TOAA Reflections: What Does it Mean to Communicate “Like an Adult”?

by Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso

TOAA Reflections

What Does it Mean to Communicate “Like an Adult”?
By Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso

I’ve been dealing with a lot of things lately and while my small pool of friends has prevented me from having to be in the middle of other people’s business for the most part, it wasn’t enough to make me immune. I won’t really go into specifics but what really intrigued me to write something was that the term of talking “like adults” came up and that term for whatever reason got gears turning. It’s not the first time I’ve run into this creature in the wild but every single time I see it used I’m a little baffled. What does it mean to communicate “like an adult” exactly? That’s what I wanted to reflect on today.

When we think about communication in our society it can be easy to forget that communication is a skill. It’s often regarded as if it’s a talent or a trait that people just have pre-installed but this really isn’t the case. Communication is a skill and skills are things we have to make an effort to learn. Now in the instance that sparked this the suggestion to talk like adults was in a note and that’s going to be an important fact later. I’m not going to throw it out there right away and you might figure it out before we get to that part.

In addition to being a skill, communication is versatile. There are multiple ways to communicate including writing,speech and actions. But ultimately good communication is a combination of these things. Each primary form of communication has its pros and cons when used alone but they compliment each other when used together.

Writing however, while it can be effective when done correctly, has the most chance of muddling a communication. If it’s poorly executed writing can be a detriment and not an advantage. It gives you the time and real estate to flesh things out but it also has a faulty ability to communicate where we are emotionally, especially if you aren’t a skilled or organized writer.

In addition to that, the vehicle used to communicate writing isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. While a traditional letter, which used to be the only game in town, can indicate a more personal and thoughtful approach when done properly there are other options in modern society like texts and e-mails which have huge flaws to them and come off as cold. When a traditional letter was written way back when it had more weight because we didn’t have a myriad of options. Time and thought had to be injected into that letter because of the circumstances and the investment in the process. In sharp contrast, we tend to not think about a text or e-mail because of how readily available and instant they are. There’s not pressure to make the exchange count and there’s more pressure to focus on a “fast” response versus an effective one.

Writing is a powerful form of communication when done right and with care but when it’s rushed there are some very apparent holes to it as a standalone option. Part of the reason this balance can be so delicate is because we’re lacking part of what helps people process information. When we choose to directly communicate with a person we have things like a voice tone,facial expression or body language to bolster our words. These are foundations and boosters we just don’t have access to in a written piece of communication. We are essentially putting words out and dumping the responsibility of gauging tone and intent onto the recipient and that can go very wrong very easily.

As a for instance, my mother loves to use all capital letters to “emphasize” things when she writes text and e-mails. I usually notice a distinct anger after reading this because using all caps typically indicates yelling and yelling to me is negative and makes me feel antagonized. If the exchange had been done in person she could simply emphasize her voice and do so in a passionate but non-threatening way. This would greatly add to the efficacy of what she wants to communicate. She could also offset confusing wording with actions or be able to better gauge her responses based on my behaviors.

If you haven’t noticed, I’m a writer dumping on writing right now and there’s a reason for that. A good while back I posted a blog on how to discuss difficult things with people and one of my main points was that serious issues need to be tackled through direct communication. This is something I stand by even now. Writing is a great tool but as a bottom line piece of advice it should be your last option in a personal issue. If you are discussing or need to discuss a personal issue with a friend or loved one it should be a real and direct discussion, not a sticky note,letter,text or e-mail. If you can communicate difficult matters in person then do it. Writing and doing nothing else to settle personal matters is a coward’s option, barring a legal or personal safety issue. Writing can be a great way to reflect on and outline content for a more direct and proper encounter though and that is a practice I would highly encourage you try if you find that you run into issues with direct conversations.

But the point of this particular blog is to explore what it means to communicate “like an adult” and here’s my take on that. Adult communication indicates that the cornerstones of our interaction are maturity,honesty and personal responsibility. This means we have accepted our role,have made an effort to understand the other person’s perspective  and can handle real and direct communication without tiptoeing around. High school kids pass notes and texts. Adults have conversations. If you are still taking mainly personal offense while ignoring personal responsibility,making efforts to yank in a proverbial “team” to make sure your side of the story is out there or imposing immature tactics like passive-aggressive notes  then you aren’t communicating like an adult.

Does this mean you can’t communicate like an adult in writing? No,it doesn’t. But if you choose to or only have the option to deal with a personal issue in writing, make it count. Write a real letter that you’re forced to proofread and take time to craft. I guarantee you that if you try to do it in a text or an e-mail that it will go south. When we write traditional letters we have to handcraft,review and mail that sucker. That forces you to really put effort in and process the gravity of your words. It doesn’t allow you to push send and gloss over crucial parts of a situation.

The bottom line is that writing without thinking is dangerous so if you’re choosing to write like an adult, you need to force yourself to look at the situation as a whole and ultimately look your own accountability in the face. Humility and personal responsibility can go a long way in a dispute. It’s very easy to make laundry lists of what the world has done to us and still see ourselves as clean but a whole lot harder to sit in your own filth and realize you’re sometimes just as dirty.

Does this mean that you can’t consult people in your inner circle about the issue? No, it doesn’t. Getting a second opinion isn’t a crime. The key is that if you are consulting others it can’t be for petty reasons like whining or making the other person look bad. That’s not the same thing as seeking advice. It’s an immature effort to taint the water and convince yourself you’re right and the other person is wrong. If you are reaching out for guidance that’s fine but if you’re running a smear campaign it will come back to haunt you later.

If you think this kind of response sounds stupid or irresponsible and probably doesn’t happen, you’d be half right. Many adults make a common practice of pouring energy into a personal smear campaign to put off looking at themselves and taking at least partial responsibility for disputes. It happens more than you think and is even reflected in our media and government. Complaining and seeking guidance are two different things. If you want to consult a person for guidance than be honest and be accountable. It can’t just be about what the other person did wrong or what the other person needs to do. If there’s no shred of your part involved in that talk, it’s a smear campaign.

Another huge downside to this type of behavior is that people will eventually get to a point where they are compelled to find out the other person’s side. This means that if you haven’t been completely honest and you’ve been passionately painting someone out to be the devil, you need to be damn sure that Satan is going to pick that phone up if the person decides to check facts on what you’ve been saying. This is an aspect where accountability really matters because if you’ve lied,exaggerated or omitted information,it will look very bad for you when the person you’ve been using as a soundboard goes to check facts. It backfires and it backfires bad. It’s always best to be sincere when we approach personal relationships. If we give ourselves an inch of road to stretch the truth, we’ll eventually be driving into a canyon before we realize it.

But I hear you probably asking, what is the other person is too emotional or hurts my feelings? Guess what? Everyone is allowed to have feelings. Being a mature adult means that we accept that fact. People are allowed to be angry. People are allowed to be hurt. People are entitled to form their own opinions. Adults realize they don’t exist in a  bubble and find ways to accept and process other people’s emotions as well as their own. They realize that another person’s perspective isn’t something to take a crap on but rather a learning experience. Having disagreements is normal and waiting for ideal circumstances is naive. Being a successful adult means realizing it’s not always about you. If you’re focused on being heard but not getting your feelings hurt then I’m terribly sorry to have to say this. You’re doing it wrong.

Life is not sunshine and rainbows. When things don’t go your way you cope and find a way to move on in the best manner possible. There is no way to communicate “like an adult” and also not get burned a little. Relationships and life in general require you to get burned a little and work through it. If you aren’t ready to fall into a hole,get some bruises on your ego and settle for a few participation trophies than adulthood may not be for you. It’s a journey up a mountain,not a skip through a park. It’s impossible to get through life clean and unscathed.

Additionally, realize that someone is always going to get hurt in any given dispute. It may not be you but you need to realize there are no victim-free crimes. The more effort you make to protect you, the more likely people around you are getting thrown under a bus in some way. Ignoring a blood stain doesn’t make it go away. Being an adult is realizing and taking responsibility for collateral damage, even if we don’t intend for it to happen.

So in conclusion, what does it mean to communicate like an adult? In a nutshell, it means we have to truly learn to communicate. So often in our society we want to be seen as adults while acting like children, and that just doesn’t fly in real life application. If you want to know how to communicate like an adult, learn about what it means to really communicate and realize that you aren’t the axis the earth is spinning on. We can all fall prey to being selfish and that’s the most detrimental thing to gaining maturity in life. If you want to communicate like an adult, you have to make an honest go at being one.

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