The CEO was frustrated. “I ask a Millennial to call someone, and they text instead. There’s a difference.” She’s right. A phone call is the power choice when time is short or stakes are high. We all have to be able to make the call or take the call. Millennials who want to succeed can’t afford phone phobia.
The CEO’s complaint tripped a memory wire for me. At 28, I became the editor of a magazine. To the people I worked with, I looked like a kid. Advertisers, sensed they could push me around. They’d call me with demands. Those calls were terrible for me. I’d freeze. My heart would pound and my hands would shake.
Fortunately, an older editor took me aside. She coached me through ignoring my racing heart and pushing my voice into a lower register. Instead of “Hello,” I said my name confidently, forcefully. It was all a sham, but it worked! My job got a whole lot easier.
Once you’re on the line, you’re on. You have to perform. Cue sweaty palms and clinching stomach.
We all dread difficult phone calls. A one-to-one, human-to-human voice transaction can make anybody feel exposed. Compared to text or email, a call is emotionally intense. It can be overwhelming. And it’s immediate. Phone calls are fast. You simply don’t have to say as many words as you have to write to get your point across, and there’s no delay for typing, and no rewrites.
Phone skill comes especially hard for Millennials. Ms lack experience with first-I-talk-now-you-talk verbal cues. They are often uncertain about phone etiquette (small talk or not, how much small talk, preliminary email or not, how to address the person on the other end). Then there’s lack of distraction. A call requires focus, and a brain accustomed to multi-tasking becomes restless and uncomfortable. The whole experience is nerve-racking. Easier not to call in the first place.
But that won’t do. In fact, calls are trending up in business communication. Boomers and Gen Xers often prefer a call about important subjects. They may even follow up an email with a call to say, “Hey, let me know when you’ve seen my email.” (I am so busted, on that one) In fact, Boomers may make calls when an email or text would be more efficient and less intrusive. There has to be some middle ground here. Millennials who learn to make difficult calls, and Boomers who learn not to rely on the phone to convey everyday info. It may be a help to your team if you make a list together of when a call is needed, and when it’s not.
In the meantime, Millennials who want to want to succeed have to learn to talk to other generations. Like, really talk. Try these steps.
First, you’ll have to get over the idea that phone calls are always useless, ineffective and a waste of time. Yes, sometimes they are. But sometimes you simply have to call. If a deal is going south, you have to call. If you make a mistake or need to apologize, you have to call. If you want to repair a relationship or convince someone of something really important, you have to call.
The next step is practice. If you supervise Millennials who have trouble making calls, set up low-risk calls for them. Do lots of role-play. If you’re a Millennial, make low-risk calls on purpose. Call 800 numbers, call a number you know will be busy and leave a message, or ask relatives to role play with you. Every time you do, you teach your amygdala, the primitive part of your brain that generates a fear response, to stop telling you you’re in mortal danger.
Every time you make a call and don’t get stabbed or clawed, your brain steps down its defenses a little bit more. Eventually you pick up a phone without breaking a sweat.
It’s not Personal. It’s Generational.
Too often we assume someone from another generation is difficult—the Boomer who insists on a call, or the Millennial who can’t . . . . make . . . . the . . . . call. Usually, it’s a generational difference, not a personal one. In the end we’re all on the same team, Boomers, Gen X and Millennials alike, and phone calls are just a tool we can use to get work done. They don’t have to be a generational pain point.
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