Multigenerational Conversations – Watch your Language

August 3, 2009

Communicating across generations is always difficult.  When today’s Gen Y’s say things like “I’m down with that,” older generations may find themselves wondering whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.  Older generations will make references to things, like carbon paper, that younger generations have no frame of reference to understand.  It’s not meant to be rude, we just think and speak in the language of our peers.  Those differences can either be embraced as learning opportunities or can be jolts that never let good communication take root.

But what happens when there are differences of opinion and approach beyond just the use of language?  For example, a Gen Y comes into a new job and sees the use of an older technology that causes a process (and potentially the employee) to be less efficient.  In the new employee’s mind, the frustrated thought is, “This is ancient!”  Even if the employee doesn’t actually say that, it can usually be read on the employee’s face. 

Managers are not without insensitive reactions of their own.  When the employee questions a system or process, a response is likely to be that the employee is “naive,” “doesn’t know what he or she is talking about” and “should speak up only when he or she understands the situation better.”

Neither of these attitudes or approaches will lead to an open discussion, an exchange of ideas, and potential process improvements.

Another area that seems to bring quick disagreement is around the use of Internet and social networking tools in the workplace.  When organizations block the use of these tools, it’s generally a way to increase focus, productivity and security.  However, most Gen Y’s view blocked access to Internet and Social Network tools as significantly reducing their ability to work effectively.   Much has been written about this conflict including a recent article by Martha Irvine entitled, “Young Workers Push Employers for Wider Web Access and my “Social Networking Tools – To Enable or Disable Access?”

You can only imagine how contentious and heated a conversation between a manager and Gen Y can get around this topic.  Whether stated or unstated, it will eventually degrade into “This is ancient!” and “How naive.”

Let me offer a different approach – 4 magic words.

When someone makes a statement or responds to a question and you strongly disagree with the premise or conclusion, respond with a simple:


as in, “That’s interesting.  I see if differently.”  Then proceed to make your case with an unemotional, well-constructed counter-argument.  Saying “I see it differently” is not saying, “you’re wrong” and it’s not saying “you’re an idiot.”  It’s saying “give me an opportunity to explain my point of view which differs from yours.  Then we can discuss it.”  It lets the listener listen and not immediately get defensive.  It gives both parties an opportunity to see the other’s side and potentially reverse some or all of their position without losing face.  Done in the right tone, it allows the listener to say, “I never thought of that.” 

Think of the how much better your dissension will be received if it begins with those 4 simple words.


5 Responses to “Multigenerational Conversations – Watch your Language”

  1. Michael on August 4th, 2009 11:50 pm

    Laura, this is so true of an experience I had at work. There was an opportunity to make something more efficient, and if managers/excutives are able to listen and have an open conversation it can make the company better off in the long run.

  2. admin on August 5th, 2009 4:11 pm

    (comment from Kari Quaas – posted on ERE Community) Well said, Laura. I love the response of “I see it differently.” It is so simple, but so rarely said, and not just in conversations between different generations. Nice article.

  3. Alisa Blum on August 5th, 2009 8:13 pm

    When I work with organizations to help them improve communication across generations, I emphasize the strengths each generation brings to the work environment. I have found that when a strengths-based focus is used, people more readily listen to differing opinions.

  4. Hilary Lochhead on August 11th, 2009 10:13 pm

    I definitely prefer the “I see it differently” to “You are an idiot”. This is, afterall, how we as individuals and generations view the world, the framing and angles that we have.

    Nice article, thank-you.

  5. Peter Chee on December 4th, 2009 8:34 am

    I really enjoyed hearing you speak the other day in front of the EO Accelerator group. Your a very fun and dynamic speaker. I’m definitely going keep reading your blog. Thanks.

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