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How to Talk to Someone Significantly Younger or Less Experienced Than You

By Jeff Havens, ELC Presenter

HavensAlas, you probably work with people a whole lot younger than you are. Your company, in its depressingly finite wisdom, gave these children a chance to play at being grown-ups. They haven’t been working for very long – a couple years maybe, possibly even less – and their inexperience offends you. They think they know everything, when in fact their ignorance of how things really work is so vast they should be constantly embarrassed by it. But nothing embarrasses them, does it? They could trip over the legs of their baggy pants and fall face-down in the atrium of your building, and they’d probably just take a selfie of it and post it to their social media sites before bothering to stand up – or pull their pants all the way on again.

However, in all likelihood you’re going to be stuck with them for a while. Young people have the supremely annoying habit of not recognizing when they’re not wanted, and many of them have fallen prey to the siren call of a paycheck and the things it allows them to purchase. They’ll be working right next to you until the siren call of retirement becomes too powerful to resist any longer.

Now you’re welcome to hate these people for the rest of your career. You can roll your eyes at their misplaced enthusiasm, grumble about their idiotic ideas, and seethe quietly as they consistently fail to talk about their minor aches and pains. You can exclude them from sitting at your lunch table and accidentally forget to invite them to happy hour after work. If you wish to end your professional career as a semi-recluse, it’s completely within your power to do so.

But if you want to act like the grown-up you’ve pretended to be for so long, here is a step-by-step process to help you bridge the gap between you and anyone significantly younger or less-experienced than you are:

Step 1: Expect Some Impatience from Them
Young people have forever been impatient, and new employees – especially good ones – are naturally eager to prove themselves. This is a quality you had as well when you were their age, although most of us eventually forget that we were ever impulsive and headstrong 22-year-olds. (“Surely I wasn’t this bad!” Yes, you were. So was I.) If you expect your inexperienced juniors to behave with the calm temperance that is really only honed in the crucible of experience, you’ll enter your conversations with them preparing to be frustrated. If you accept their impatience as a natural quality of youth, you’ll be better able to address and ultimately change it.

Step 2: Temper Their Impatience by Showing Them Why They Need To Slow Down
Young people will not enter their professional lives with an instinctive understanding of how your culture and processes operate, so you’ll need to show them. There are several ways to do this – explaining your own path of career advancement and highlighting how long it took to go from where you began to where you are now; explaining why your sales cycle takes as long as it does, or why design specs needs to be reviewed five times instead of two; explaining why it took three years to fully overhaul your intranet – and you should do all of them as often as you can think to do so. You’ll notice a lot of explaining on your end, and there’s really no way around that. If you wait for them to figure it all out on their own, you’ll both end up frustrated at how long it’s taking. The more you explain, the less frustrated they’ll be at the way things currently work.

Step 3: Expect Them to Become Frustrated, and Empathize
As soon as any of us realizes that something is going to take longer than we thought it would, we all tend to get frustrated. (If you don’t believe me, try making it through a major home improvement project sometime without cursing at a single one of the unexpected problems that will surely pop up.) Which means your younger and less-experienced colleagues will almost certainly view your attempt to reign in their expectations with some irritation. This is natural, and you’ve felt the same way yourself. So let them know you understand their frustration and that you’ve felt it too. Will it completely eliminate their frustration? Of course not. But it should calm them down enough to listen to reason.

Step 4: Point Out the Positive Elements of Every Idea Before Focusing on the Negative Elements
If a younger colleague is complaining about the antiquated nature of one of your existing processes, you’ll get a lot farther by first highlighting the various benefits to using it than you will by railing at the complainer for having a problem in the first place. Similarly, if a new hire comes to you with an idea that you think is ridiculous or impractical, finding anything good about it will make the conversation smoother than a knee-jerk rejection.

Step 5: Point Out the Potential Problems
At this point you’ve told your younger colleagues what they should expect, empathized with their frustration, and stoked their egos by acknowledging the merits of their own way of thinking. Now it’s time to highlight drawbacks, which either means suggesting that their “great new idea” hasn’t been thought through quite as perfectly as they originally thought, or that your own approach might also leave something to be desired. If you’ve done Step 4 already, this should play out more as a conversation than an argument, which I assume is what you’re going for.

Step 6: Empower Your Young or Inexperienced Colleague to Address the Issues Brought Up In Step 5
And now it’s time for action. If your inexperienced colleague is hell-bent on pursuing her great new idea, encourage her to do so once she’s figured out how to address your thoughtful and considered objections to it. If some punk 23-year-old has listened to everything you’ve said and still thinks it’s unfair that he hasn’t been promoted 6 months into his career, push him to come up with a plan for accelerated career advancement others can get on board with. You’ll be putting all the responsibility on them, which will probably please both of you. If they do what you’ve suggested, they’ll be demonstrating an admirable dedication to a cause and may end up devising a fantastic solution (although you might have to repeat Steps 4-6 a few times). And if they don’t do it, then you’ll be able to point that out to them the next time they start complaining, which should shut them up for a while.

Talking with someone significantly younger or less-experienced doesn’t have to difficult. It just becomes difficult sometimes because we expect everyone to behave exactly like we do. Trust me, I wish everyone did exactly what I wanted them to. But if that were the case, I might not have a job anymore. Hmmm.