Communicating is something we’ve all been doing since before we can remember, and it occupies much of our time each day. Despite the vast experience we all have as communicators, miscommunication is a common occurrence.
This begs the question: Why is it so difficult to communicate effectively, to convey a message and have it be received in the way it was intended, or to receive another’s message clearly? In my experience, it is often because of the filters or lenses unique to each of us that influence how we send and receive messages. These filters introduce complexity and intricacy into communication.
Our experiences determine the way in which we perceive the world; they create and shape our filters. To this end, our experiences influence the way we interpret other people and the way we communicate with others. While each person’s experiences are unique, generations of people have many shared experiences based on world events that occurred during their formative years. For this reason, it can be beneficial to understand the generalized perspectives of generations, because they shed light on how individuals might communicate and view the world.
There are four main generations in the workplace today: the Silent Generation, or “matures”; the Baby Boomers; the Gen Xers; and the Millennials.
The descriptions below are merely a guide and are unlikely to fit everyone in a particular generation.
Silent Generation— Born Prior to 1946
Individuals of this generation have experienced the most amount of conflict—i.e., World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. They were also raised by parents who experienced both World Wars and the Great Depression.
Members of this generation grew up in a largely pre-feminist era in which women tended not to work outside the home. From a career standpoint, loyalty to companies and jobs was strong, and often, the same job was held for life. The “Silents” are often described as “disciplined, self-sacrificing and cautious.”1
Baby Boomers— Born 1946-1964
This generation has been referred to as the “me” generation, and its members have been described as “self-righteous and self-centered.”1 They began the wave of changing common values, including women working outside of the home and the social acceptance of divorce.
Television was common. Individuals from this generation are hopeful, motivated and team oriented; they also welcome and respect hierarchal structure and tradition.
Generation Xers— Born 1965-1979
The children of this generation were often home alone while both parents were at work; it has been said that television raised this generation.
Further, the way in which knowledge was accessed shifted from paper to digital during their formative years. As adults, they tend to be individualistic and prefer to rely on themselves; however, they often retain a strong sense of family and want to be “present” parents, unlike their own.
Members of this generation prefer to commit to themselves, as opposed to members of earlier generations, who committed to an organization. The value shift that began with the Baby Boomers continued with this generation’s concern for individual rights, particularly those of minority groups.
Millennials were raised by hopeful, present and active parents. They were taught to believe that they are unique and valuable. Individuals respect authority, prefer to schedule activities and like to work in teams.1 They experience significant levels of academic pressure and have high expectations of themselves.
With respect to careers and work, they prefer a relaxed work environment with support and feedback. Due to the accessibility of information, they tend to hold strong views.
How to Use Generational Knowledge
Knowledge of the generational characteristics of the person with whom you are talking provides a jumping-off point for trying to better understand where another person is coming from. This supports effective communication, because it can provide insight and clarity into the other individual’s position, which in turn can support better understanding of the message that person is trying to convey.
Knowledge of a generation’s stereotypes does not preclude the need to learn about its members as individuals. Interactions should be approached with a sense of curiosity and an open mind, and questions asked with the intention being to listen and understand, not to formulate a response. This will facilitate effective listening and foster relationship building.
A veterinary practice’s culture is one area in which generational differences can become apparent. Each generation values different characteristics in a work environment. A Silent is more likely to value stability and hard work, while a Gen Xer is likely to value flexibility and the ability to work independently. A Millennial is likely to prioritize his or her family needs and want a schedule that permits time for enjoyment.
Imagine a situation where there is a Silent practice owner who is trying to create a new schedule for three different generations. Trying to meet the needs of each might seem indulgent given the importance that Silents place on a strong work ethic. Imposing a schedule with little consultation or flexibility is likely to result in frustrated and unhappy veterinarians.
Another source of intergenerational strain surrounds the language each uses to communicate. Slang or jargon can be generation specific, and it can be confusing or isolating to those who are unfamiliar with the meaning of those words. A further source of friction might be the informality with which the Gen Xers and the Millennials often interact. Silents and Boomers are accustomed to a certain formality in a workplace that is no longer commonplace. This lack of formality can be seen as a lack of commitment, a lack of sincerity or even a lack of respect.
However, younger generations might prefer the decreased formality because it can allow for stronger workplace relationships and greater honesty.
Another aspect of intergenerational relationships and communication that should be considered is that, for the most part, those in different generations are in different life stages. It can be difficult to understand the stresses and strains of those who are not in the same life stage as we are, even if we have passed through the stage that the other person is presently experiencing
Here are some steps to consider regarding intergenerational communication:
Recognize and acknowledge differences.
When interacting with another person, it can be easy to spot ways in which he or she differs from you, whether they be differences of opinion, personal values or life outlook. What can be more difficult is simply observing these differences instead of assigning a judgment or value statement to them.
Instead of judging the other person, or that person’s values, as better or worse than you or your values, it’s helpful to take note of the differences and seek to determine whether there is a problem instead of assuming there is one.
Determine whether there is a problem, and if there is, identify it.
Too often, judgments are made quickly and, before much thought has been given to the situation, decisions or actions follow. Sometimes the only thing that separates a difference from a problem is perspective or communication!
It’s important to ask questions to ascertain the other person’s perspective, and to determine if in fact the difference is a problem. It can be challenging to garner the courage to start a conversation to determine the reality of the situation. However, if it is left unaddressed, resentment and frustration can build on both sides.
Become goal- and solution-oriented.
If you determine that there is a problem, not just a difference, identifying a mutual goal or the qualities that the solution would possess are big steps toward resolving the issue.
Assess the facts and together discuss what an appropriate goal or solution would look like. This places the focus of both parties where it should be—on moving forward. This tactic can help decrease the divisiveness and defensiveness that frequently stem from focusing on differences.
Only once it is clear what needs to be done can a discussion of what it would take to get there occur. If challenges about how to achieve the goal occur during the conversation, return to the mutually agreed-upon goal and assess each option on the basis of its ability to contribute to the goal.
When considering each generation’s characteristics, one important difference to remember is the values that each holds. It can be easy to assign greater importance to those values that one holds dear and to negatively judge those whose values are different.
While this behavior might be common, it can contribute to conflict and complicate communication. Having clear interpersonal boundaries can help decrease conflict and is supportive of respectful relationships.
Boundaries are limits set to define ourselves—and what we think and feel— from how others view us. Boundaries can be protective, because they allow us to be less vulnerable to others’ impressions. Instead, we can be more confident and assured of what we believe to be true about ourselves and our actions.
A person’s intentions, thoughts, beliefs and values belong to that person alone. In situations of intergenerational clashes, asserting healthy and clear boundaries can help decrease defensiveness and conflict.
1. Novak, J. The six generations living in America. http://www.marketingteacher. com/the-six-living-generations-in- america/.
Accessed November 15, 2016.