Blog Contest Winner: Can Mastering the FEEL First Model Unite the Contrasting Generations?

A Guest Post By Michael Matheny, MA candidate at American University and FEEL Blog Post Winner

The stark divides between the cultural norms from generation to generation have always been fascinating to me. The way time and the events of the world around us can alter the desires, aspirations, values, and fears of a population for decades to come is both invigorating and terrifying. By no means is this a recent phenomenon, curiously. In fact, history tells us that generational gaps have had impacts that rippled as far as outright revolution … the formation of the United States, anyone?

Let’s hone in on more recent years, however. War, fear, international isolation, and nationalism shaped an entire generation of people that now hold the majority of power and leadership in the western world — the Baby Boomers. Likewise, the polished, seemingly utopian “American Dream” based society that Boomers created as a result of their perceptions of the world resulted in a generation of those content with an exploitative system and the status quo — cue Generation X. The story continues to unfold, and it’s no surprise that the repercussions of the actions of generations before us have led to the collective mindset and headspace that Millennials, and further, Generation Z live in. Add in the digitalization of our entire planet at the turn of the 21st century, and you’ve got quite a bit of difference to unpack.

So how does any of this relate to the path to mastering the “FEEL First” model? How do we take an understanding of generational gaps and correlate them with leadership style, motivations, and the ability to connect with people? Deirdre Breakenridge’s research, as displayed in her ebookThe FEEL First Test: How Different Generations Face Fears,” gives us a great deal of insight on just that, breaking down how people born with completely different realities in their allotted time on Earth process and handle their experiences, and translate them into the action (or inaction) of facing their fears, engaging with empathy, using ethics, and unleashing the love of their mission in life. Sure, this data is useful for academic reasons, but the impact of what you can take away is much more significant. Deirdre’s collection of research can inform all of us of how we can understand each other’s fears and aspirations, find common ground, and ultimately come together to build a better world.

By Pew Research Center definition, having been born in 1996, I am a Millennial (although many would argue that I should identify as a Gen Y/Z cusper, or “zillennial.”) My relationships — personal, academic, and professional — span a much wider timeline. My mother, born in 1978, could qualify just as easily as a “cusper” between Generation X and the Millennials. My two younger brothers, born in 2000 and 2006 respectively, are quintessential “Zoomers.” In an academic setting, the majority of my professors are of Generation X, and professionally, most of my high-level leadership is from the Baby Boomer crowd. This diversity of age provides me with a rather interesting opportunity to gain observational insight on the values, fears, and habits of each group. Observational insight isn’t enough, however, to understand a population. In order to connect with all of them daily in a meaningful way, I must find a common ground approach.

Common ground can feel like an impossible place to get to, especially in the socio-political climate of 2021. Deirdre’s research shows that even outside of our socio-political beliefs, the generational gaps in our perception of the world can truly alter the areas of the “FEEL First” model in which we naturally excel. For example, Deirdre’s research notes that “Millennials are stepping out of their comfort zone less than Gen X, professionally and personally.” Her book also notes that in a 2019 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 44% of millennials responded as “feeling stress over finances, family welfare and career concerns.”

Stress, of course, is a defining feature of the Millennial population, and has a great impact over our relationships with our peers — academically, professionally, and personally. When I take this information and apply it to my own lived experience, it’s easy to justify a lot of my self-centered thought processes. This kind of thinking, however, is detrimental to mastering the “FEEL First” model. The reality is each generation has faced a series of challenges and uncontrolled environmental factors that have contributed to their general relationship with others. For Millennials, it may be the stress experienced by navigating an existence that isn’t quite as stable as that of their parents and grandparents. For Generation Z, it’s the cynicism of living in a society clinging to an idea that has never been attainable — the “American Dream.”

Understanding different world views and perceptions is critical, not just as it pertains to the “FEEL First” model, but as it pertains to my career in communications and marketing as a whole. To adequately connect with people and understand how to effectively communicate with them, mustn’t I have the ability to perceive the world as they perceive the world? To be able to step into their shoes, and understand reality as they see it? All of this is incredibly important, and as per my results from the “FEEL First” test, is precisely the area in which I need the most work.

Alright, so I’ve hammered in my point here, and I’m sure you’re thinking, “Great, yes. There are stark differences between the generations, their perception of the world is valid, it’s important to understand each other, and that’s not your strong point, blah, blah, blah. What are you going to do about it?” Well, I’m glad you asked. Working to master the “FEEL First” model is, of course, the big priority here. And as is noted on my “FEEL First” results, engaging others with empathy is my greatest weakness. Not entirely ideal for bridging the gap between generational differences, is it? To address this, I’ve developed a roadmap to actively engage those with contrasting values, perceptions, and realities.


Commit to Action

The first step to creating any sort of meaningful change and elevating my ability to engage empathetically is making a commitment to taking action. With the information provided by my “FEEL First” test results, I can begin to target the areas in which I need to personally grow in order to build better relationships. For now, my percentages in the areas outside of “engaging with empathy” are healthy, and while not perfect, won’t be my primary focus (for now).

Say Less. Listen. Learn.

To grow as an empath, I need to plan on saying nothing. So often, we don’t listen, we wait to respond, and I am quite guilty of this. Understanding others at a deep level is active, not reactive. Now that I’ve committed to action, I will actively learn and understand others’ viewpoints, realities, and fears. And this doesn’t stop in my own personal sphere — I don’t have to know someone personally to attempt to simply listen. There are millions of stories to hear that, in this digital era, are readily accessible, and necessary. The human experience is a varied, nuanced mysterious avenue to explore.

Apply It.

Now that I’ve taken the “FEEL First” test, acknowledged the areas that require the most urgent growth, have committed to action, and have learned how to listen and understand the differing lived experiences of those in my world, it’s time to take what I’ve learned from the “FEEL First” approach and use it.

With newfound empathetic growth, and existing strengths in ethics, passion, and facing my fears, I should ideally be able to connect and communicate better than ever before.

Assess and Repeat.

Here’s the deal though; at the end of this roadmap is not a final destination. It’s an evaluation. The reality is, no one is perfect, and no one will ever truly reach 100% on each of the “FEEL First” categories. It’s here that I must reassess where I am, and whether I am truly living with a “FEEL First” framework. Perhaps my percentages in my stronger categories have weakened, or I haven’t quite made the progress I initially hoped for. With that, my roadmap restarts, and I travel down a continuous path to personal betterment.

Deirdre’s research indicates stark differences between age groups, and our lived experiences are indeed drastically different. But we can’t allow that to serve as a permanent roadblock between us and a better society. For me personally, learning to understand those of different lived experiences and how they face their fears, take risks, and perceive the world around them is vital to my success in virtually every arena — academically, professionally, and of course, personally. The roadmap I’ve created for myself to move closer and closer to the mastery “FEEL First” is fluid and intentionally vague. This roadmap broadly directs me, and perhaps anyone reading this with the same convictions as myself, in the direction of mastery, but the reality is, the process will be ever-evolving, and may not always yield the results that I expect.

Can mastering the “FEEL First” model unite the contrasting realities between the generations? Perhaps, perhaps not. But ultimately, any added degree of understanding that I or anyone else can cultivate with another group of humans is a giant leap in the right direction.

Michael Matheny, MA candidate at American University and social media manager for the Kogod School of Business