Nutrition Counseling Tools: Generational Characteristics and Effective Communication

By: Felix Pan

Born approximately within twenty years of one another, a generation of individuals may share common experiences from events that shape their beliefs, values and characteristics. One of my recent rotations showed me that these generational influences can impact how we learn, how we communicate and even what we eat. I learned that while it is important for healthcare professionals to know about diseases, it is also helpful for them to understand the social impacts from generational experiences. To learn more about diabetes during my rotation at FHI 360, I watched the webinar “A Generational Approach to Healthy Eating for People with Prediabetes and Diabetes,” by Toby Smithson. I gained insight beyond diabetes, learning how world events affect generational characteristics and how to use these characteristics for effective communication and counseling.

At times, different communication styles can be misinterpreted as microaggressions and lead to loss of empathy. As individuals live through shared events and build similar experiences, they may adopt similar traits. During the webinar, Toby explained that these traits may affect their preferred communication style, an influence we should be aware of. The Silent Generation’s strong sense of duty, work ethic and delayed gratification may lead them to trust authority figures more easily, be more involved with their own care, and follow instructions as absolute. Whereas Generation X’s shared traits of skepticism and self-reliance have led many to desire decision-making independence, listen only after trust is earned and consider healthcare interventions as suggestions rather than as absolute. Individuals from either generation may misread the other as judgmental and ill-natured due to contrasting communication styles. We also carry our own generational characteristics with us, making us vulnerable to the same challenge.  I have learned that it is important to “keep our generation at the door” when engaging with clients to allow their generation to fill the space. When working with others, I will consider the effects of generational traits on communication when working with clients and will work on leaving my generation at the door to reduce possible misunderstandings and build rapport.

It can be difficult for people to accept and practice changing recommendations. Highlighting clients’ ability to navigate advancements in disease management is an opportunity to promote self-efficacy. The webinar I watched explained that Baby Boomers’ (born 1945 – 1964) optimism and devotion empowered them to successfully navigate the difficulties of multiple recommendation changes in the exchange system, as well as utilizing carbohydrate counting after its creation. Additionally, Millennials’ (born 1981 – 1996) explorative characteristics enabled them to transition from following strict restrictions while using the exchange system to practicing more flexible care with the advancement of oral hypoglycemic medications. While listening to this information, I recognized that an individual’s resilience toward adopting changing recommendations is an angle that can be used to support self-efficacy.

While generational characteristics can be used to initiate conversation and empathy with clients,  they are not an end-all-be-all for patient-centered care. It is important to recognize that the individual within a generation is not the same as the generation as a whole. To avoid stereotyping clients, generational traits should not be haphazardly assigned to specific individuals. Knowledge of generational habits can be used as a tool to build humility, empathy and rapport with others. Misuse can disrupt quality care and create microaggressions. Just as each generation has its story, each person does too.

Intersections of healthcare technology, world events and lived experiences shape generational traits and communication styles. Each generation builds shared traits from their lived experiences of common events, which dietitians can use to help them build self-efficacy. This webinar has taught me that the knowledge of generational characteristics is a tool that can be carefully used to improve communication and trust with clients of other generations. As I reflect, this webinar has taught me about another consideration that can contribute to biased thinking and actions, which I should be wary of. Knowing this, I will humbly practice creating space for clients’ to fill the session with their generational experience.

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