Most of us are fans of the idea of ‘dialogue’. Dialogue is generally touted as the answer for resolving conflicts, building trust and crossing cultural divides of all kinds—be they national, organizational, ethnic, racial, gender-based or generational. I was having a conversation recently with a very bright young woman in the same business as me and we were swapping stories and ideas and experiences.

Although we are both professional communicators and teach others how to communicate more effectively, it became obvious after a while that we were talking ‘at’ each other. I began to experience the same kind of tension I sometimes feel when I am speaking with my son. Nothing was wrong per se, but I had the feeling that she wasn’t really listening to me. As we began to speak about what was going on, I found out the same was true for her. I felt like she either wasn’t interested in what I had to say or didn’t care about or respect the breadth and depth of my experience and knowledge. She also felt I wasn’t ‘getting her’ and wasn’t respecting her and her considerable knowledge on the subject at hand. We were two professionals from two generations who were more competitive than collaborative, and at the end of the day we were both frustrated at not being able to ‘connect’ the way we do every day with people of our own generation. There was no dialogue and we ended up with, at best, a discussion that will not in all likelihood make the slightest difference in either one of our lives.

I am not in the least bit closed to learning from younger people: in fact, I often acknowledge that my children are among my best teachers. Similarly, she was not closed to learning from me. What became clear as we worked through the frustration and the struggle to authentically communicate was that we did not, and generally do not, have the same agenda or objectives when communicating across the generational divide.

She was wanting to impress me with her accomplishments (I was already impressed) and express her knowledge as fully as possible in the expectation that I would both validate what she was saying and perhaps give her a bit of strategic or tactical advice on the business aspects of her work. I, on the other hand, instead of being interested in her knowledge and expertise, wanted very much to give her the benefit of whatever I had learned in my life that she could use to be even more successful. We were both listening through a filter of  “I know that already” while at the same time thinking that what we were saying was what had value and was what we had to contribute to the conversation.

Some variation of this is probably what’s going on when people aren’t connected and communicating—at any age. However, the fact that there is a 35-year difference in our ages changed how we interpreted and experienced this breakdown in communication. That is, we were communicating against a background culture in which I was trying to be heard and valued by the younger generation of professionals in my field and not feeling respected or appreciated for all that I have accomplished, while she was feeling I was talking down to her and not recognizing that she was a fully empowered and competent player equal to me in every way.

The realization that appeared is that while we can be open, learn and appreciate each other, we also can and do have different agendas or objectives in conversation. Our objectives will determine how we listen. And how we listen will impact the experience of whoever we are speaking to. I am sure there are exceptions, but most of the time when attempting to communicate with people from younger generations, I am trying to empower, add value, coach or (in one way or another) give away what I have learned in my life. Based on my conversation with this young woman and her experience of people her own age, younger people want approval, respect and recognition and aren’t necessarily looking for help. Without aligning and sharing our objectives, dialogue will never happen and we will always be communicating at cross-purposes.

What is the lesson here?

I think it is to have a conversation about the conversation to clarify our intentions and commitments to each other before we even attempt to have a serious conversation between generations.