Dhukka: sticky notes from a silent retreat (1/3)

A silence retreat is a unique experience. It is different every time. Since it’s a rather individual journey hard to translate into words or learnings for others, I will share three universal concepts that struck me that could be valuable for you too. Today, I’ll share with you sticky note n° 1 on ‘dhukka’.

The concept of ‘dhukka’ originates from Buddhist texts, also called sutras. Dhukka means suffering, pain or dissatisfaction. Although this translation hardly covers the total concept, as it in fact includes much more than that. Dhukka is part of our lives. We discern three types of dhukka.

  1. Dhukka-dhukka: physical and mental suffering (e.g. birth, illness, stress, …)
  2. Viparinama-dukkha: change, nothing is permanent, everything changes all the time (e.g. the seasons, the world, even people – you are not the person you were 10 years ago. This type of dhukka also includes unquenchable frustration of not getting what we crave for.)
  3. Sankhara-dukkha: self-inflicted pain and suffering (e.g. my own blame, judgment, feelings of shame or guilt).

The first two types of dhukka are inevitable. If you cut your finger, there is no way to undo this. The dhukka of change is also inevitable. You can’t stop the seasons from evolving or prevent people from growing old. The last type of dhukka, however, is not inevitable. And here lies hope. It means that we can ease, or leave out, the pain we inflict on ourselves. Interested?

So, next time I leave for work without my phone, mindfulness can help me to become aware of my body sensations and thought patterns that automatically trail along: e.g. “why did I have to leave in such a hurry? I had ample time, but no. I still needed to empty the dishwasher first. My time management sucks, I suck. Clearly, I’m not worthy of that phone if I let it linger everywhere. Just as well I feel bad about it now. That will teach me.”

Do your recognise this? Thought so. We all do this to ourselves: throwing the self-inflicted pain (the insult) on top of the actual pain (forgetting the phone in the first place). It remined me of the story of the two arrows. The first arrow hitting bull’s eye symbolizes the physical or mental pain. This is inevitable. But the second arrow, you don’t need to shoot. This arrow represents your self-inflicted pain. We all know we can’t change the facts. But we can change our relationship with them. It starts with accepting what is there.

So, from the moment we become aware of this pattern, we can pause. We stop, breathe and choose a different reaction. A reaction that softens or even leaves out the extra pain, easing our suffering and accompanying bad moods. We short circuit the negative stream of thoughts, emotions by noticing what is present in the body. In brief, we don’t have to be crushed or overwhelmed by dhukka. It doesn’t have to be like that. We can still flourish in a world full of dhukka, accepting it, rather than running away from it, or making it bigger.

What we experience next, is freedom. Freedom from the burdens and stress we so often cause ourselves. Not total freedom to do be free from pain in a dhukka-free world. But a sense of liberation from the destructive habits we have that don’t help us any further.

So, next time you encounter this pattern of sankhara-dhukka in life, ask yourself: “How do I want my pain? With or without additives?”


Want to try an 8 week course in mindfulness first? Next course starts on Tue 5 September till Tue 24 October 2017. More info on our homepage or Facebook (in Dutch).


What leadership tool is most often overlooked?

Apparently, listening is. Though, when it is done well, it can create safety in the ever-changing working environment of new teams forming, employees leaving and entering the organisation, projects shifting priorities, etc. So, what helps anchoring this instable working environment? Focus on things we can control, instead of what we cannot control, like time spent listening to the other.

In her Harvard Business Review article, Melissa Daimler sums up some scientifically gathered facts about listening. We spend between a third to half our time listening and we don’t remember very much of it. Back in the 50s researchers found that listeners only retain about half of what has been said immediately after the conversation. I wonder what would remain of that quantity today.

Listening is a challenging skill to master in this extraverted world where the loudest voices are heard first. In my coaching sessions, I often illustrate the 3 types of listening Melissa discerns:

  1. Internal listening: when you pretend you’re engaging with the other person whilst checking your messages on your phone or laptop, being occupied with your own thoughts, worries and priorities.
  1. Focused listening: you engage with the other person, your phone is down, laptop aside, you are nodding in agreement, but you are not fully present. You are still elsewhere in your mind and you miss every nuance in the conversation.
  1. 360° listening: this is where you take time to fully connect. You’re not just listening to what the person is saying, but also how he is saying it and even better – what he is not saying: what topics give him energy, which don’t, and where the person pauses when speaking.

“Listening creates spaciousness, which we need to do good work,” Melissa continues. But how can you listen more? What conditions advocate listening?

  • Eye contact: look people in the eye. Don’t stare at your phone or laptop or glance outside the window. And smile.
  • Create space in your day: Melissa experiences that she listens more when she creates space in her day. So, manage your calendar and stop booking yourself out the entire day. Giving someone your undevided attention is absolutely priceless (not just in the office).
  • Ask more questions: most employees just want you to either affirm their line of thinking, or need a sounding board to be challenged for more solutions. So, first be sure to understand the situation and then, instead of giving advice, try asking several questions. Simultaneously, you are coaching your staff towards more confidence and autonomy.

Unfortunately, there is no black and white solution for all situations. There will always be exceptions. But next time you are talking, ask yourself: “Am I really listening, or just waiting for my turn to speak?” Perhaps you can pause to squeeze in a question instead of your advice or opinion. Try it!


Source: Harvard Business Review


What is mindful coaching?

Mindful coaching is where mindfulness and coaching meet. In mindfulness we learn to shift from doing mode into being mode. The ‘doing mode’ is typically characterised by stories, thinking, oriented towards past or future, automatic pilot and reactions or impulses. ‘Being mode’ on the other hand entails concepts like process, feelings, orientation to the here and now, intention and creative choice.

One could say that mindfulness meditation fancies being mode more (to be still and compassionate), whereas coaching prefers doing mode (goals and action plans). The combination, however, enhances both, says one coaching study (Spence et al, 2010), which found that mindfulness training combined with solution-focused coaching helps clients attain their health goals.

In her book on Mindful Coaching, Lizz Hall, a senior practitioner coach in the UK, lists 10 tips for mindful coaching. They apply mainly to the coach, although I feel the client might benefit from taking these tips to heart as well.

  1. Start doing an 8-week mindfulness course. Research shows that attention training for 8 weeks literally rewires our brains.
  2. Practice mindfulness (including meditation) regularly.
  3. Take a systemic approach to coaching, “being mindful” of the wider systems in which you and your clients operate.
  4. Approach coaching (and life) with non-judgment, openness, curiosity, and compassion.
  5. Prepare mindfully for each coaching session – this can take as little as a few minutes. E.g., walk mindfully to your coaching session, or sit in the park and pay attention to your breath for a few minutes.
  6. Share mindfulness practices within coaching sessions and as “homework” where useful and appropriate for the client. If the word mindfulness is off-putting for clients the exercises can be called centering practices, breathing practice or attention training. All these will help to become more resourceful and creative, more emotionally intelligent, more able to be resilient and manage stress – the research backs all of this up.
  7. Attend (not solely) to the present in all coaching interactions (thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, happenings – both on your part and on the part of your client). Be curious about everything that arises, turning towards the ‘difficult’ as well as the ‘easy.’
  8. Don’t be overly-attached to outcome, for yourself or your clients. It can be incredibly powerful, particularly for leaders, to sit with not-knowing, to be open to whatever emerges in a non-judgmental, curious, compassionate way.
  9. Be compassionate to yourself and to your clients. Practicing mindfulness helps us develop compassion, which I believe is a central component of coaching. It can be incredibly hard to be self-compassionate, but well worth the effort.
  10. Have fun! In the West, we often take things far too seriously and can learn a great deal from Eastern teachings. Yes, mindfulness helps us manage stress, be more creative, improves our cognitive functioning and thus our “performance” but ultimately, for me (Liz Hall), mindfulness is about bringing joy back into our lives and those of our clients.

Well, Liz, I couldn’t agree with you more. Let’s bring the joy back into our lives!





“Resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure.”

Strategically stopping and building in recovery periods during our day time is highly effective in building resilience. Apparently, our brains need as much sleep as our bodies do.

When coaching executives and managers I often draw the comparison with top sport. In order to achieve extraordinary results, we need to alternate practice with regular periods of substantial relaxation. No one wants heavy legs when you need to pull out your best sprint of the year, now do you?

In business and daily life this simple rule in self-management and prevention of burn-out is ever so easily overlooked. So, take at least three 5-minute breaks per day to stop the threadmill in your mulling brain. During one of those time-outs, think of 3 things you will undertake this week to recharge, rather than endure. My top three for this week:

  1. take 3 mindful 3-minute-breaks per day with focus on breathing
  2. go to sleep when I feel tired instead of staying glued to Netflix
  3. collect my daughter from school on foot instead of using the car

I know, it’s not rocket science. But it still is very powerful and easy to do.

So, how will you stop to recharge yourself this week? More tips in the full Harvard Business Review article.




What influences coaching outcomes more: relationship or technique?

Well, I didn’t know at first either to be honest. I was guessing technique while I was hoping for relationship. Let me explain how I found out.

On the 1st of December I was invited to a seminar hosting Professor Erik De Haan at Vlerick Business School. Erik is Director of the Centre for Coaching at Ashridge Business School and Professor of Organisation and Development at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. He enlightened a room full of coaches how relational coaching can support contemporary leaders. Counter to what I expected, he came with some surprising and both reassuring research findings on the effectiveness of coaching.

The most remarkable finding of his ‘Greatest ever Research Programme’ based on research in psychotherapy to me was this. Not the coaching technique or intervention chosen by the coach influences the outcome of coaching most. Apparently, the only thing that can (albeit indirectly) influence the outcome is the relationship between the coach and the coachee.
It means that picking the right intervention or coaching model to support the coachee prevails less than managing and monitoring the relationship between coach and coachee.

Mind you, it does not suggest that, while the relationship with the coachee is safeguarded, the coach can adopt any eclectic approach he desires to reach a successful outcome. No. It suggests rather the opposite, that, if a coach is committed to his own coaching ideology and approach, it will add to his effectiveness. Note the change in emphasis: by making the relationship with the coachee explicit and stronger, the coach will achieve better outcomes with the coachee than by focusing largely on technique.

As coaches, we need to keep discussing the quality of the relationship openly with the coachee. What is it he wants, what he expects from a coach professionally, in terms of agreement on tasks and goals. If the coach takes this up as main focus – and not just at the beginning of the coaching journey, but rather throughout it – it will automatically lead to more self-understanding and self-changing of the coachee.


Why does gratitude have to do with mindfulness?

Gratitude, what a graceful word. It derives from Latin ‘gratus’ (cf ‘grace’), which means ‘thankful, pleasing’. In the mid 15th century, gratitude meant ‘good will’. Later, in the 16th century the meaning ‘thankfulness’ became more apparent.

Giving thanks, or saying grace, is saying your prayers. For ages, religious families thanked God before eating. They paused and reflected on what they were thankful for: crops, cattle, a roof over the head, clothes, offspring, good health, … Much like mindfulness pauses and stops to become aware of what is, really. In more recent times, the religious custom to give thanks is growing out of fashion.

However, on Thanksgiving Day, the Americans still celebrate the old ritual of saying thanks for the harvest reaped. The tradition goes that each person at the table tells one specific reason they’re thankful to God that year. The family rejoices by having stuffed turkey served with mashed potatoes, season vegetables, gravy and pumpkin pie.

Why practice gratitude?

There are multiple benefits to practicing gratitude. And they are all worth the while. Foremost, it opens the door to a happier life. If you count your blessings it helps you to set a positive mindset. When you go through rough times your mind will be tempted to linger with negative thoughts and emotions. If you train to see the positive, it helps you stop these automatically triggered negative judgements. This is because gratitude opens up the ‘approach pathways’ in our mind, rather than the ‘aversion pathways’. When we are in the approach mode we see the opportunities rather than the threats, and we become more creative, we have a more open mind, …

But it’s not just a changed mindset that makes us happier. There is also the neurological effect of dopamine, the ‘reward’ drug in our body. It tells you to repeat things because they feel good. Our brain is continuously looking for confirmation: it searches for things to be proved which the mind already believes are true. Dopamine reinforces this. So, from the moment you start looking for things you are thankful for, your brain wants more of the same.

Other scientifically proven benefits of being grateful are:

  • having more fulfilling relationships,
  • leading a healthier life, physically and psychologically,
  • having more empathy and being less aggressive,
  • sleeping better at night and
  • having more self-esteem and increased mental strength.

Gratitude in mindfulness

Like any other skill, gratitude takes practice. That’s why we teach the 10-finger gratitude exercise in mindfulness training. Before you go to sleep, for each finger you name one thing that you are thankful for that day. Kids love this. Watch how easily they come up with 10 items.

Apart from that you can also deepen your practice by doing a meditation on gratitude. The Brussels Mindfulness Institute recorded one especially for you. You can start it simply by clicking on this link.

So, there you go. Now you have everything in place to practice gratitude. What 10 items will you be thankful for today? I’ll start by sharing that I’m thankful for you reading this article till the end.

Sincere thanks,



This genius strategy for women to be heard in meetings will blow you away

Are you a woman working in a company, sector or industry dominated by males? Do you find it hard to get noticed, to make your opinion heard and to remain owner of your ideas? Well, learn from this interesting read published in The Washington Post. It truly is genius.

Testosterone in the room

Most of the people campainging for Obama were men. When Obama won the presidential elections these men subsequently filled his cabinet. At that time, the White House was not the most female friendly environment. Women found it was a tough circle to break.

They not only had to shoulder their way into important meetings. Once in, they also had to get their opinions noticed. That’s when female staffers started to band together and came up with a genius meeting strategy to make themselves heard.

‘Amplification’ strategy

What did they do differently? Whenever a woman made a key point, another woman would repeat it and pay credits to the author. This forced the men to acknowledge the point made and denied them to claim the idea of their own.

The female staffers called this the ‘amplification’ strategy and purposefully made it an everyday thing. Gradually, Obama began noticing them, calling more on women and junior staffers next to the more senior men.

As a result, things looked brighter for females in Obama’s second term, with now half of the White House departments headed by women.

Small ideas with big impact

The simplest strategies are often the most powerful. I was genuinely blown away by its sheer simplicity. It’s such a small effort to implement this in your own company as of today. So go band with your fellow sisters at work, voice your opinions and amplify each other. I would love to hear how it works out for you!



“I don’t believe in coaching.”

“I don’t believe in coaching.” That’s what a manager of a well-respected and growing organisation once confided me. I was baffled. From my experience I had seen it work on so many levels, but I could not convince him. He had his mind already made up.

Today, the International Coaching Federation backs up the benefits of coaching with hard figures in a 2016 study, conducted independently by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Study reveals clear benefits of business coaching

The benefits of using a professional coach are manifold: respondents claim it improves their performance at work (70%), business management (67%) and time management (57%). And there is more.

Those who undertake coaching can also expect increased self-confidence (80%), improved relationships on the work floor (73%), enhanced communication skills (72%) and a better work-life balance (67%).

96% would repeat the coaching process eyes closed

Overall, the learning and new insights offered by individual coaching returns the investment to the entire business (86%). The satisfaction rate of coaching is extraordinarily high (99% ‘somewhat or ‘very satisfied’). No wonder 96% would repeat the process eyes closed.

I witnessed coachees grow in self-confidence, undertaking steps after coaching they would not have before. One coachee decided to leave her father’s company, another started her own business. One extraverted manager was surprised how much his relationship with an introverted employee in his team improved after learning about MBTI. And a top executive who had accomplished almost everything in his career found peace and decided to take up a final challenge as mentor in his company.

So, what will be your story?


4 Things That Sink New Executives, and How to Overcome Them

When moving up the career ladder, 50-70% of executives fail within 1,5 years of their new assignment. Despite that, these executives were high-potentials, though. So it couldn’t have been because they weren’t capable. So what made them slip? Intensive research has uncovered four ‘derailers’ and how to overcome them.


1. Avoid a larger-than-life persona by defining your image Perception is everything.

When you become a leader, people suddenly start seeing your differently. Some leaders are attributed celebrity status, others become fearful dictators in the eyes of their beholders. To overcome this misinterpretation, leaders must have the courage to confront these misconceptions and try to anticipate the reactions of others before others broadcast them incorrectly to a wider audience.


2. Neutralize the megaphone effect by crafting purposeful messages

New executives are not only perceived differently, the way they communicate is also amplified by the looking glass. Words, pauses, small talk, impactful words, … they are all attributed more meaning than the executive intends. Remain mindful in how to formulate organisation’s views. There is no ‘small talk’ at the top of organisations. Take extra time to consider the impact of thoughts and views. Do it genuinely and precisely.


3. Don’t resent sifted data, learn to work with it

When leaders are elevated in their new roles, they notice they don’t have access to data they used to have. Information is filtered now. Knowledge means power. Suddenly, they found themselves out of access to information they could previously freely rely on. No leader will get access to the data he used to have before. But, if he can be up front with information needs, mindful on people’s concerns, and above all, consistent in style to handle hard truths with grace and honesty, he will get increasingly complete data.


4. Embrace the aliens next door

Former peers become direct reports, former superiors a new set of peers. Relationships once characterized as familiar will never be the same. Politics at top level make it hard to trust the new peers. And even though executives still feel like the same person, everything else will never be the same. Successful leaders redefine relationships and reset boundaries to send a clear signal for desiring trusting relationships. They deliberately discuss priorities, accessibility, information flow, and mutual expectations of influence and confidentiality. So, even though distortions are unavoidable for leaders in a transition, a lot will depend on how they respond. If they remain in control, they can accelerate early wins to become a successful leader.


Read the full article:


A simple choice that kept me from ruining the family holidays

This year everything is different. Not just professionally (I’m self-employed now), but also in terms of holidays. Usually we pack for a fortnight’s stay in the lovely hills of the Provence, France, close by the most picturesque Luberon villages such as Gordes, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Fontaine de Vaucluse, … . But this year we decided to visit the queen of Belgian seaside cities, beautiful Ostend.

Suddenly, my mind goes blank with panic

Not sure about the weather, we packed everything we could possibly need that week: rain wear, sun wear, party games, running shoes, yoga mat, books, laptop, towels, sleeping pillows, … the lot. With a fully loaded car we brightly headed off for a straight 100 kilometers to the Belgian coast. We had a lovely evening drive, no traffic at all, sunshine all the way. My daughter and husband were thrilled with anticipation. In the minutes before arrival they started playing summer songs like Surf City, the Lambada and Summer in the City on the car radio to get in the mood. But then, as we stop at the last traffic light before the apartment, my mind suddenly goes blank with panic: “OMG, did I bring the keys?”

Why not go back tomorrow ?

I collected myself, focused on my breathing, feeling the sensations in my body without letting this initial panic get ahead of me. I ask my husband to look for the key in my handbag behind the zipper. As he tries to find what is not there I tell them that I have forgotten to bring the keys and that I am really really really sorry. His reaction is silence and a numb stare outside the car window. He wanted to return immediately. In the past I would have been unforgiving towards myself for such a forgetfulness. Now, I could see what was there: we were by the sea, with no key, and we’d have to drive back 100 kilometers to get it. Such was the situation. I accepted it. Surprisingly, I was able to remain calm and be kind to myself and understanding in the disappointment of my dearest family members. We headed back home in silence while I kept bringing awareness to my breath and the whole body. And then, when we finally took the last turn towards our street, something amazing happened. Suddenly my husband smiled lightheartedly: “What a splendid holiday we had in Ostend. I know, it was all too short, but ever so relaxing. Next time, let’s stay a little longer, don’t you agree? Why not go back tomorrow?”

We all started laughing so hard our bellies ached with amusement. At home, we ate the evening pick-nick we packed for in the apartment, kept laughing and mocking the situation, concluding that we now had another funny story to tell at parties. We decided to drive back to Ostend the morning after, all in good spirits. That was our choice of dealing with it.

A simple choice makes all the difference

Would I have been able to cope with this unfortunate situation without the mindfulness practice? Probably not. It could have been an ugly experience, enough to ruin the whole holiday. But it wasn’t. Staying calm and not making a drama of this influenced my husband’s and daughter’s reactions. That’s what a daily practice can do for you: you make a free choice to have a good holiday. And that choice makes the difference between a good and a bad holiday.