When I typed the address into Google Maps, I couldn’t believe it.
The house that my grandparents bought when they moved to Denver in 1964 was just blocks away from the new home that I had just purchased with my husband.
“We are taking evening walks on the same sidewalks that they did,” I thought, double-checking their house number.
The knowledge that my steps were overlapping with my family’s history brought me feelings of comfort and significance.
And this is one of the gifts we find when we choose to engage in cross-generational work in our personal and professional lives. Across differences, we find that our steps are overlapping with others.
Starting With Me
My friend Carol and I regularly host trainings on cross-generational communications. In these sessions, we provide bridges of thought and perspective that allow people of different generations to see their similarities and differences.
We believe that the practices that bridge generational differences can apply to other divides as well. But in order to build bridges of understanding, we must start with ourselves.
To start, we can acknowledge our worldview, beliefs, passions and perspective. We must understand what expectations we’ve inherited from our families, our generations, our races, our ethnicities and our communities. When we understand those influences, we can see how they shape us.
“We represent our groups and those who have come before us,” author Robin Diangelo points out in her writing on racism in America. “Our identities are not unique or inherent but constructed or produced through social processes.”
Therefore, an important step in this work is to acknowledge that we are part of a larger whole, and it is our duty to also be mindful of how our individual perspective impacts our work in the world.
When I have felt stuck or unsure of how to join the conversation, I have started by asking: “Where am I today? What is the offering I can give today, and from there, how can I grow?”
Knowing where I come from and where I am today has helped me to continue bridge-building work, even when it is uncomfortable.
Deconstruction and Reconstruction
Once we have identified our identities, we must acknowledge the assumptions and biases that come along with them. We have to examine our biases to successfully engage with people who have different perspectives and worldviews.
In our cross-generational communications webinars, we engage in this work of deconstructing biases and reconstructing understanding. This process gives us not only practical takeaways, but also hope for understanding others. Diangelo also underlines the importance of this process in anti-racism work.
“To avoid talking about racism can only hold our misinformation in place and prevent us from developing the necessary skills and perspectives to challenge the status quo,” Diangelo writes.
To avoid talking about our differences can only hold misinformation and stereotypes in place. Thus, when we engage in the reconstruction process, we are taking the necessary steps to rebuild our common ground.
A Toolbox For Building Bridges
The work of bridge-building across our differences is difficult. It requires us to acknowledge that we may be wrong. It requires us to admit that we may only see parts of the whole story.
To move forward, we must wield empathy and listening as tools for understanding, not weapons of way-making.
Once we have engaged in conversations and experiences that start our reconstruction of perspective, we can further engage in helpful practices that allow us to see our overlap with others. We can dig into concepts such as perspective-taking, listening without judgment and assuming positive intent. We can recruit mentors and seek to learn from those around us.
These skills form a toolbox we can use when we work with and relate to those from different generations — as well as those from different genders, racial backgrounds, socio-economic backgrounds, and political views.
In a cultural moment when divisive and defensive rhetoric is common, these concepts feel both radical and refreshing.
Concepts to Carry With You
Here are a few key practices that have helped me as I have tried to build understanding acoss generational, racial or political divides in my life.
- Read. Take time each week to intentionally read an article or listen to a podcast that has been produced by someone of a different race, age, gender or background than yourself. Note any points of tension you may feel, and acknowledge your similarities as well.
- Invite a conversation. Reach out to someone in your professional circle or peer network who has something to teach you. Maybe they are from a different generation, different industry or simply engage in a hobby that you’d like to learn more about. Invite them to a Zoom meeting to simply hear more about their work and perspective.
- Write it down. Record the differences or divisions in your life that cause you the most stress or fear. Spend 15 minutes writing down why those areas feel so challenging. Do not put pressure on yourself to fix the situation – merely express your thoughts. Engaging in a writing exercise on a regular basis is proven to help our brains get un-stuck and find new patterns or possibilities. Try writing about these divisions on a regular basis to see what new ideas could emerge.
When we build the skills to listen to and understand one another, we contribute to the common good in our work and our communities.