a corporate law firm. She found that litigation worsened conflicts, whereas mediation attempted to resolve them, therefore, she searched for ways to regain a human connection with cases and began inviting opposing sides in litigation to engage in face-to-face dialogues. Eventually, she began internally mediating within her law firm for clients before they became litigation clients—while this resulted in fruitful outcomes, it did not fit the culture of the large firm, and Louise realized then there was an unfulfilled need for lawyers (and others) to fill. By engaging in mediation with clients, she helped people in a different way—which was also deeply satisfying to Louise as it felt more aligned with her beliefs about people and the world.
Around 25 years ago, Louise founded a mediation firm, Baltimore Mediation, which was the first of its kind, within the USA, to stray away from the lengthy and costly adversarial process. Louise said, “while others were zigging, I was zagging—and haven’t stopped since.” Prior to founding her mediation firm, she realized that her place of employment was not very supportive of her mediating and resolving conflicts so efficiently and quickly. She very much enjoyed her colleagues but also became more aware of the deep adversarial and transactional mindset of many lawyers. She was heavily influenced by one of her former law professors, Larry Hoover, with whom she attended conferences about conflict resolution and peacemaking and the mediation field. Back then, the largest conference was NCPCR and mediation had not yet come to the forefront but was beginning to emerge from community centers in the late 1980’s. Louise’s professor provided her with opportunities that allowed her to explore different aspects of mediation, which was a pivotal step to her career. This is when she began formulating her mission statement on resolving conflict in a peaceful manner, believing deeply in a person’s innate capacity to connect with others as neither a victim nor a perpetrator when given a chance for quality dialogue. This remains the mission of Baltimore Mediation and is now in her book, Being Relational: The Seven Ways to Quality Interaction & Lasting Change, which is a best-seller in the US.
Louise’s affiliation with MBBI began from the organization’s inception. She was one of MBBI’s founding members along with 30-40 other individuals. Of MBBI, she says, “I enjoy knowing there are opportunities which are presented for mediators and others committed to peacebuilding, being able to take their skills and training to other parts of the world that need our services.” She is very proud of MBBI for bringing individuals together, from different professions and walks of life, to countries that require assistance in peacebuilding. “The effort and skillset of convening is one of the most essential elements of humanity, which naturally fosters well-being, and often has as a natural outcome, people moving forward in a positive direction,” she said.
She continues to be an integral member of MBBI, having recently been involved in the Greece Immigration Dialogue project. Louise was also the first Director of Training for MBBI. She speaks proudly of the infrastructure she and her committee built, such as the projects and protocol manual staying true to the tenet of what she calls, “elicitive teaching”, believing in the capacity of those MBBI is asked to work with and believing in their own self-determination.”
From her perspective, the most pivotal achievement of MBBI was finding a cohesive and inclusive way to work with all the different individuals practicing mediation, who, “honestly come from very different belief systems about conflict.” Through this, she emphasized that the practitioners are “often well-intended and smart, but come from different philosophies that inform their practices both explicitly and implicitly.” Although it may be difficult to inculcate discussions in a systematic manner due to differences of practice, MBBI has made room for new and creative discussions. “MBBI leadership, comprised of many, did an amazing job navigating over the years,” said Louise.
Throughout the interview, Louise emphasized the concept of being “relational.” She provided her definition of this term, “Being aware of one’s tendency to maximize self-interest over another’s well-being, what I call being transactional, and instead making a conscious choice to think and act in ways that are both self and other to foster well-being. Not maximizing your self-interest over another, and also not losing yourself in another’s self-interest.” By this, Louise meant that it is highly important for those who work together to be open to each other’s ideas and differences while still being clear about what one values and believes, open for that to be shaped and expanded. This embodies a cohesive and holistic approach for peacebuilders to resolve conflict, without overpowering one’s self-interest or losing oneself in someone else’s self-interest. It entails keeping a well-balanced structure of working together, in this case, “one guiding principle that holds all peacebuilders together: being relational.”. As part of being relational, Louise stated the importance of self-awareness and sustaining oneself in the field of conflict and mediation to be key characteristics of a mediator. She mentioned that mediation can be a deep spiritual practice, in which one has to sustain and stay sustained when literally in the middle of other people’s conflicts. Having a practice of prayer, meditation and somatic awareness, all part of being centered, being humble and being kind, are essential for the long haul for a mediator so as not to burn up or disintegrate. By this, she meant that one has to be committed to resolving a conflict for the pure purpose of bettering the quality of the interaction.
“Every single day that I am given the privilege of facilitating dialogue between two or more people and I witness the moments of transformation are moments in my career that continue to fuel me and fill me. I feel very humbled by the unique role a mediator has, appreciating the ugliness and suffering while awaiting the potential of humanity to unfold. This work keeps me grounded and centered, and hopefully a better person for others in my own life,” says Louise.
A particular time in her career that was the most meaningful, was in 1996 when she was a part of the “Dreamteam,” for the United States Postal Service (USPS). This team began with 20 individuals and wound down to 8. They did blitz mediation trainings across the US, often in a different state each week for almost two years. It was the first two-day mediation training, each day being 14 hours, and several labor management folks and several union representatives present, none of whom had been able to come to a collective bargaining agreement for over six years at the time.
The air was tense. The audience wanted to see a real mediation. So, without any preparation, Louise looked at her co-trainer and he at her. He said, “You do it.” She looked at him and her stomach lurched and she stepped forward. Live, in front of an audience hostile to mediation, and with very real disputes among them, she mediated with all eyes watching. A labor dispute was presented—an hour later, the moments of transformation came. This occurred because Louise believed in the capacity of the audience and encouraged them to discuss whatever they wanted—while remaining proactive in the process. Louise says she was scared to death, but once focused on their interaction, she knew the process would do the work. “At that moment, I realized that my personal growth edge soared, because I was able to stay grounded and really follow what was happening while following through on quality decision making, their decision making, not mine,” said Louise. I felt a surge of inner knowing. It was at that very moment, she knew she was a mediator, felt like a mediator, and dove even more deeply into sharpening and deepening her practice—which she does across the US and in support of MBBI.