Dear Mentors

My friend and I were huddled over our laptops, hands hugging mugs of black tea as we worked on a shared Google Doc.

We share quite a bit in common, this friend and me.

We are both writers by profession, aesthetically-oriented and motivated by stories, people and faith. We see metaphors throughout life’s ordinary moments, and we practice similar rhythms when it comes to church and prayer.

But as with many friendships, our differences are also important. The things that we don’t share in common have become opportunities to learn from each other, challenge each other and deepen our understanding of the world.

Our most notable difference is that this friend and I aren’t from the same generation.

She was the one who first introduced me to the idea of cross-mentoring. We unpacked it one sunlit afternoon at a coffeeshop, like so many we have shared. 

“It’s the idea that we all learn from one another,” she told me. “When we form friendships with those of different generations, the older ones are not simply teaching the younger ones. Cross-mentoring is a posture that believes everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a learner.”

As I have done my own research about the phrase, that definition has held true. Cross-mentoring is more of a posture than a prescription. It’s a means for cross-generational friendship to form, but it’s also a living belief that everyone we encounter has something to teach us.

It’s living with the posture of a learner.

In my friendship with Carol, and in all of my relationships in life, I am finding that the idea of cross-mentoring is really life-giving when we give it the opportunity to influence how we live.

When we have a posture of a learner, the world opens up to us in all of its beauty and potential. We start to see benefit and opportunity in our differences with others, rather than arguments to be made or ideologies to defend.

It’s a practice that has affected my cross-generational communication at work, how I work with my manager, and how I relate to friends who are different than me, no matter their age.

And in today’s workforce, you are just as likely to work with a Baby Boomer as you are a Generation Z up-and-comer. For the first time since the 1940s, people of retirement age outnumber teens and young adults in the workplace. Older people are working longer, and retiring later, so the trend is likely to continue.

Do you work with people of other generations in your day job, and your church, or in your community? Have you had those moments of tension that come when people of different ages disagree on the best way to do things? Have you heard coworkers bemoan your “Millennial” attributes?

I have too. And in the spirit of learning, Carol and I have compiled a few suggestions to help people of all ages build bridges with one another, rather than remain silent or caught in misunderstandings.

We got to share them with a small community of business owners last week, so I am sharing them here too.

  • Embrace the opportunities. When you work with those who are older than you, you can help them stay up-to-date on new ideas. In turn, they can pass on experience-based wisdom to you. Embrace the opportunity to tap into the knowledge and stories of those that have come before.
  • Remember that challenges are natural — but we don’t have to stay there. When you are working with others and your focus shifts from objectives into frustrations, take a step back. Staying stuck in the difficulties costs efficiency and rapport. Do you have negative assumptions about the other party that are affecting your work? How can you learn more about them as a person – or the generational influences that have shaped them – in order to move forward more productively?
  • Set aside time to learn and re-learn. It has been really helpful for me to research strengths of Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers. Write down the positive attributes of each and what each contributes to a team. You may find that you have a healthy lineup of diverse talents that are all needed in productive teams, and this practice is effective for building cross-generational friendships.
  • Make time outside of the normal workday to be face-to-face with those of a different generation. When you need to communicate with teammates, start by learning how they prefer to be approached. Communicate more in the beginning until you know how best to work together. It may also be helpful to go through a communications training or activity as a team to better understand one another.
  • Focus on shared values. As in any relationship, there are probably things that you have in common with the other party, and you likely have the same goal in mind when working together. Focus your energy there. Write down the values you have in common and your end goal, and post them in a place where they are easy to see and reference. Focusing on what you have in common will direct your energy in a positive, forward-thinking way.

Here’s to living with the posture of learners and friends in 2019 and beyond!

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