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How to talk to your baby boomer parents

Elaine Froese for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 December 2017

As a Hudson Institute-certified coach, I have been taught to always ask, “How old are you?” This is not rude. This is a helpful piece of information to assess what key issues need to be talked about. Scott Zimmer of Bridgeworks has helped me with decoding helpful language for communication between the generations.

Here are some of my gleanings from them that may be helpful for talking to your baby boomer parents.

The stages by ages

Those born before 1946 are “traditionalists.” These people have a “silent approach” to communication and typically avoid conflict. I’m a baby boomer, born in 1956, with optimism and a competitive nature. Baby boomers are those born between 1945 and 1964, and there are a lot of us.

We tend to be idealistic and young at heart. Perhaps your baby boomer father thinks he is still 21, and he hasn’t grasped the reality that he is 65. He also does not accept there needs to be some changes in the farm’s management.

Scott Zimmer is a farm kid who is a Generation X (Gen X’er) born between 1965 and 1979. Gen X’ers were told they would never do as well as their parents. Baby boomers saw a man walk on the moon in 1969, yet Gen X’ers saw NASA’s failure with the Challenger crash disaster.

What is important to note is: The world affairs that impact us during our formative years may help shape how we perceive stress, and this impacts how we communicate.

The millennials (my children) arrived between 1980 and 1995. This group is highly driven, tech-savvy, collaborative in nature and socially adept. They want choices, efficiency, integrity and customization. One size does not fit all.

Then, Gen Edge (1996 onward) are the new kids on the farm, who can really process many kinds of information quickly and may be faster at technology than the millennials.

So what does this mean for farm family communication?

1. We all have different styles or perceptions due to the way we perceive our world, our reality. As a baby boomer parent, I tend to be optimistic about the future. Your dad may be idealistic in thinking, “Don’t worry; it will all work out,” while you, as a Gen X’er – age 37 to 51 – are saying, “It is time for some change in ownership, now. Let’s get this on paper.”

2. You might need to present your ideas to your baby boomer parents in a different way and with respect. Be aware of how you are presenting. Our millennial son came up with the great idea of planting hemp on our certified seed farm. His baby boomer father said, “Show me the business plan and the sales contract.” The result is three years of hemp harvest with great returns (and some growing frustrations in the field).

3. Think in terms of evolution with the intent of making things better with your communication, not revolution. Baby boomers have seen tons of change in their lives but still consider changes to their personal business on the farm with great care.

They don’t want to waste money, see failure of the next generation or have divorce mess up their ideal plan. Succession planning is a process, not a one-time event, so learn to communicate to baby boomers about the benefits of the shifts of management, labor and ownership you are seeking.

4. Listen more. All generations need to do this. Eighty percent of great communication is effective listening. Don’t make assumptions. Question everything, and then listen carefully to the response. Our farm just got three-phase power in 2015 after better research showed the cost would be OK with the cash flow.

The new ventilation system powered up in our seed plant has everyone breathing easier with less dust. This never would have happened if Manitoba Hydro had not listened to our needs. Listen deeply. Paraphrase what you hear and feed it back to the other generations. Do not assume things. Ask “What if ” questions and then listen.

If you are 37 to 51 years old and a Gen X’er, Zimmer suggests you are a skeptic and immensely independent. Baby boomer parents need to understand this in order to speak and behave in ways that build trust and create certainty.

If you are a competitive baby boomer parent, perhaps it is time to remember what it felt like when you first owned something (e.g., land) and felt the independence your millennial or Gen X’er heir is looking for now.

Respect is a good mode of communication to be transferred by all generations. Some 37- to 51-year-old Gen X’ers may be using profane language mixed with anger that is not helping their cause of trying to get transfer agreements in place. If you are using what Zimmer calls an “unfiltered communication style,” it may be time to “clean your filter” and embrace positive, non-profane language tempered with respect.

“What would you like me to do differently in this succession process?” is a great question for all generations to ask. Gen X’ers like to question things. Asking a question is not necessarily judgment. Questions are helpful for exploration and discovery when they are asked with a tone of curiosity.

So reflect on what your generation can do to have more effective communication with the different generations on your farm team. Zimmer observes that 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day in the U.S.

Twenty-three percent of millennials (ages 21 to 36) still require financial assistance from their parents. This rings true for successors who cannot afford to buy all of their baby boomer parents’ farm assets. These successors are looking for a collaborative solution of buyouts, gifting and fair loans from the founders.

Some baby boomers are spending 20 hours a week caring for aging parents on top of other roles. So if your baby boomer parents are really tired from role overload, consider rested times to have fierce conversations that require more energy.

Be kind, be patient and listen well as you navigate new plans for talking things out with your baby boomer parents. Read When Generations Collide by Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman.

What is one thing you can do today to communicate more clearly?  end mark

Elaine Froese, CAFA, CHICoach, CSP, respects seniors, so don’t send nasty letters. Do send news that you have acted and have a plan in place. Visit her website.

Elaine Froese
  • Elaine Froese

  • CSP, CAFA, CHICoach
  • Boissevain, Manitoba
  • Email Elaine Froese

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