Seek to Understand

Feb 06, 2023




“Happy Birthday to you!” With a couple big breaths, my 8-year-old nephew blew out the birthday candles. My sister-in-law recited our family’s traditional birthday blessing poem that had been passed down for generations and my brother cut the cake.

After eating, as we were sitting on the couch chatting away, my grandma asked for some ideas. She was going to attend a Valentine’s Day event with some ladies and she was asked to contribute an activity.

Immediately my mind went to creating a heart themed escape room experience where the ladies would have to rescue the heart of the tinman from the Wizard of Oz. My grandma looked at me as I explained the idea and just blinked.

Then I launched into the idea of playing JackBox games (party games that require the players to use their cell phone or tablet to participate).

My aunt light-heartedly teased, “No, no, no. You have to do something her generation would understand and enjoy! How about creating a crossword puzzle?”

My grandma’s face lit up. I jumped in, telling her about a website that would generate the crossword puzzle for her. I said, “You just have to type the words and the clues in.”

“Just!” My grandma declared with a sense of humor in her voice. “All you young people use that word all the time with technology. Just do this or just do that as if it were supposed to be easy!”

The whole conversation made us laugh.

As four generations of a family gathered to celebrate the youngest’s birthday, the dynamics of each generation was at play. We also see this in the workforce.

I am a part of the Millennial generation. Throughout the week, I work with Jason, the founder of Speak with People, who is from Gen X and our graphic designer, Zach, who is from Gen Z. There have been times when the generational gap has made for some interesting conversations.

At one point, Zach designed a graphic using a popular Gen Z font. I looked at it and had no idea what it said because it was so fancy. We teamed up and found a font that was simpler and appealing across generations. There have also been times when Zach would save the day because we had a social media post that needed to be fixed and neither Jason nor I had any idea how to do it.

As Baby Boomers retire and Generation Z enters the workforce, many companies have four or even five generations working side-by-side. It’s no surprise that the conversation about generational differences has become a hot topic.




Bobby Duffy, author of The Generation Myth, believes that changes in the attitudes, beliefs, and behavior of a group of people are influenced by three factors: historical events, “life-cycle effects” (how people change as they age), and what generation they belong to.

A generation used to be considered a span of 30 years. However, perhaps because of how quickly ideas and technology are progressing, generational groups are becoming shorter. As a result, we now have six living generations and five working generations.

The Library of Congress online research guide explains, “for the most part, date ranges for generations are based around common economic, social, or political factors that happened during formative years.” Let’s take a look at the six living generations.

The “Silent” or “Greatest Generation”, born in the 1900s and before 1945 (the end of World War II), is currently our oldest generation. Their source of news and information came from newspapers and radios. The rotary telephone became common in the American home during the 1930s, laying down the foundation for how future generations would communicate.

“The Baby Boomers were born between 1945-1964, in the era of prosperity and self-confidence that followed America’s victory in World War II,” writes Helen Andrews, Senior Editor of The American Conservative. This placement in history as well as growing up watching television shift from black and white to color, fundamentally changed their lifestyle and connection to the world.

Generation X (1965-1979) is much smaller compared to the Baby Boomers, yet are very influential. Computers became common in American homes during the 80s, giving baby boomer children access to new ways of communicating.

“The Millennials (1980-1994), who are the children of the Boomers, represent the largest demographic cohort at 82 million,” writes Hayim Herring in his book Connecting Generations. This generation, which was originally called Gen Y, grew up during internet and cell phone revolutions, expanding the boundaries of communication and information.

“In this progression, what is unique for Generation Z is that all of the above have been part of their lives from the start,” observes Pew Research Center. Children of Gen X, Gen Z (1995-2012) were born and raised on all of this innovative technology, making it, to them, ordinary. Gen Z is known for their general computer literacy and understanding of media and technology.

Our youngest generation is just emerging: Generation Alpha. They are growing up in a world where technology is their teacher. We will learn more about this generation as they get older.

Growing up, all generations have experienced communication and technology differently, so it’s only natural that their communication and interaction with technology are also different.




So how do we use this information?

Yes, understanding generations can be helpful and make us aware that there are a variety of lifestyles and points of view. At the same time, it can become polarizing. Connecting Generations points out, “Stereotypes reinforce social isolation across generations.”

Obviously, it’s ridiculous to think a Millennial born in 1980 is drastically different from an Xer born in 1979. At the same time, a Boomer might have more in common with a Zoomer who has similar experiences and interests than with a fellow Boomer who lives a very different life.

Individuals are complex. The environment they grew up in, their personality type, what kind of activities and information they are exposed to, world events, finances, stage of life, religious beliefs, family composition and heritage… These examples only scratch the surface of what factors affect how a person thinks and behaves.

At the core, no matter what generation someone belongs to, we are more similar than we may think. Tracy Brower, PhD writes for Forbes, “Perhaps one of the most important things in the data about generations is actually a lack of difference between the age groups. It’s become common to over-generalize about the generations, with the opportunity to disparage any age with biased-based claims.”

She continues to explain that research shows people across generations value the same things, just for different reasons or priority order. Everyone wants to be recognized and respected. They want growth opportunities and to have a sense of choice and control in their lives and careers. How these things look practically might change between generations, but the core values are the same.

Rather than understanding generations, I propose we seek to understand people.

Henry Ford once said, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

In his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

It’s human nature to seek to be understood first. We automatically listen with the intent to reply rather than to understand. Changing our way of thinking takes a paradigm shift. Inspired by Covey’s book, here are three strategies to seek understanding:

Identifying Me Focused Responding. Our automatic responses tend to revolve around ourselves. We evaluate what the other person said and ask questions based on our own frame of reference. Do we agree or disagree? We advise or interpret based on our own experiences. All of these responses are self-focused. Becoming aware of this, we can shift our thinking to the other person instead.

Asking Questions. Fully understand the needs, concerns, and situation before jumping to a conclusion. Just like a doctor needs to properly diagnose a problem before prescribing treatment or a teacher assesses a student before giving a grade, we too should fully understand the problem before proposing a solution.

Empathetic Listening. Listen with the intent to understand. This type of listening goes beyond selective hearing and even attentive listening. Listening with empathy means you put yourself in their shoes and understand how they feel. You are not only listening with your ears, but with your eyes and your heart.

There have been times when my colleagues and I have differing opinions that are related to our generation and other times when it has more to do with past experiences or personality traits. No matter what the reason for our different perspectives and ideas, we are constantly learning to seek understanding and use each other's ideas and strengths to grow personally and as a company.

“When we really, deeply understand each other, we open the door to creative solutions and third alternatives,” Covey writes. “Our differences are no longer stumbling blocks to communication and progress. Instead they become the stepping stones to synergy.”


By Caitlyn Neel - Content Director