Cues for Connecting with People from Different Generations

John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and AbbVie. Connect with him on FacebookLinkedIn, or Twitter.

Recently a college professor friend of mine told me that one of his younger students would not confront him directly about the struggles that he was having with his class. However, the student did send my friend a private Twitter message that he was needing his help. He replied to the student’s tweet with a tweet of his own inviting the student to come to see him the next day at a specific time during his office hours. Only then did the student feel comfortable enough to come and see him for a face-to-face conversation.  My friend did say that this was not out of the ordinary. It seems like every student has a different way they prefer to communicate be it via text, email, Facebook, or face-to-face.

This challenge is not uncommon to many of us that work with or live with people from a variety of different generations. What is important to consider is that we cannot stereotype each other or broadly generalize that just because a person is from a particular generation means that they only communicate in a certain way.

Additionally, people within a generation may have a particular interaction style which influences how they communicate with others. It is also important to realize that the events of a particular generation may have had a significant impact on how people from that generation interact with others as well. Coming to understand the influences that shaped a generation provides another key to establishing rapport.

Let’s review the last four generations, the influences of the time, the kinds of words or phrases that represent what is important to them, and some ways that you might connect with them as people.

Traditionalist Generation (1920-1945)

Influences: This generation was influenced by events such as the Great Depression and World War II. Traditionalists take responsibility for getting things done. They are cautious, frugal, and hard-working. They believe in sacrifice, loyalty, and patience. They are usually conservative and believe in traditional family values.

Key Words for Traditionalists

These are character traits this generation values, so communicating in such a way that shows that you also value these characteristics will help you more readily connect with them:  

  • Commitment
  • Trustworthy
  • Responsibility
  • Value
  • Reliability
  • Loyalty

Forming Connections

When interacting with traditionalists, encourage them to make their own decisions after spending the time to study and choose a correct course of action. Give them the opportunity to share their knowledge gained from past experience and how it might apply to a current challenge you are experiencing.  Listen to what traditionalists have to offer. They want to feel valued, so this is one key way to acknowledge their contributions. They would welcome any feedback you might give them to help them make improvements to the work that they do.

What is important to consider is that we cannot stereotype each other or broadly generalize that just because a person is from a particular generation means that they only communicate in a certain way.
JOHN STOKER

Baby Boomer Generation (1946-1964)

Influences: This generation was influenced by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. The Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the notion of free love, the exploration of the moon, and the advent of rock ‘n roll music also influenced this generation. This was the first generation where many of the young people went to college to achieve their dreams and ambitions. They learned that if they banded together and spoke up that they could affect positive change. Consequently, they tend to be idealistic, cause-driven, hard-working, free-spirited, and committed to what works.  

Key Words for Baby Boomers

  • Make a difference
  • Collaboration
  • Benefits
  • Save time
  • Win-win
  • “Imagine if…”

Forming Connections

Boomers tend to be apprehensive about and somewhat skeptical of using digital platforms. When offering solutions to challenges, avoid promoting a technology-based solution to every problem. Boomers would prefer to have a face-to-face meeting rather than emailing or texting a person.  You can provide constructive feedback to Boomers, but also look for opportunities to provide recognition for their contributions and the value that they bring. Look to implement their good ideas, and understand that if you listen to them, they will listen to you.

Boomers tend to pay attention to the details or the data or evidence that you provide. Be prepared with the kind of information that will help you make your point. Because Boomers love to be heard and looked up to, displaying a willingness to learn from them will go a long way toward gaining their respect and establishing rapport with them. Using Boomers as mentors is also a great way to help them communicate and interact with others. Baby Boomers will resist change if they don’t believe that the change will make a substantial improvement.  

Generation X (1965-1980)

Influences: During this generation, the X’ers experienced Watergate, the Gulf War, the Challenger disaster, and increasing instability in the workforce. They often grew up as latchkey kids because both of their parents had to work to make ends meet. They also may have experienced a break-up of their family life because of the marked increase in divorce rates. Consequently, they grew up to distrust the establishment, the corporate world, or the family. They learned to become self-sufficient, realistic, and solution-focused. Sometimes this generation is viewed as too independent or self-focused. They tend to like to work alone, make quick decisions, and get things done. They have the strongest work ethic of all the generations.

Key Words for Gen X’ers

  • Opportunity to learn
  • You will benefit from …
  • Flexibility and freedom
  • Family time
  • Work smarter
  • Improvements

Forming Connections

Gen X’ers tend to like to take on projects that they can work on alone or with 1-2 other people. Don’t expect them to come to a number of meetings or make numerous consensus decisions. This will drive them crazy. They like to be told what to do with specific guidelines, expectations, and outcomes clearly defined.

This generation likes to express their expertise and knowledge; consequently, they love to attend training, take on projects that will require them to learn, and gain as much knowledge about a challenge as they can. They like to use technology to make things easier, save time, and manage their work-life balance. This generation requires adaptability and they are great at collaboration, prioritizing, and solving problems.

Millennial Generation (1981-2000)

The Millennial generation grew up in a technology-based world and are consequently very tech-savvy. They are used to being able access information on-demand and to find what they need right away. Consequently, they tend to want instant gratification or instant access. They were influenced by the Oklahoma City bombing, the AIDS outbreak, Y2K, and the rise of the internet and all that goes with it. They were told that they were special and valued in everything that they did. This group values connecting with others and being part of the global community.

With the advent of the dot com bubble bursting and the accessibility of information and products on the internet, many of them are highly entrepreneurial. They believe in work-life balance, but they are open to working 24/7 as long as such work is adequately scheduled. This generation is talented, ambitious, and eager to succeed. They are also interested in the state of the environment and being part of the diverse world community.   

Key Words for Millennials

  • Promotion/career growth
  • Purpose/vision
  • Fairness/equity
  • Teamwork/community
  • Commitment
  • Inclusion

Millennials are not fans of long conversations. They prefer communication to be direct and concise and through electronic means if possible.  At times they can be so direct and frank that their communication might be interpreted as being disrespectful. Nevertheless, take them seriously, but not personally. Know that they like to provide input and be heard. If you listen to them, they will listen to you. They want to be included, so don’t discount them simply because you believe that they don’t have the knowledge or experience to make a contribution. Allow them to learn from participating in important information and problem-solving events.

There is real value in taking the time to learn about these younger employees—what motivates them and what they are passionate about. They look for positive reinforcement when they have done well, and they welcome constructive feedback to improve their performance. They will want you to be available to answer their questions, to provide direction, and to mentor them in their efforts. Lastly, they love to connect with people who are candid and authentic. They want to hear about your challenges, your learnings, and what you are doing to improve.

Working with these differing generations can present some challenges if we don’t understand a bit about their experiences, the strengths they possess, and their communication preferences. This information is not meant to be all-inclusive or divisive, but to help provide a way to establish common ground in our increasingly diverse workplaces. More importantly than trying to generalize or stereotype each different generation is recognizing that each individual is different. Sometimes I think the notion of classifying people into distinct generations may rob us of the opportunity to understand one another and to explore how we might work more effectively together. If we can look past these categorical differences, we can make the connections and establish the rapport that will translate into improved results.

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