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Many people remain silent

Woman with her mouth closed.
We calculate risk versus profit before we open our mouths. Photo: Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash
Published Feb 26, 2021

In Sweden, we are often bad at saying what we think. Afraid of conflicts, we prefer to nag on our own without saying outright what we see. But if we practice giving and receiving feedback, we may get more inclusive and equal workplaces. Ulrika Georgsson discusses this in her column.

Why are you interrupting me all the time? Do you have to raise your voice and point your whole hand at me? Can you stop talking so patronizing about immigrants?

Thoughts I had but did not say outright. Luckily, because they are full of mistakes and would probably have had zero effect if I had expressed them. I once learned that you should start and end with positive feedback for criticism to be well received. And I have in mind that you should formulate like “I feel ... when you ...” But I am bad at giving and receiving feedback, and I am not alone.

That humans are afraid of conflicts is an innate feeling which, according to the psychologist and sociologist Fredric Bohm, is more substantial in societies where one is expected to follow the pattern. And that is something that characterizes Swedish work culture. In short, Swedes are a little extra bad at saying what we think. We prefer to be silent and then go and whine about how crappy everything is.

Ulrika portrait
Ulrika Georgsson, Communications Officer at ITM and member of one of the JML groups.

I think we can benefit from being a little straighter towards each other. Besides the most obvious benefits, such as effective organizations and healthy employees (which leadership coaches love to talk about on their websites), I think it can go beyond that. Maybe we can even get more inclusive and equal workplaces if we are good at feedback. If we are used to saying what we think and bringing up uncomfortable things, I believe it will be easier to act when truly needed. Maybe you were ignored at a meeting or received a comment about your appearance that was not ok. But you said nothing. No one said anything, even though people saw what was happening. Of those who get sexually harassed in the workplace, a large proportion never report. They do not tell anyone.

Of course, there can be many explanations for why we do not talk about the unpleasant. Uncertainty about where to draw the line and power distributed unevenly between the people involved can make us reluctant to tell. And indeed, we calculate risk versus profit before we open our mouths.

“ If I reckon that I have nothing to gain from expressing criticism but instead can be punished,” says Fredric Bohm, “most of us choose to remain silent. And we tend to become more conformist the clearer punishment we can visualize”.

I think of the hierarchical research world where students are dependent on teachers’ grades, doctoral students are dependent on supervising from professors, and researchers depend on being cited by each other. Anyone treated abusively in this world probably thinks twice before reporting because honesty can punish the victim.

So no, there is no quick fix on this. But I believe that we can take small steps forward by practicing saying what we think and feel. If we train in the little things, for example, when we are interrupted by something over and over again, then we are prepared for the day when we really need to say no.

6 tips for giving feedback

  1. Always give constructive feedback in private and orally with the person concerned.
  2. Once you sit down to speak up: start talking about your long-term goals, “I want it to be good,” and then go straight to the point.
  3. Make sure to highlight the positive in most cases. Then you are much better off when you have to address something negative. No one can call you a whiner if you phrase like this:

    “Thank you for inviting me to the meeting yesterday. It was an excellent initiative! I only have one comment. I felt excluded when everyone except me had the floor to present themselves and their views. If we have a clear order of speech next time, I think it can be better. I am already looking forward to the next meeting so that we can continue working together! ”
  4. Be aware that it will be difficult. You have to accept that the person you are criticizing is not happy.
  5. Act in time before the problem grows too big. The faster the pain-free it becomes.
  6. Use the 30-second strategy. “Tear off the patch” and move on. People should know within half a minute what you think and want to get out of a conversation. It is uncomfortable to confront others, so this technique does not allow you to postpone it. Once people get information about what you think, they can start processing it and discussing the issues.

Text: Ulrika Georgsson 

 Source: Fredric Bohm,