Don’t Stand Up to a Bully, Sit Down with Them – Transformative Mediation Works to Address Bullying

Louise Phipps Senft recently spoke at the Anti-Bullying Links of Kindness Conference held at the SECU Arena at Towson University. The event drew a crowd of 5,000 parents, teachers and students to seek solutions to bullying and recognize the efforts in Maryland to stop cyber-bullying in particular through Grace’s Law. Louise brought her unique perspective to the conversation. Below is the text of her speech.

Good evening – it is so wonderful to see so many here this evening. I am Louise Phipps Senft and as Mr. (Keith) Mills said, I am a mediator. That’s what I do – all day, every day. It’s who I am and I use my skills as a mediator in every interaction that I have with other people – At home with my husband and my kids, at work with my team, and in the community with my neighbors and others – especially when things get tough and people are upset and angry. That’s what we call conflict.
At Baltimore Mediation, we work with conflict every day, facilitating meaningful dialogue, listening to people, helping them express emotions like anger, hurt, and frustration. Many conflicts are so serious, loom so large in the lives of those involved, that they need help to open up, to start talking. I help people as a professional mediator, but you too can use conflict skills.
What we teach at Baltimore Mediation is relevant to everyone. It’s a different way of looking at conflict. It’s what we call Transformative Mediation. It moves beyond the idea that conflict is about winning or losing – being the aggressor or the victim – to a place where each person involved holds the key to their own destiny. As a mediator, by listening, asking questions, and making sure everyone feels heard and respected, I help each person unlock the ability to ask for what they need, to state plainly what upsets them, and – if it is what they want —to meet in the middle to talk about what comes next. The thing that’s so hard about bullying is that it gets complicated with many stories that add up – or don’t add up as the case may be. One thing I can tell you about transformative mediation is that we don’t go in with an agenda. Even with the best intentions, if a mediator goes in planning to smooth everything over and have it all end up nice, the parties are already being pressured to do something that they don’t want to do. Has anyone ever seen a guidance counselor bring two kids together and tell them to make up? To apologize? Did that go well? It’s the same thing when a mediator does it.
So what do we do? We have to pay close attention, ask the right questions and be there to listen without judging people. More than that, we have to teach ourselves about conflict. Have you ever considered that when someone is being mean, they are really feeling hurt, and they are acting it out on someone else? Everyone wants to feel good, to feel strong, to feel OK, but it can be hard to do that when someone else makes you feel bad, right? That’s conflict, when people lose the ability to communicate their needs and feelings. People feel weak and become self-absorbed – so concerned for themselves that they can’t see straight or put themselves in another person’s shoes. Sometimes, a bully doesn’t even think of him or herself as acting mean. That’s called self-absorption and it happens when we don’t recognize how our actions affect other people.
Being self-absorbed has a lot to do with being scared. If you are worried about yourself, it’s easy to forget about other people and it becomes easier to hurt them.
You also can be scared when you are feeling weak, out of control, threatened, abused or confused. Some people try to cover up their weakness by being tough, by being mean, even violent. But if you know that that violence is coming from a person who feels weak, scared, is that violence still as scary? Think about animals. Many dogs that bite people are raised badly, treated badly and not taken care of. They are scared that they will be hurt, so they are nasty and mean, to protect themselves.
Sometimes, scared people act the same. And they can be dangerous, and we are not saying in any way that violence or abuse or bullying should at all be tolerated. We can have compassion for bullies, but we can’t excuse their behavior and we don’t want to minimize or ignore the impact that violence and abuse and bullying have on the person that is abused or bullied. But the thing that makes people so different than animals is that we can talk to each other. That’s one of the most important steps in dealing with bullying: talking about it. So, what can you say to someone? We all know that “don’t worry about it,” “calm down,” and “it’ll be OK” aren’t always the best responses, right? Sometimes, saying anything isn’t as helpful as just listening to them. That’s what I do as a mediator. I focus on making a safe place to help people talk to each other and really listen without telling them what to do.
Amazing things happen with quality dialogue. Even in the midst of the suffering caused by bullying. We look forward to working to bring this perspective to schools in Maryland and beyond.