I studied German for a couple of years while in college. I don’t remember much about the language, but I do remember how my professor used her experience and communication to counter ageism.
My professor had plain grey hair and a thick accent. She often wore a grey cardigan sweater and heavy, black shoes. At the time, I saw her as just another old person who knew German because she grew up speaking the language.
Using Experience to Add Perspective
Nonetheless, because my professor treated all of her students with respect, most all of us felt free to ask questions. During my first term in her class, I asked, “Why in the world did the German people allow someone like Adolf Hitler to gain power?” My professor responded, “Du warst nicht da – you were not there!”
My professor wisely saw an opportunity to connect her experience with something we needed to understand. We had dozens of questions. She listened intently and responded thoughtfully. Then she asked us questions—questions that challenged our assumptions and questions that satisfied her own curiosity. At that moment, my own thinking was both challenged and broadened. I started to see my professor for who she really was—a person with a great deal of knowledge, skill, and experience. She both deserved and got our respect.
Five Communication Strategies to Counter Ageism
My professor challenged stereotypical assumptions by using five different strategies –strategies each of us can use to counter ageism:
First, she made connections by treating us with respect. She encouraged us to express ourselves, and she never humiliated us when we made comments or asked questions that were naïve.
When we show respect toward those who are younger, we open the door to the possibility of mutual respect.
Second, my professor waited to share her personal experience until she could connect it to something we needed to know or understand.
When we simply share our experiences with younger people without making a relevant connection, they may tune us out. However, if we can give younger people a deeper understanding because of our lived experiences, we’ve added something needed. Timing and intention matter.
Third, she used active listening skills to bridge any generational gaps. She allowed us to express ourselves, asked appropriate questions, and paraphrased questions we asked to make sure she understood what we were saying.
Listening for understanding can be a powerful tool to combat ageism. Because we grew up in a different time, younger generations may believe that we’re out of touch and just don’t ‘get’ their world. By showing interest, asking questions, and clarifying our understanding through paraphrasing, we can help change stereotypical perceptions about older adults.
Fourth, she used different questioning techniques to challenge our assumptions. Sometimes she used probing questions to get more specific information from us. For example, she might have said something like, “What do you mean by that?” Other times, she simply asked questions like “Why do you think that? How do you know that? How would you have reacted had you been in that situation?”
Using different questioning techniques is a powerful tool to challenge assumptions when interacting with younger people. Rather than simply telling others what we know, we can ask questions that lead them to see things from different perspectives. If you are a Star Wars fan, you might imagine yourself channeling the wisdom of Yoda when you use this type of questioning.
Finally, she was purposeful in her communication with us. She didn’t just react in the moment, she was intentional when she interacted with us. She was able to be purposeful because she knew the value of what she had to offer and was also open to continuously learn something new from others.
Each of us has a great deal of power. We’ve lived long enough to have experienced and learned more than others might realize. We simply have to use our power with intention.
My challenge to each of us is to combat ageism by recognizing opportunities to purposefully engage with others in meaningful ways. By doing so, we can enrich the lives of others as well as our own.