Being the Honest Broker. Member Spotlight: Silke Toenshoff

Born and raised in Hanover, Germany, Silke Toenshoff has always had many diverse interests and passions. Throughout her career, she’s been a consulting professional, worked in politics, as a senior think-tank analyst, and EU Head of Unit in two departments of the European Committee of the Regions. Besides this, Silke has always been fascinated by politics, different cultures and learning languages, and her passion has led her to become familiar with 8 different languages. Throughout her work, Silke has also found herself in the position of mediator or negotiator many times. Going forward, she is excited to connect with other professionals in mediation, learn more about peacebuilding, and put her many skills to use to contribute to the field however possible.

From Consulting to the EU

After high school, Silke was excited to experience different realities. She went to Italy, where she did a year of studies and work in Sicily. After seeing a different way of life and learning Italian, she went back to Germany to study economics and philosophy and continued later inParis and with an  MBA in International Management in Belgium. Her first job was with Accenture, in Business Consultancy, doing change management and process analysis for big financial services companies. At the same time, Silke also pursued a PhD in Economics on the side. Needless to say, it was extremely challenging to do both. 

However, at a certain point Silke was ready for something else. She had always been passionate about politics, and so she applied for a job in the Berlin government. There, she supported different deputy ministers as head of cabinet. After serving through three changes of government, she started the process of taking part in the competitive selection to become an EU official. In the meantime, she decided to make another change, and work for the think tank Rand Europe which was just opening an office in Berlin. At Rand Europe she worked on foresight and scenario development in different policy areas such as Health care, Research and Innovation and Transport Policy. Then, after getting selected for an EU position, Silke went to work for an organization called the European Committee of the Regions, which represents cities and regions from all EU Member States in the European Union legislative process. 

Being the Honest Broker

When Silke started her job, she was in the external relations department. She was responsible for eastern partnerships, which meant working with countries like Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, and many others. In this framework she also worked a lot with Middle Eastern countries, on various issues that were important to them. For example, a project that she is proud of is one where her organization built up an initiative with Libyan mayors, which helped the country decentralize and give more power to local governments after the fall of Gadafi.

“In one department, you basically are working with the entire world outside of the EU.”

Over the years, Silke has done negotiations training inside the EU institutions as well as at Harvard University, but has not yet had any formal mediation training. However, in her work she has often found herself in the position of a mediator. While she has always been interested in peacebuilding, her interest in the field continued to grow during her time working with Middle Eastern and North African countries in her role as Head of Unit for Citizenship, Governance and External Relations. She had to act as a mediator for the delegations, working as an “honest broker” to many differing interests at the time.

She came to realize that a key part of the negotiations process is the trust, and the relationships she could build with people, and between them. What she’s enjoyed most about being in the position of a mediator, is that it opens up the possibility of creating an agreement that’s truly better for everyone. Though she was just doing her best at the time, often with very good results, she is excited to learn more about the frameworks of mediation and the more official practice itself.

Understanding the Interests

Silke has found that certain things make the difference between the outcomes of mediation. At times, Silke found that positions between two sides are extremely hardened before even beginning. Here, the most important thing to her is listening very carefully. Silke believes that hearing and understanding the interests of both sides is the key, and so is having a deep grasp of the context and background surrounding the situation. Silke also recognizes that beyond just those at a given negotiation, there are people and groups who can exert power and be decisive in the course of the process. Knowing the interests of those people is just as vital.

“You need to know the backstory, the interests, the perspectives, the pressure points, and the timing.” 

However, time and time again Silke has seen that the most important factor, even in difficult negotiations is relationships. Even when she has had to work with local and regional politicians who seemed to be completely, historically at odds, just the fact that the members themselves are familiar each other has made certain aspects of a negotiation possible, when they would have never been feasible for two strangers. She believes that at times, just being able to open up the space for two people to talk about something is an accomplishment in itself.

“To create the platform and space where you can build the personal relationships is very powerful.”

Silke sees that to agree on talking about something, or to get people to switch a perspective can have a huge impact. Silke feels that negotiation and mediation skills often also allow you to provide a voice to certain people in the process, who would not have been as heard themselves. Using the position to allow people on both sides to actually understand where the other is coming from is such a powerful tool to have. In this process, Silke has found that she has the ability to amplify other’s voices.

As part of a smaller European organization, compared to the European Commission, Silke has also experienced the value of these personal relationships in her own projects. Building personal relationships and following through on commitments allows for trust to be built, and has allowed her to secure funding and support on projects that would be harder to accomplish otherwise. 

Growing Towards a Career

For those beginning their careers, Silke thinks that learning new languages is a great start and is very important even if it might not come naturally to you. Even though she knows that choices in the early phases of a career may seem so very important at the time, she believes you shouldn’t be afraid to follow what you would actually like to do, instead of sticking in people’s narrow expectations. 

“Every job should be providing you with more learning. It shouldn’t come naturally in the beginning. If you imagine you have a backpack, each job should be like putting a new skill in that you’ll have for the future.”

Silke notes that no matter what, you will be gradually gravitating to the right place in your career. A career doesn’t have to be a straight line. The people who you actually want to hire you will value the things you have learned in each experience. Those who are only interested in linearity will not be the ones that you want to work for anyways. 

Languages and New Worlds

For her whole life, Silke has also studied languages on the side. However, after the amount of time she’s spent working with Northern Africa and the Middle East when working for the European Union, she saw that Arabic would be fundamental to her success and continued learning. Before switching to her current role in communications, where she works on capacity building in participatory democracy, innovative methods of communication, and the organization of large scale events, Silke took a year off of work to intensively study Modern Standard Arabic, Arabic media, and Egyptian dialect. She studied full time – with a commitment of 10 hours every day – at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies of University of London. Silke saw that there’s so much mistrust and so much misunderstanding between the West and “Arab countries”, even though they’re each so individually different. 

“Language enables you to look behind all of misunderstandings, and into the culture. They’re like whole different worlds.”

Even though there’s some things one might never understand, Silke thinks learning new languages is always worth it. Especially with languages that are rarer to learn, people are blown away when you speak well and have made so much of an effort to understand their culture. Silke realizes that the connection between language, religion, history, and politics is all very complex, she is so glad that she put in so much effort to learn more. Now, she can at least read a newspaper and speak with people of different ways of life in their language, having acquired as well knowledge of dialect.

Final Notes

“People are more forthcoming when you are speaking their language and welcome you into their world.”

In the future, Silke would very much like to learn more about peacebuilding and mediation, and put her language skills to use. She would be pleased to meet new people in the community and perhaps be a part of new projects involving mediation or peacebuilding. She notes that she could really contribute her experience with the European institutions there to anyone that would be interested, and she would love to work more on peacebuilding in a more active way. 

More than anything Silke wants to keep being curious and keep learning new things every day, whether they are big or small. Silke’s curiosity is one of her biggest strengths, and has carried her between different careers, languages, cultures, and places. No matter where she is, she surely has inspired many others to keep learning a bit more every day too.  

Article by Elise Webster, MBBI Writer