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  • Writer's pictureEmma Stenström

What We Talk About When We Talk About War

Emma Stenström, Stockholm

We should talk more about the war in workplaces, universities, and schools. Here are some of my experiences of how and how not to do it.

We should talk about it not only informally, during the coffee break, but also in the department or the team. We do not leave our worries at home when we are at work, and it can be nice to be able to share them. Or not. It must, of course, be voluntary.

Pretending and letting the war be the elephant in the room is not a good strategy. It does not create psychological safety.

Student workshop at SSE, Stockholm

In organizations with operations in Russia, many employees are also faced with difficult decisions. Understanding the importance of sanctions is one thing, breaking contact with colleagues is another.

I, myself, wondered if I should bring up the war in my international course in global leadership. Not doing it, felt absurd. But at the same time, it was difficult. How would the directly affected, like my Russian student, be treated? And how would those who might have heard another narrative, like my Chinese and Indian students, react?

Deal with the touchy subject

When I asked colleagues for advice, I got different answers. Some thought it best not to touch the subject. If a student asked, they referred to the school’s website and official position.

Another colleague suggested that the best thing was to announce two minutes of silence for Ukraine and skip all talk.

Others thought like me, that we need to set aside time for a dialogue around the war, even if it is difficult. Listening to each other and getting real insights into how different countries' media describe the war and how it is interpreted, is important for understanding each other globally.

However, it did not turn out to be an easy conversation. I wish I had been prepared for the war to be relativized, "think of other wars". And that I had more clearly pointed out that we would refrain from judging each other's actions. In difficult conversations, it is instead good to have a common goal. I wish I had turned my conversations in class into a workshop on how to best help Ukraine. I bet there would have been a lot of good ideas and insights to share, especially in this international setting. It could even have sparked a glimpse of hope. Mobilizing the collective power and knowledge that exists is what we need the most right now.

(This is a version of a column published in Dagens Industri)

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What we read

Otto Scharmer, founder of the Presencing Institute, writes a powerful text about the mechanisms of Creation and Destruction. The social grammar of destruction, clearly shown in the invasion of Ukraine, is shaping collective behavior on many societal levels.

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