No offence but… 3 rules of thumb for constructive communication

It never ceases to amaze me how two people who speak the same language can have such trouble understanding each other. I often seem to witness this and find myself translating from one language to the same language. The problem is that people don’t always come across as they intend and the other person doesn’t always hear what’s really being said. It’s a recipe for misunderstanding.

Sometimes we need to raise difficult issues with others, but how do we do this without offending the other person? How can we enable a constructive dialogue? Here are three things that are good to remember:

  1. You’ve probably already learned about sandwiching constructive criticism. This is something that is taught in schools, workplaces, leadership training programs and a number of other places. What you do is sandwich your criticism between positive feedback. By doing so you start by making the other person feel good about him or herself, you then talk about what could be improved, and finally you end with something good, reminding the person that they are appreciated and good at whatever it is they are doing. It’s effective and it’s also just a nice way of going about it.

This is pretty basic, however there are also a couple of other things that are good to remember but that people don’t usually think of:

  1. Pointing fingers really doesn’t help. If somebody’s behavior is irritating or just not desired, you won’t get them to change their behavior by starting your sentence with things like “You always…” or “Why do you always have to…” This feels like an attack and it will most likely end the conversation before it even started. A better strategy is to turn it around and start with yourself. Explain how the behavior makes you feel. For example, try starting your sentence with “I feel uncomfortable when you…”or “”It hurts my feelings when…” or “I get confused if…” or, more for something more work related, “Our business partners don’t understand when…” Talking about your own experience instead of issuing blame is a much better strategy and might even lead to a discussion and a solution to the problem.


  1. And finally, one of of my pet peeves. I get frustrated when people say things like “No offense, but…” or “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” or like what I recently heard, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but…” It’s amazing how often I hear this and it is a completely disastrous way to start a sentence. When you start with “No offense, but” it makes absolutely no difference what you say after that because offence will already have been taken. When hearing that, what a person really hears is “WARNING! WARNING! What I am about to say is actually going to be very offensive and hurtful and probably also an attack, but I’m trying to be nice about it and I don’t want you to react negatively.” You see the problem here? And ironically, most of the time what follows really isn’t that offensive at all but it comes across as such just by the way it is presented. So if you, for example, don’t love the music that your friend is playing, don’t say “No offense, but this isn’t my favorite music”. Try instead to just say “You know, this isn’t my favorite type of music”. It sounds much less offensive. Because you’re not insulting your friend’s taste in music, your just having a conversation about what kind of music you do and don’t normally listen to. Or instead of saying, “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but could it have been a misunderstanding?” try just saying, “Could it have been a misunderstanding?” Trust me, much less offensive.

So this is something for you to think about and to try. Let’s all do each other a favor and offend each other less so we can start communicating more effectively.


Dads caring for children: is it natural?

A friend asked me the other day if I think it’s natural for dads to share care responsibilities. She was frustrated because her husband just didn’t seem to be attuned to their child’s needs and was concerned that he (the child) simply wasn’t getting cared for the way she felt he needed when he was with his dad.

The timing of her question was actually quite perfect because I am, coincidentally, just now working on a chapter on stay-at-home dads for my book on men opting out. I have mostly interviewed men who have opted out to opt in to other forms or approaches to work, but my data does also contain a few stay-at-home dads whose narratives are so interesting that I’m dedicating a whole chapter to them. It’s a very timely issue, what with initiatives to get men to share the care load and to take more parental leave when their children are young.

So the question is, is it natural for a man to be a caregiver, or even the main caregiver, of his children? One argument I sometimes hear (in addition to the one above that men just aren’t sensitive enough to children’s needs) as to why it isn’t is that in the animal kingdom it is often the female that cares for the young while the male goes off and does something else, whatever that may be, so shouldn’t it be the same with people. (Yes this is true, this is an argument I hear, although there are species where the male also cares for the offspring to different degrees. I’m no zoologist, but you can look this up.)

Let’s deal with this point first, and get one thing straight. We humans are our own species with our own social structures, rules and needs, so comparing us to other animals is not always helpful. In fact, according to Finnish child psychiatrist Jukka Mäkelä, one of the things that sets us apart form other species is that human infancy lasts much longer than it does for other species. This means that it takes much more physical, emotional and mental effort as well as time to care for human infants until they are big enough to feed themselves, actually walk, look out for themselves etc. than it does for other species’ offspring.

What this means in practice is that this is a lot to do for one person (i.e. the mother) and the work and responsibility should, in fact, be shared. Unfortunately our individualistic society with ideals like the nuclear family and mothers struggling alone to raise their children does not support this. However, our individualist ideals are not a natural human condition, they are social structures so deeply embedded in our consciousness that most of us have trouble seeing alternative ways of life. But parenting has historically not always been organized or idealized the way it is today; caring has, for example, not always been done primarily by the mother.

So just because other animals organize their family life and care responsibilities in a certain way, it doesn’t mean humans should too.

Well then what about that first point, the one about men not being attentive enough and therefore being incompetent to properly care for children and their needs? Being attuned to a child’s needs is an acquired skill. Those of you women out there who have children probably remember that when your first baby was born the learning curve was quite steep. However, after spending a lot time with your child around clock you learned to both understand and anticipate your child’s needs, it became second nature. But still, it was a skill you acquired after becoming a mother.

Now, since women do the brunt of childcare and are the ones who take most or all of the available parental leave, this usually means that the father ends up not spending as much time with the child and therefore not acquiring the same skills. Hence we have the situation where moms feel that dads really aren’t very attentive, which they often aren’t because they haven’t had the chance to learn. Also, it needs to be noted that, growing up, girls are socially conditioned and taught to be attentive towards others’ needs and feelings, which is not something we as a society generally expect of boys.

However, research has shown – and I have seen this in my data too – that when a father gets a chance to spend a lot of time with his child, especially alone without the mother around (like being on parental leave), he learns to become attentive to the child’s needs and just like the mother learns to anticipate things before they even happen. This comes automatically from spending time with the child, but it doesn’t happen over night. Time is needed, and just like mothers learn to mother over time, fathers need a chance to learn to be the nurturing fathers they are very capable of being.

The upside to this newly acquired skill to be attentive and attuned to needs, is that fathers who gain this skill are not only more attentive towards their children (and develop very warm and close relationships with them), they also become more attentive towards other people, like their partners, which has a great positive effect on their relationships. In other words, this is really very good for the whole family.

And finally, I know of no father who has taken responsibility for the care of his children, either in my data set or elsewhere, who has regretted the close relationship and bond with his children that this caring has entailed. Children who have parents who share the load typically become very close to both (or all, depending on what kind of a family we’re talking about) parents.

So the answer to the question whether it is natural for fathers to take on responsibility for their children’s day-to-day care is yes! It is completely natural and it is desirable. Fathers should be around their children more and share the care load with their partners.

But, having said that, we mothers, who are concerned about the quality of care that our children get, also have to accept that everyone will not do things exactly the same way, nor should they. Everyone is bound to have their own ways of going about caring. The point is, however, that fathers need to be given a chance. And to the fathers out there I want to say, go for it, you won’t regret it!

Providing employees with control over where, when, and how they work can have a positive effect on both productivity and culture. Here is what you need to think about.

The one thing that all people who opt out and in seem to have in common is the issue of control. Control over their lives and their time is what they lack before opting out, and control is what they look for in their new lifestyles and solutions for work. Control over where, when, and how they work.

This can mean different things to different people. Some people like to work in an office, others don’t. Some people like to work for long stretches at a time and others can’t. Some people fare better when they can work in small bursts and intertwine different areas of life in a more seamless way. I think it’s safe to say that we are gradually becoming more aware of the fact that individuals’ needs vary, but many may not know that individualized solutions could potentially increase productivity. After all, if you are allowed to work in a way that works for you, it tends to increase the quality of your output. In fact, according to the co-founders of the job-search platform Werk, flexibility should be a business imperative and not just a lifestyle perk. But most organizations still seem to be at a loss as to how to go about this.

If only I had a penny for every time I’ve heard, ‘how do you know that a person is working if they aren’t in the office’ or ‘if everybody was allowed to do as they please we would have anarchy’.

Well first off, let me set one thing straight: a person isn’t necessarily working just because he or she is in the office, and no one said anything about having people randomly do anything they want anyway. We’re still talking about work that is managed and structured and measured to make sure we meet our targets. And it’s doable, it’s just a question of changing attitudes and management routines.

Although most companies still subscribe to the importance of face time (i.e. coming into the office and showing your face), there are companies out there doing new and exciting things. The other day I stumbled across an article about a Baltimore based company that realized it couldn’t rely on geography to find the right people for the company and they ended up recruiting from all over the country, in addition to having people employed in their local office. They found this to be a really good solution; what they call the hybrid model (having people work on and off site) was apparently good for both their productivity and their organizational culture.

One reason was that the remote workers displayed high self-motivation and responsibility, which apparently rubbed off on other employees making the whole company more productive as a whole. But they also changed some management routines to make working with a hybrid model possible. The main thing they worked on was communication, and getting the right communication technology and using it in the right way. Giving employees a chance to get to know each other face-to-face also makes remote communication easier.

But there are other things to consider as well. Another article emphasizes the importance of emotionally intelligent managers (although also here what we’re talking about is communication) and boils it down to four points:

  • Don’t create two classes of employees: One way of doing this is to have everyone participate in meetings on the same terms. If a few have to be online, have everyone be online from their desks, even the ones located in the office building.
  • Lead with trust, not control: If you don’t trust the people you recruit then you have a problem. Still, many managers have a hard time trusting, but as I said before, having people in the office creates a false sense of security because physical presence doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing their jobs or doing them well. If you have people working remotely you’re going to have to get over that hurdle, and you’re going to have to communicate with them better and more regularly. Get to know them and try empathizing with their situations; you’ll find the trust issue much easier to deal with.
  • Ask more questions and learn to listen: Again, this is about communication. If you have people working remotely you won’t automatically find things out about them and their lives by just seeing them around, you have to make an effort to get to know them. Ask questions about them and about what’s important to them. You’ll not only get to know them better, they will also feel more understood and valued, which may lead to greater motivation and commitment. This goes hand in hand with the previous point.
  • Talk about the difficult things: This is always true, but especially when you have people working remotely. You need to be able to embrace and raise uncomfortable issues and frictions; no beating around the bush here, you need to be upfront. Your employees will thank you for it because they will have a better idea of what is expected and working with you will just be easier.

And then, of course, you have to follow up on targets and results. But hand on heart, isn’t this what a good manager should be doing anyway? What we’re talking about really isn’t rocket science. It’s not that dramatic a change, we just need to get past this old-fashioned idea of having to be in a certain place at a certain time in order to do a job properly. We have the technology, now all we need is the will. After all, as they say, where there’s a will there’s a way.

Sarcasm will kill any hope of constructive dialogue, and it certainly won’t make the world a better place

I got a comment on my blog a while back that was just impossible to respond to. The reason is, it was dripping with sarcasm. The person commenting was obviously not impressed with my post and let me know this fact by congratulating me on doing, as I understand it, such a terrible, or rather offensive, job. Now the reason I say offensive is that it seemed like this person might have been offended by my post, which, in turn, triggered the sarcastic remarks.

Don’t get me wrong; I am the first to encourage different opinions and perspectives. I understand that not everyone will like or agree with what I write. My blog represents my own perspectives and opinions, based on research, however, and not just plucked out of thin air mind you, but still my personal perspectives and opinions. I know there are a zillion other perspectives and opinions out there, and that is the beauty of it. “Vive la difference!” as my sister likes to say. Anything else would be boring.

After all, it is only through dialogue and debate with people of different perspectives and opinions that we, together, can create more knowledge and make the world a better place.

But when someone is sarcastic, the debate dies right there. Because how can you respond to that? When you are sarcastic, you are not inviting the other party to a discussion. You are signaling ill will, which will only make the other person defensive and want to retaliate. And trust me on this: that is not a good recipe for dialogue, collaboration, and creating a common understanding.

That is the whole problem. That is why social media to date has not been a huge success when it comes to connecting people who represent different perspectives and points of view. That is why social media has in many ways, opposite to what perhaps was originally envisioned, made the potential for constructive debate and dialogue smaller in so many ways.

According to Stanford Professor Robert Sutton, technology has, in fact, created what he calls an “asshole problem”, because when people don’t make eye contact (which we don’t on social media), they are much more likely to be mean. And not only that, after someone has been a so-called “asshole” (which you have to admit is not unusual in online discussions), nasty behavior spreads much faster than nice behavior. I guess this knee-jerk instinct to retaliate is just very hard to resist. If you’re interested in this contemporary problem of ‘assholism’, you can read more in Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, or in his more recent book The Asshole Survival Guide.

So if the person who posted that sarcastic comment on my blog is reading this, I just want to say, yes I saw your comment but unfortunately I just couldn’t think of a single constructive thing to say in response that I think you would have been open to. While I appreciate that you didn’t like my post and I would love to have an open discussion about it so that I can understand your point of view, the way your comment was phrased unfortunately just killed any hope of a constructive conversation. And alas, no common understanding was reached.

Employee wellbeing is profitable

The other day I had the pleasure of attending a presentation held by Professor Guy Ahonen. Guy is an expert on workplace wellbeing and I had really been looking forward to his presentation since his research is so closely related to my research on opting out and in. One of the things I have found in my research is that opting out and in can have an immense positive effect on wellbeing. And what I want to do with this knowledge is help organizations create sustainable working models and cultures where individuals won’t feel the need to opt out to achieve this sense of wellbeing that so many seem to be missing today.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. The presentation was great; Guy’s research is pretty mind-blowing.

Through his research, Guy has managed to show that not only is employee wellbeing important in order for a company to do well, but it is so important that it should be considered strategic. The thing that makes this research so amazing is that not only does he show that wellbeing has a direct effect on performance and productivity, he does so in real numbers, in actual money. In other words, he has an ability to translate his research into a language that organizations really can understand, and to show them exactly how much money they would actually save if they work on increasing employee wellbeing. And let me tell you, we’re talking about a lot of money.

The research is based on data from companies in the Nordic countries, but they can be translated to other companies as well. What Guy and his team have done is collect data from companies on costs directly related to illness in the workplace. These include things like cost of injury, sick leave, and early retirement (and opting out I might add). It turns out that during the past couple of decades the cost of mental illness has skyrocketed, which may be due to mental illness thankfully becoming less of a taboo in society, but also, no doubt, due to things like constant restructuring and job insecurity. In fact, the Kelly Global Workforce Index shows that over 50% of all workers in the world are unhappy mostly due to these very reasons.

Well, the cost of illness in society is huge. In Finland it was about half of the state budget in 2012, which is mind-boggling. All costs aren’t work related, naturally, but the effect this has on individuals’ ability to work productively is substantial.

So what Guy and his team did was study companies that strategically and specifically targeted employee illness in order not to just minimize costs but also to get to the bottom of what the problem actually was and fix it. The savings these companies made was six times the savings made by companies that didn’t treat wellbeing as a strategic issue. You’ll have to read his book and report for exact numbers, but the implications are tremendous. Companies can save huge amounts by focusing on their employees’ wellbeing.

This is all fine and dandy and all companies in their right minds should obviously jump at this opportunity right away. But there is one thing that bothers me, one nagging thing at the back of my mind.

The thing that bothers me is the very argument that companies should care about their employees’ wellbeing because it is profitable. We argue this way because companies’ raison d´être is to constantly increase productivity and profit, and by speaking to this we (hopefully) get them on board. This is also true for gender equality or diversity initiatives. By showing companies that it is good for productivity and profit (which it is) we hope they will work at becoming more gender equal and inclusive.

But what happens if it stops being profitable? What happens if companies realize that it isn’t as profitable as promised, or that they are doing well enough as it is and the cost of turning their corporate culture around just isn’t worth it?

That is not okay. Caring about wellbeing, and making sure that employees don’t suffer, is a moral and ethical issue that cannot be reduced only to questions of productivity and profit. Making sure that half the population (women that is) have the same rights and possibilities to advance in their careers, not to mention people of different cultures, races, and sexual orientations, is not something we can do only if we feel like it or if it is worth our while. It is absolutely essential and anything else is immoral, unethical, and just wrong. Regardless of whether or not it is profitable.

How can we get organizations to understand that?

Opting out or a strategic career move?

‘Opting out’ as a term is actually quite misleading. It started out as a debate about women who leave their successful careers, but has since come to represent so much more. I joined the debate in 2009 because I felt it was missing important contemporary aspects and since then, research has shown that it is not only about women and most of the time it isn’t about leaving working life altogether either. Still this is the term we use to debate this phenomenon, and every now and then someone points out to me what an inadequate term it really is. And they are right because it kind of sounds like dropping out instead of making a lifestyle or career change, which is what people who opt out of their successful careers usually do. People with careers rarely leave them to do nothing. Most of the people who opt out rather choose to leave a certain expected career path or way of working in order to organize their lives on different and more sustainable terms.

So yes, I do agree that as a term opting out is a bit inadequate, which is why I rather talk about ‘opting in’. I mean we know a lot about why it is people leave, but not so much about what they choose to do instead, which is very valuable information – both for people who are looking for a change, but also for employees who want to know what it is people look for in their professional lives.

By now I’ve been researching opting out and in and alterative solutions for work for years. Although I am an expert on opting out and in, I’m not an opting out coach and I always feel a bit at a loss when people approach me and ask how exactly they should go about opting out and in. And a lot of people do.

The thing is, opting out and in can be hard since imagining an alternative is difficult. It can feel like stepping out into the unknown, which it often is. Therefore the narratives I collect of people who opt out and in often contain stories of crises that have pushed them to make a change and to overcome the uncertainty of the unknown. And you can’t very well tell people to have a crisis and everything will sort itself out, because sometimes it doesn’t. Obviously there must be a better way; I just haven’t really had any tools to offer.

But then I started reading a book written by a person I have gotten to know through my blog. Monika Janfelt used to be an academic but opted out of academia to become a career coach and an expert on talent and career development. We have sort of made similar journeys but in opposite directions, and whenever we meet we always have a lot to talk about. And when we do I’m always struck by how much we have in common. We deal with similar issues in our work, just out of different perspectives.

Her book Karriere – kunsten at flytte sig (loosely translated: Career – the art of moving) was a revelation for me. I like her writing style. She bases her writing on research, she has a very pragmatic and systematic approach, and she is obviously very knowledgeable. But the revelation I had was that although ‘opting out’ as a term may be somewhat catchy and attractive to someone who is just sick of his or her current job situation and desperately wants to move on, what we’re really talking about is a career transition.

According to Monika, career transitions (of which opting out can be seen as one type) are something that we are going to have to get better at going into the future, since they are going to become an increasingly important part of our professional lives. But instead of creating a greater sense of insecurity, she argues that by building our career transition competencies (knowing ourselves and being able to drive our career changes) we can actually gain more control and influence over our lives (which is exactly what people who opt out and in are looking for).

And the good news is, unlike me, Monika has the tools to facilitate this change. Instead of jumping out into the unknown, if you want to know how to go about opting out and in, you should be in touch with her. Click here for more information.

Her book is in Danish, but I sincerely hope she will publish an English translation soon, because this book is definitely worth a read. In the meantime you can contact her directly. In addition to Danish she also coaches in English and in Swedish. For those of you who want to make a change but are at a loss as to how, this might be a solution for you!

Open your mind, there are worlds out there just waiting to be discovered

One of the misconceptions of opting out is that it is forever. Like any career transition, the work solutions we opt in to are anchored in time and space. What feels like the right solution depends on where you are and the challenges you’re dealing with at that particular time.

Opting out and in comes with a lot of soul searching. When you go through a life change you invariably spend time thinking about what’s important to you and where you want to go in life, which is a good thing. More people should. However, this is also a continuous process, because just like your career or lifestyle solutions, it is also tied to time and space. So you have to go back and keep reminding yourself what your terms are and check that they are still valid. I think once you’ve started a habit of of self-reflection, you don’t stop. And if you’ve been through something that pushed you to make a lifestyle change, you want to make sure that you don’t end up in that same situation again.

This is true for me. I think a lot about what I want to do, where I want to go from here. What was the perfect solution for me a few years ago as I opted out and in might not be anymore, but that doesn’t worry me. I know that situations change and needs change and that is fine. As a matter of fact, change is probably the only constant we have, and in a way I find that comforting. I find comfort in the knowledge that things will inevitably evolve, not matter what the situation.

But as I reflect over my choices, and the lifestyle changes I made as I opted in to academia, there is one thing in particular that I am especially grateful for. Working on a PhD really opened my mind. And I’m not talking about the actual research now, although obviously that opened my mind too. I’m talking about the insight I got into the fact that there really are different ways of living and working, there is no one right way to make a living.

Let me explain. Before I opted out, all I knew was what I had experienced. I had always worked in an organizational setting, and I didn’t really know of any other way of making a living. I sometimes longed to but I couldn’t imagine it. That’s why opting out can be so scary, because it means taking a step into the unknown. But after I did, I started to realize just how many people there are out there who work completely differently with different routines and different ideals, and that it can be done, that I can do it too.

And I think it is thanks to this insight that I have actually realized yet another dream.

I have always loved to paint and one of my passions has been silk painting. I’ve been doing it on and off for years, and took it up more actively after I finished my PhD (all of a sudden I wasn’t finalizing a thesis every waking moment and had free time to fill). I always had this, what I thought was a frivolous and completely unrealistic, dream of being an artist but I never really thought it was something that could happen, because I just didn’t know how to. I couldn’t imagine the lifestyle. Well something magical happened a few months ago. I was asked if I was willing to sell some of my silk paintings, and I was absolutely thrilled and definitely willing. The thought of my paintings adorning someone’s wall instead of gathering dust in my study felt great. And that someone wanted to buy something I had created without the help of publishers and copyeditors etc., was simply amazing.

This inspired me to start painting more and to start an Instagram account for my silk painting (with the help of and a small push from my wonderful daughter). I’m not going to quit my day job or anything, but I guess I can sort of say that I’m an artist now too. At least I’m a ‘silk painter of Instagram’. And I honestly think I never would have done this had I not been open to different ideas of what constitutes work.

So my wish for you this holiday season is open your minds. Realize that there are worlds out there that stretch beyond your imagination, and if you just dare to venture out there they are waiting to be discovered. Just because you can’t imagine them yet, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Happy Holidays! I’ll be back in the New Year with new blog posts.

Oh, and if you’re curious, you’ll find my Instagram account under @ingrids_silk_painting.