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Empathy and the ME Bubble

Four Tips for Understanding and Responding to Communications Challenges in our Modern World

"THEY NEVER TOLD ME!" Most parents have heard this at some time during their parenting career. The incredulous looks, the shocked expression, and the defensive argument all combine to explain why an assignment was missed or a deadline was past.

Let me start out by declaring I'm not, in any way, indicating the behaviors I see in young people are bad or wrong...they are just different. Much like learning to communicate with an Asperger's child, communicating with a young person who sees the entire world from the perspective of "How does this effect ME?" requires relearning our approach, the desire for positive outcomes, and the strength of patience.

The parallels between some aspects of family life and managing people in the workplace are clear. Our kids want to be, above all, loved by us and secure in the sense that we are there for them. Many a parent has had the light bulb light up when they realized that their heartfelt suggestions to make a task or life "better" are simply received as badgering by their teenager; our "helping" doesn't come across as such. Empathy is required to understand our intention doesn't define the perception.

Changing technologies are having dramatic impact. I have written about technology and the effects on young people in our society. The short version:

  • I was the first in the TV generation. That black and white piece of furniture allowed me to watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan...and everything changed.

  • My adult son was the first to grow up in the computer generation. What was a new, easy way to create, file, and be entertained was for him, an expectation and everyday life...and everything changed.

  • My daughter is the first to grow up in the smartphone generation and the shifts are paradigm-altering. Her world exists in her hand; her friends are a text away (complete with utter miscommunication), knowledge (correct or not) is an instant search, meanwhile the computer and television are rendered almost useless... and everything changed.

There is nuance in human interpersonal communication that is never conveyed via text regardless of how sophisticated the emoji. Words aside, there are two levels via a text: normal conversation and YELLING! I believe this black & white, binary influenced communication is having an affect on human communication and understanding with all it's gradations.

The net result of this seems to be an outlook based on the perceived benefits to self and while the idea of self-benefit is in all human beings, it is becoming more the norm. Groups sit together and are all individually feeding their self-interest by being on their phone. Even during conversations, young people check their phones and hold concentric conversations.

If a conversational tidbit is missed, it is not because they were not listening, it's because you didn't "break through" their noise floor. Hence, "they never told me..."

Here are a few clues for communicating with young people in the workplace.

  1. Like your own family members, employees want to know that you respect them and are there for them. This requires that you show them.

  2. Start working to understand their workplace from their perspective. This is where empathy comes in because you truly need to allocate the time towards actively listening to their opinions and ideas. The first step is to simply practice listening. Their idea may be ill-informed and never see the light of day, but your attention to their perspective will grow trust and earn dividends. So, don't judge or dismiss something when you've already "made a decision", but rather let them express themselves while you pay attention and learn about their perspectives.

  3. Allow yourself to be human in front of them. Anything too "put together" or polished tends to warrant a lack of trust because they can feel as if they are being manipulated.

  4. Some young people can can act as if your opinion of them is not important, but actually want to be valued by you. This is not quid pro quo and is more about servant leadership: show them you value their presence and contributions regardless of what you receive in return. This is about establishing trust, not evaluating performance.

Embracing empathy and investing time will improve communications and understanding with your young employees.

The TV took decades to reach wide acceptance, the computer took a much shorter time, and smartphone use by comparison was an explosion. Growing your ability to adapt and your willingness to stretch is more important now than ever...because everything changed.

#leadership #organization #consulting #nonprofit #technology #Millenials