The Challenges of Cross-Generational Communication

The Challenges of Cross-Generational Communication

Seven suggestions to bridge the divide

At its root, communication presents as a simple process of using words, sounds or behaviors to exchange information.  This process, however, can get clouded when those words and behaviors mean different things to different people.

Within one generation, in which beliefs and ideals have been shaped by similar influences, communication generally shares a language.  Add a new generation to the mix, and the tenor begins to change as words, tone and delivery take on new meanings. Add another generation with its own vocabulary and tools of communication, and you start to see the communication challenges and complexities multi-generational families face.  The simple exchange of information may become fraught with misunderstandings, causing communication breakdowns and widening generational gaps.

In families of wealth, this can be financially devastating.

Research tells us communication is the most essential ingredient for sustaining wealth across generations.  But, cross-generational communication can be particularly challenging, as each generation brings its own habits, beliefs and ideals all formed by very different experiences, traditions and societal norms.

Bridging the Divide

So how do we bridge the divide?

An easy answer is for the older generations to understand the ways of the younger generations and respect the new world they live in.  Conversely, the younger generations need to understand and respect the amount of experience the older generations bring to bear.

If only it were so straightforward.

GenSpring Family Offices recently hosted a women’s retreat for clients ranging in age from 21 to 91.  In one of the general sessions, attendees split into groups according to their generation: Traditionalists; Baby Boomers; Gen Xers; and Millennials.

Each group identified numerous cross-generational communication challenges.  The list ranged from a lack of respect for different world views to the use and non-use of technology, the barriers created by geographical distance, the casting of judgments and aspersions and a lack of transparency with regard to subjects considered taboo.

The participants then worked to solve the challenges and came up with recommendations that you can pass along to your client families to help them better communicate with one another.  

Seven Recommendations

1. Recognize the “contents” of each group. Each generation presents as a group.  These groups, however, consist of individuals each with his own personality characteristics, experiences, beliefs and goals.   And yet, we’re all guilty of lumping people together, of using phrases such as “you all do this,” or “people your age don’t understand.”  Labeling everyone as the same negates the individual’s sense of importance.  Millennials and Gen Xers aren’t all alike, just as traditionalists don’t all vote the same ticket.

2. Turn and face the change. It’s often said that “change” is the only constant.  Change, however, requires understanding and flexibility on all sides, not just the generation sticking in its heels. Recognize that change is a two-way street.  Listen and respect each generation’s unique perspectives, concerns and fears.  Try to uncover what’s driving the concerns and fears.  While difficult, change can also be very empowering. 

3. The stories you can tell. Genuine interest in another’s life story unlocks conversation like no other key.  Sharing tales creates common ground and provides comfort.  Personal stories and sharing lessons learned from past mistakes connects the older generations with the younger generations.  When family members from different generations have genuine interest in each other, words of advice lose the daggers of judgment.  This helps shape a more positive outcome when an elder must assert himself on critical family matters.  Vice versa, the younger generation gains confidence knowing its views and opinions are being heard.

4. Skill sets go both ways. Today’s constant technological advances leave the older generation slowly shaking its head and the younger generation downloading the latest app at megahertz speed. 

No doubt many families struggle with these issues and those related to social media. The divide does, however, present the perfect opportunity for the younger generation to mentor its elders on using technologies and understanding social media.  Likewise, the older generations can mentor younger generations on the importance of face-to-face interaction and interpersonal skills critical to success.  Additionally, if older individuals accept and understand the benefits of social media, they’ll have more credibility when working to help the next generation understand the associated risks.

5. The right tool makes the chore easier. Technology presents its challenges, but, used correctly, can be a great tool to improve communication across generations and vast geographical distances.  Using email to communicate detailed information across generations and distances to ensure everyone receives the same message can ensure no one is left out.  That is, or course, if everyone in the family agrees email is the best medium.  In addition, sharing an electronic calendar eases scheduling challenges and conflicts.

6. Let’s meet. In-person meetings – albeit difficult to create in today’s spread-out world – benefit everyone.  It’s crucial to include all the generations and make the meeting agendas well-rounded.  Include activities that bring in the shared values of the family through storytelling and family traditions. Families who must gather for structured board meetings should consider separate get-togethers that are purely social.

7. Open the closet. Difficult conversations aren’t only hard to begin, but can be painful to endure.  That said, avoiding the “elephants in the room” or topics considered taboo, gets everyone nowhere fast.  Communication and transparency around issues such as addiction, sexual orientation, dishonesty—you name it—is critical to a family’s continued success as a productive group.  To boost the likelihood that these conversations are productive, create a safe forum and include a professional facilitator to help navigate any difficult conversations.  Open-ended questions allow for more information to flow and result in healthier, productive conversations.  Everyone needs to feel safe to question and know he’s being heard and honored.

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