It’s an age-old saying: “Never assume; it makes an a– of ‘u’ and me.” (And, any Schitt’s Creek fan will remember Moira Rose’s version: “Never assume, dear. It makes an a– out of both of us.”)

While seemingly glib, there are some important takeaways: Be mindful of your preconceived ideas about others, don’t rely on harmful and reductive stereotypes, and don’t allow illogical ideas about “people like that” to influence how you see — and, ultimately, judge — others. These recommendations are noble, and it would be wonderful if everyone could put them into practice, particularly when dismantling the many problematic (or discriminatory) views we hold of other people.

The fact is that there are common, unfair and “othering” conclusions that we reach about our colleagues, managers or classroom participants. We think, “They’re going to be so difficult!” when we hear someone’s less-than-enthusiastic tone or, “Wow, they’ll get this topic so easily; I can trust them!” when we see someone who reminds us of ourselves.

Many live virtual training sessions during the pandemic, for example, included a participant proclaiming that he or she was “too old for all this tech nonsense.” The trainer, then, may have winced after every piece of instruction, anticipating a problem or challenge that never came. More often than not, those same participants rolled with every exercise and contributed throughout the class, putting the trainer’s generational assumptions firmly in their place.

We all have work to do unpacking, interrogating and becoming comfortable with the judgments we make about the different generations: Young people (millennials) are overly entitled and lacking commitment, and baby boomers were able to buy their own homes but can’t form coherent text messages. As for Generation Z — the ones born with a smartphone in their hands — well, they see more of their screens than their families. Right?

Of course, stereotypes tend to originate from universally understood baselines that reflect a portion of reality, albeit a tiny portion. All too often, we can be lazy in how we see and interpret people of a distant generation from our own — but in challenging ourselves to see something different we can see the authentic realities that discredit those original beliefs. Ultimately, we can be wrong in how we see and behave toward people who are across the generational divide.

For training professionals, then, the question is: How can we cater for everyone, free from assumptions, while anticipating the nuanced needs of participants, some of which will be related to their age?

Last year, training changed beyond all expectations — no more flying around the world for conferences or classroom sessions. We’re living in a brave new world, where technology is powering and facilitating the delivery of knowledge. Taking training into the living rooms, kitchens and bookcase-lined studies of our participants is a different approach, but it still requires us to keep front of mind the differing needs of an intergenerational audience — many of whom will have never imagined attending training in this format.

This audience comes to the virtual classroom with competing expectations of an online training experience, shaped by the workplace cultures, technological tools and educational experiences they have moved through. Online training, therefore, must lean into differing generational preferences. Consider:

    • The format and length of training sessions.
    • Using alternative communication channels, such as emoticons, chat or whiteboards.
    • Keeping in mind differing ideas of dress code when you turn on your camera.
    • The immediacy and relevance of facilitator feedback and signposting.

While these elements of the training session can be sources of conflict, they may be more trivial than you think. The different generations may have more in common than you realize, helping you to bridge the supposed divide. Anyone can build the repertoire of skills needed to embrace online training, not just the “digital natives.”

Ultimately, each generation is likely to be seeking similar things from online training, especially now, when social isolation is so great. Training is about professional and personal development — but it’s equally about interaction and connection. The generations share similar hopes for their working lives — they all value collaboration, innovation and accessible working tools to make life easier. The difference is the methods you use to harness these shared values and expectations:

Incorporate Microlearning

Why not package your online sessions into succinct and direct “nuggets” of learning? With this flexible learning method, you can adapt the content to meet varying attention spans, learning preferences and schedules, catering to all generations.

Include Breakouts

Even in an online session, you can split participants into groups. Use breakouts for focused reflection and action, but be mindful of who you put in each group. Facilitate intergenerational collisions by organizing diverse breakout groups, helping employees of different generations engage with and understand each other’s viewpoints.

Flex Your Training Times

Not everyone can make a 9 a.m. session; many learners have to care for elderly relatives or set up the kids for homeschooling. Schedule training at times when all generations have the availability and headspace to engage with learning.

Provide Feedback

While millennials enjoy timely, in-the-moment feedback, many boomers don’t need to know how they’re progressing as frequently. Pepper in feedback during an online session by using polls, whiteboards or follow-up calls. Invite everyone to participate, but don’t make it a prerequisite.

Turn on the Camera

Make sure everyone’s cameras are on. Human beings thrive on connection, and being able to see each other will help create a sense of a community.

Of course, these techniques will only work when implemented with positive intent and an authentic commitment to looking past our illogical beliefs about other generations. It requires us all to engage in an intentional interrogation of our assumptions, making them conscious and asking ourselves, “What else should I know?” and, “What else could I know?”. Use this questioning tool in those moments of pause and quiet reflection:

    • Is it true? What evidence do I have?
    • Is it always true? Am I being logical? Are there any exceptions to the rule?
    • Where is this thought/attitude getting me? What would be different about my experience if it were not true?