A recent study revealed that 18 to 22-year-olds are the loneliest age group today. There are a variety of factors that contribute to this troubling statistic. One, of course, is the prevalent use of technology in our society today. While devices help us connect to people in new and beneficial ways, there are some drawbacks. Empathy, for example, has decreased as technology has increased. One study reported that college students are 40 percent less empathetic than they were 20 or 30 years ago, prior to the widespread use of the internet. Screens dull our ability to feel the pain and joy of others and to connect with them emotionally. This presents a threat to deep, committed relationships that are impossible to maintain without continuing empathetic interaction.
While Millennials and Generation Z are especially adept at communicating online, valuable intimacy often gets lost in virtual communications. Quantified Communications reports that an average adult today makes eye contact between 30 and 60 percent of the time in conversation, but emotional connection is built when eye contact is made during 60 to 70 percent of the conversation. When there is less eye contact, fewer connections are made. Virtual connections, while valuable, cannot replace the emotional connection and sense of well being that occurs with eye contact, touch, and physical presence.
Leaders and managers today often report that young staff lack the relational skills and emotional intelligence to connect with others effectively. In many ways, it is the older generations who must take responsibility for this. When we hand a 5-year-old a device instead of answering their tenth question about giraffes or princesses, we rob them of an opportunity to develop face-to-face communication skills and connect with us in a way that is meaningful to them. When we miss the body language or facial expressions of a 10 or 12-year-old in our life because we are busy checking our social media feed, we lose the opportunity to model good emotional intelligence. When we avoid a conversation with an 18 or 20-year-old in our life because we assume their earbuds mean they don’t want to talk to us, or we fear rejection, we miss an opportunity to demonstrate sincere interest or unconditional love.
Young people today need opportunities to practice healthy relational skills, and they desperately need to see them modeled. Many leaders, mentors, teachers and parents I talk to, however, do not know even where to start in actively engaging the young people in their lives. What I have found, in interacting regularly with 5 to 25-year-olds, is that there is great power in a good question and active listening. I have yet to encounter a young person who did not respond positively to someone sincerely asking about their perspectives and concerns. True, there might be an eye roll or two at first, but when they see you persist in your interest in them, despite their eye roll, trust and respect begin to develop.
So, what does a good question entail? First of all, it must be open-ended. If it allows the young person to respond with a simple “yes,” “no,” “good” or “bad,” a grunt or sigh, it is not a good question. Instead, it should require some thoughtfulness. Instead of asking, “Did you have a good day at school?” try something like “What was the best part of your day at school?” The response to a good question should give you some insight into the young person’s life and provide an opportunity for a follow up question. For example, if they respond that the best part of their day was chatting with a friend, you could follow up with a question like, “Tell me about your friend? How did you meet?” A good question can thus communicate that you care about what they care about. Check out some other great sample questions here.
Good questions are one of the most powerful ways to demonstrate interest, gain empathy, and develop deep connections. As a result, they are a critical tool for all of us as we interact in a society that is increasingly distracted and busy. Make it a goal to practice asking good questions and taking the time to listen actively to the responses.
As a sophomore in college, I served as a student leader. Our team was responsible for providing peer mentoring, planning student programs, and helping with various campus activities. We were volunteers, with leadership responsibilities piled on top of classes, homework, and part-time jobs. It was important for us to stay focused on the goal. One of our team leaders often encouraged us by saying, “It’s all about the one!” It didn’t matter if attendance at an event was low, if one lonely student came and found community and new friends, it was worth it. If we had a test looming the next day, but a student struggling with depression showed up at our door, giving up some sleep and taking time to encourage her was meaningful. That slogan helped keep us focused on how critical investing in just one person can be!
Our culture is obsessed with numbers as indicators of success. We measure success as the amount in the budget; the number of customers, guests, sales or conversions; or the size of our facilities. While there are great reasons for this, it can also be a distraction. I am often asked how to create a successful leadership development or ministry program for youth and young adults. Mass methods are only marginally effective. The best way to engage with and develop a young person is one-on-one, or in small teams and communities. Millennials and Generation Z have access to information unlike any other generation in the history of the world. They don’t need another great program; they need to process. Indeed, the number one predictor of a young person retaining their faith is a meaningful relationship with an older believer. Trusted mentors and friends and safe spaces in the frenzied worlds of youth today can provide opportunities for the development of strong values and convictions.
I call this period that we are in the “season of a remnant.” Regardless of your setting, it is unlikely that we will accomplish significant change or impact in young lives and perspectives through large group trainings, conferences, or classes. Relationships, community and meaningful conversation are where the most formative experiences occur. Wondering why a young people has a specific political view? Engage them in a conversation (not a lecture!) about it. Wanting to instill an essential character trait or leadership quality in a young mentee? Model it for them, inviting them to share in a meaningful leadership experience. Hoping to share faith or truth with a generation that desperately needs it? Begin with “the one” or a few…a remnant.
Will and Ariel Durant, Pulitzer-prize winning historians, in discussing the inevitable decline of civilizations, write the following: “Nations die. Old regions grow arid, or suffer other change. Resilient man picks up his tools and his arts, and moves on, taking his memories with him.” I often reflect on this statement and think about my students and my children, their children and grandchildren. As the civilization we belong to undergoes change, what tools and memories do we want young people to possess as they move on to a new or changed civilization? What tools do we want to ensure they carry with them into an uncertain future? There will always be a resilient remnant and equipping them means we sometimes have to remain focused on “the one!”
I have taught leadership courses for many years. It always amazes me to read student essays on who has greatly influenced them. Most of the time, they write about family or friends. These influential people are seldom rich, famous, or powerful. They sometimes live far away or are seen infrequently. To read students’ writing about grandparents, aunts, uncles or friends who have greatly impacted them, I am reminded of the importance of our relationships with family and friends. The holidays is a time of the year when we often see people who live far away or are busy other times of the year. As a result, interactions during Christmas gatherings can be awkward, forced or uncomfortable at times. If there is dysfunction or hurt in the family, it makes it even more difficult to have meaningful conversations. Nonetheless, these events provide invaluable opportunities to mentor and encourage. Our attitudes, behaviors, and responses influence and communicate regardless of our intent, especially to kids, youth, and young adults in our family circles. So, as we begin this season of celebration, here are a few tips to remember as we seek meaningful interactions this Christmas.
The following is a guest post by Bill Mann, who writes and speaks on inter-generational mentoring
The next generation (Generation Z, born 1995-2010) are those who have grown up with devices, such as a cell phone or an iPad, readily available. The first are now going to college, while the youngest are in elementary school.
Recently, some of the potential negative impacts of the digital world have been emerging. For those of us who mentor, teach or parent Generation Z, it is critical that we understand these dangers. There are now eight new mental illnesses resulting from internet use. According to Evin Dashevsky, writing in PC World, these disorders, which range from the “benign to destructive,” have just been recognized recently and didn’t even exist in the middle 1990s.
Some of these are variations of older disorders. While some may be familiar with FOMO, one of these new disorders is called “Nomophobia” which is a fear of not having access to your mobile phone (either it crashed, you lost power, or it was lost or stolen). The condition can be severe, as the PC World magazine article notes: “[T]he condition has found its way into the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and has prompted a dedicated Nomophobia treatment program at Morningside Recovery Center in Newport Beach, California.”
Another condition is called Cybersickness which results in physical symptoms like nausea and dizziness caused by interacting with things like virtual reality. The next is called “Facebook Depression,” which may be descriptive enough. It comes from the despair that accompanies one watching everyone else have more fun and lead more successful lives than yours.
The next two are described as addictions: “Internet Addiction Disorder” and “Online Gaming Disorder.” The former is descriptive of such an extraordinary use of the internet that it interferes with your daily life. The latter is limited to an unhealthy need to be online playing multiplayer games.
Finally, with the internet, information not otherwise available about medicine is now readily available leading to users having something called “Cyberchondria,” where one is led to believe they have diseases that they found online. Sites like WebMD give enormous amounts of information, resulting in people who may have a simple headache becoming concerned that it might be a brain tumor.
The last is one that I am most concerned about based on what I’ve been learning recently. It’s called the “Google Effect.” It describes how our brains are declining in the ability to retain facts or information because it can be found online via search engines like Google or Bing.
As a result, our brains are changed and we no longer have the ability to retain information as much as prior generations. The number of searches on Google has grown from 9,800 in 1998 to 4.7 trillion today. Since we now have nearly all the information ever created by civilization at our fingertips, our brain functions may be altering how and what we retain. In effect, people have started using Google instead of their brains to store information. Unfortunately, as one writer notes, our brains use information stored in our brains in order to “facilitate critical thinking.”
In his book, Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids and How to Break the Trance, author Dr. Nicholas Kardaras likens the addictive effect on young children as being the same as Digital Heroin. He has observed reactions of young children going through signs of withdrawal when denied the access to digital devices, including tantrums as if they were digital junkies.
Heady stuff, and some of it scary since these disorders are new, or at least variations of other disorders. For mentors, it means that we are likely to encounter someone in the next generation who has more than just a mild interaction with the internet or the digital world. As Marvin Brubacher suggests, if that interaction results in addictive behavior, a mentor needs to be able to identify it and help them through it, or at least direct them to counseling.
To mentor the next generation, one needs to understand them. Now, that understanding includes learning about emotional or addictive behaviors which are novel and new. Ryan Terrance put it this way: “Everything in moderation, and there's a perfect balance in this life if we can find it.” Our challenge as mentors and parents is to help our mentees navigate a safe route in the digital world and urge moderation and wisdom in their use of technology.
Recently, I attended an event where a Boomer leader was presenting. Various times throughout his PowerPoint presentation, he experienced technical difficulties and called on a Millennial colleague to rescue him. As I watched the young colleague respond and resolve very basic issues, I was reminded of the deep need for understanding and engaging in reverse mentoring in our inter-generational relationships.
Reverse mentoring is a two-way relationship where individuals learn from one another across generational or cultural lines. This concept has been around for a couple of decades, but has gained popularity in many professional circles in the past decade. Alan Webber, the co-founder of Fast Company, explains its importance: “It’s a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you’re not in touch with the future the same way as the young twenty-somethings. They come with fresh eyes, open minds and instant links to the technology of our future.” Author and cultural expert, Earl Creps, further explains, “The rate of change in our culture puts younger people in touch with things for which their elders sometimes even lack the vocabulary, suggesting the need to go beyond intergenerational tolerance to reconciliation that leads to a new collaboration.”
One definition of mentor is “trusted counselor or guide.” We have traditionally viewed mentoring as primarily an opportunity for those older and wiser to impart their knowledge to those younger or less experienced. This works well when the culture or context is stable and predictable, and we can assume that what worked in the past will work in the future. However, in a season of cultural and technological change such as we are witnessing around us today, the patterns of yesterday may need revision to be effective in the days ahead. We must be prepared to learn from the future as well as the past. Young people intuitively understand elements of the future that can remain hidden to those who are older. Nonetheless, they often lack the wisdom and maturity that comes from years of life and leadership. This is where a partnership between the two becomes incredibly powerful, offering the potential for maximizing the strengths of both perspectives. In this sense, both parties have insight that can place them in the role of counselor or guide.
Earl Creps explains that reverse mentoring “uses the unlikely possibility of a relationship to benefit both parties through mutual learning from honesty and humility.” These elements of honesty and humility are essential to the success of a reverse mentoring relationship. Each party must acknowledge their need for learning. They must be willing to ask questions, listen and step outside of their comfort zone to engage new ideas, skills and perspectives. In doing so, we expose ourselves to an expert in topics and practices that we might otherwise spend time and money learning about through podcasts, books, or seminars.
As I observed the Boomer leader needing technical assistance during his presentation, I was struck by the fact that he expected the Millennials in that audience to learn from what he had to say. However, it appeared that he had not made an effort ahead of time to learn from one of them more about his computer. The irony of this picture is repeated frequently in inter-generational relationships. We must be willing to seek out and invest in relationships with those both younger and older than ourselves. As I think about the individuals who I am learning from in my life right now, many of them are 20 years older or younger than I am. I am thankful for their incredibly diverse and important perspectives that stretch and challenge me. Who are those powerful mentors in your life?
One of my 3-year-olds beckoned me excitedly over to her toy oven. We squatted down next to it and peered through the tiny clear plastic door. After a few moments, she made a “ding” sound and removed her playdoh “cake.” After setting it on the table and sticking it with a fork (my preferred makeshift cake tester), she started walking back to the toy oven. Confused, I asked her what she was doing. “It not done yet, just a little bit longer!” Suddenly the significance of the moment hit me. She was imitating, step by step, what typically happens when I am baking. From peering through the oven door, to testing the cake’s doneness, to my usual explanation for why a treat is not yet ready to consume. As I returned to washing the dishes, I could not shake this profound reminder that young people around us are always watching and always learning.
I recently heard a leadership presentation where the speaker explained that there are three significant ways we communicate what we value. The first is conversation, what we say. The second is our calendar, where we invest our time. The third is cash, where we spend our money. As I reflected on my daughter’s natural response to imitate my behaviors, I was challenged to reflect on what values my conversation, calendar and cash communicate, and how they are influencing, intentionally or unintentionally, the young people around me.
What we talk about, and when we talk about it, communicates our values. What do I say about other people when they are not around? This is perhaps one of the most powerful indicators of our values. Do I communicate respect for those who are not present in what I say about them? Do I show what it means to be a trustworthy and life-giving friend, employer, teacher, spouse or parent by where and how I verbally process challenges, frustrations, or doubts in those relationships? Do people around me think more creatively and critically, feel encouraged or inspired, and know they were heard after talking to me? How we converse with people around us daily conveys volumes about our values, and models for children, students, and young employees what is appropriate, acceptable, and professional!
Time is so precious and yet sometimes we become responsive versus proactive in how we use it. Take a few minutes and map out how you spend your time. Besides sleep and required work hours, what are your top three values as indicated by the quality or quantity of time you invest in them? If you are a parent, map out your child’s time. Our society often pressures us to prioritize a traveling team, that elite school, or some potential scholarship opportunity. We can become responsive to these demands. While it is valuable for kids to learn teamwork, discipline and excellence, we often see priorities like family time, our faith community, and relaxation edged out of our schedules. We then grieve when kids hide behind technology on family vacations, walk away from God and faith, and experience high anxiety. As we practice balance in the use of our time, we can model and help young people around us as they learn to manage their calendar.
I recently read an article about how much parents are spending as kids head back to school. It was stunning. I couldn’t help but wonder what we tell kids if we put a new smartphone or designer shoes on a credit card. The message we send about appearance, convenience or preference being more important than debt is powerful. As employers, we send a message when we give raises to certain people or improve specific spaces, but not others. We need to be intentional in those messages and ensure they represent what we say we value.
My husband and I recently made some significant decisions that allow us more time with our kids, but require us to cut back on the things we can buy for them. One morning, we were really questioning our decision. I left the house that day to do some work while my husband stayed home with the kids. When I walked in the door that afternoon, one of the girls ran up to me and announced, “Mommy, I SO happy!!!” I asked why and she responded, “I got to play with my daddy all day!” As those influencing the next generation, we sometimes need them to remind us the most valuable things in life cannot be purchased and are worth intentionally prioritizing.
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!