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TWAN VAN DE KERKHOF : “In a dialogue the process is more important than the result.”


European Leadership Platform is a space for reflecting on leadership, especially for those who are chronically overloaded and yet are aware that they benefit from taking time to reflect. Meeting with its founder, Twan van de Kerkhof.*


« Addressing people informally creates intimacy and familiarity, which lend depth to the dialogues. It lowers barriers and diminishes distances ». But in the case of the relationship between a boss and his employees, isn’t it better to keep a certain distance ?

The distance between boss and employee in a hierarchy is culture-specific. In Germany and France there is a certain distance, in the Netherlands or Norway that distance is much smaller. Neither is good or bad. Engaging in a meaningful conversation is harder (but never impossible) when barriers are high and power gaps are wide. Both sides are responsible for bridging that gap, with the highest responsibility resting with the leader.


« When you engage into a dialogue, forget about your to do-lists and leave any issues with colleagues and spouses behind. » Do you have some tricks to chase away parasitic thoughts ?

It is more of an attitude than a trick. It requires self-awareness to recognize that your thoughts are elsewhere and to let them go. A helpful exercise is to focus on your arms and legs every now and then. Literally feeling what is happening in those body parts helps you to stay in the here and now. And if your child or that email occupy your mind, bring them into the conversation. That is part of being yourself and showing yourself. All these feelings and emotions usually hover over a meeting without being addressed. If they are expressed, the conversation afterwards will be much cleaner and the connection between participants will deepen.


« A dialogue requires a different mindset and attitude than business leaders are used to in their daily work, which is determined by achieving results in an effective and efficient way. » How can business leaders work on their sense of dialogue ?  What can they change ?

In a dialogue the process is more important than the result. Participants give up control and enter into a free space that they are shaping together by their joint contributions. They surf on the waves that they help to create themselves and see which harbor will receive them at the end of their time together.


« Time and attention are key words for dialogue. » In that world where everything is governed by speed, especially at work, how can employees manage their time ?

Temporarily stopping the noise of the activities in yourself will silence your mind. At that moment, something beyond thought might come into operation. The bandwidth of our receiver becomes wider, which enables us to receive signals that were too weak to hear before. Filters and barriers decrease their power. As physicist David Bohm said, “the body is the individual gateway to a remarkable wealth of unexpected information”. We become more open.

Slowing down is the countervailing power against all the rush. Everybody needs to take time to reflect and think about what really matters. There is a paradox: the busier you are, the less time you take to stop and reflect. But every lumberjack knows that he sometimes must step back from chopping the wood to sharpen his axe. That is what leaders should do to keep their energy and ideas flowing. Slowing down helps to speed up afterwards and build a virtuous cycle of action and reflection.


« Many people are used to showing up with a mask at their work, being who they think others want them to be or trying to be as they think they should be.» In your opinion, why did we get into this habit ? What advice would you give to « drop the mask » ?

As children we all have learned to show up in a certain way to get what we wanted. We caught the attention of our mum and dad by unconsciously acting as we thought that they would like in order to receive from them what we wanted: food, warmth, attention, etc. We have refined, even perfected that habit of showing up as we think others want us to be during our lives: spouse, boss, friend and still mum and dad. Stepping forward as your true self you can feel quite scary, as being naked and unprotected. But most people simultaneously feel a great desire to be and show who they are. It is a basic human need to become acquainted with our fundamental nature. Dropping the mask can start by small experiments: say or ask things that you find difficult to say or ask, that are out of your comfort zone but not too far; things of which you are afraid that others will find them stupid or crazy but that you are willing to try as an exercise for yourself. Just do it, observe what happens and adjust. Over time your mask will fade away.


« Listening is a process that engages your whole body, not just your ears. » What is listening ? What does it mean in concrete terms ?

The words that others say are only a small part of listening. Your eyes play a role in watching facial expressions and being attentive to gestures or body language. Your intuition comes into play feeling people’s energy, assessing the interaction between you and them, feeling safe or alert. Truly listening requires paying attention to all these processes in yourself and others. It implies observing, observing, observing, yourself as well as others.


« In many organizations, colleagues compete with each other » Within a company, to what extent does competition impact the working environment ? How can we replace it with more cooperation ?

In many organizations colleagues try to out-argue their counterpart, score points, prove that they are right and the other is wrong, etc. They feel better by defeating the other. They have conversations in which both sides completely miss each other, like ships passing in the night. This results in suboptimal outcomes.

A competitive attitude can be a deep-seated mechanism which can only be altered by a strong willingness to change it. It starts with recognizing it, by observing yourself and acknowledging the downsides but also the pleasure you might gain from it. If you are willing to change it, open yourself up to others, hold back the inclination to pick a fight, first listen and only then speak.


« Participants are equal, but not identical. » Can you tell us more about it ?

Everybody brings value to the table in their own way. Diversity in mindsets and points of view contributes to the richness of the conversation. Moreover, you can only take learnings away from the table if you are willing to contribute your insights and experiences yourself. In that way participants in the dialogue jointly create a virtuous cycle of giving and taking.


« We challenge leaders to remain curious and see the world with fresh eyes. » What is your definition of a leader ?

A leader is someone who helps other people grow by his or her presence and does that in such a way that the growth can continue in his or her absence. Leadership is a contact sports, as Marshall Goldsmith says, so it is about relating to other people, with whom a result is to be achieved, based on who you are as an individual.


Clémence d’Halluin


*Each question is based on a commandment from The Ten Commandments of Dialogue (question 1 = commandment 1, etc).

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