Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains in his book, Successful Aging, that as we get older, it is common to lose some of our sharpness. We may get distracted more easily and can’t recall things as quickly as we once could. But at the same time, Levitin says we gain wisdom with age due to our experiences, our ability to recognize patterns, the connections we can make, and the analogies we can use.
Because we may think a bit differently, it is not that hard to understand why younger adults might consider older adults as being “out of touch” or no longer relevant.
One time when I ‘participated’ in a leadership group for a community event, I discovered that I was decades older than the others. When I shared some of my experience-based insights, my contributions didn’t resonate with the younger group members.
I had communicated the same way I had throughout my professional life. I assumed I was on equal footing with the rest of the group and offered my thoughts as I had always done in group meetings. But something had shifted. I needed to take on a new role as a member of the group.
By taking on the role of the encouraging and questioning elder, I learned that those of us who are older can still offer some useful insights in ways that younger people are more likely to accept.
First, most younger people have some knowledge and insights that are valuable and are outside of our own experiences. We can learn something from them. We can also reinforce good ideas by recognizing them as they are shared.
Second, using the right questions can be a surprisingly effective way to offer some wisdom without being center-stage. Common types of questions we can use include: clarifying, open-ended, probing, hypothetical, and leading ones.
Words and meanings are often two different things. We can help others think and communicate more clearly by asking clarifying questions. For example, we might say something like, “Are you suggesting that we limit attendance, or are you suggesting something different?” Often, we can paraphrase what we think we understand and then ask if our understanding is what the communicator intended.
Closed vs. Open-Ended Questions:
Closed questions generally offer a choice such as, “Do you support the proposal?” The way the question is asked encourages either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. However, if we used an open-ended question, we might ask, “What are your thoughts about the proposal?” By doing so, we can encourage others to think more deeply about their positions.
We can help guide a conversation by using probing questions to dig a bit deeper when someone makes an assertion. We can ask, “Could you tell us a bit more?” Or, we might ask, “Could you give us an example of how that has worked elsewhere?”
Asking hypothetical questions can help others step outside their mental boxes and see different possibilities. For example, we could ask a question like, “What if we found another funding source? If we did, what are some of the additional opportunities we could create?”
Leading questions are usually framed to elicit agreement, such as, “You all do agree that the project is worthwhile, right?” And, if we agree that it is a valuable project, then wouldn’t you also agree that it is important that we spend sufficient time examining our best way forward?”
A New Leadership Role
Younger adults aren’t always open to the insights and knowledge that we have as older adults. But we can use the wisdom we’ve developed to help others see things in new ways. We can support good ideas and insights when offered. We can also ask the right questions at the right times. By doing so, we can more fully experience our new role as elder leaders.