Growing up, I always imagined that there would come a time when, suddenly, I would be an adult. When I would look like the adults around me, talk like them, act like them, and feel like I imagined they felt. Childhood stretched into adolescence, I left for college, lived abroad, took on different workplace responsibilities, got married, and had children of my own. And yet, there never came a point when I suddenly thought, “and now, I’m an adult.” I’m still me. Changes were the drip drip drip of water shaping limestone, not the epochal heaving of tectonic plates. Though I know I’ve changed, it’s hard to see it from the inside. Even having children, that irrevocable milestone of adulthood, makes me feel more like I’m faking it than that I’ve suddenly passed some threshold.
Even from childhood, there were always contemporaries who seemed somehow more mature, more adult than everyone around them. Speaking with them, I felt vaguely uncomfortable or embarrassed, as if they could see past the illusion of chronological age to the overgrown, out of its depth, slightly freaked out child inside. Not all of them have been in leadership roles, though they frequently were, as they’ve tended to be trusted and respected. And not everyone in a leadership role has been one of them, though they’ve usually had some of the characteristics, or wouldn’t have lasted long.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is that makes these people who they are, and I think it comes down to two critical skills.
Most people are terrible listeners. When engaged in conversations, they’re biding their time to make their own point, and only listen with an ear to deciding whether to agree or disagree, and whether they can use the other person’s point as supporting evidence, or as a straw man to pull down. Adults, however, are expert listeners. This is frequently discomfiting, for two reasons. The first is that they let you blather on until you’re done. We’re used to being interrupted, so most of us order our thoughts poorly, repeat ourselves, make digressions, and end weakly. Sometimes, we even trail off and don’t finish our final sentences, since we weren’t expecting to have to.
This leads to the second reason. Adults ask extremely good questions. Because they listen to what you say, and because they want to understand what you mean, they ask clarifying questions on points they don’t understand. These questions can seem incredibly insightful, both because they are, and because the experience of having people listen to what you said and ask directly related questions is such a rarity. These questions can even seem like attacks – though they aren’t necessarily meant that way – precisely because they can implicitly point out weaknesses in your argument, understanding, explanation, etc.
Think about the journalist interviewers you respect. Most interviewers just go down lists of prepared questions, letting the interviewees get away with any answer, no matter how absurd. But some, a very capable few (Jon Stewart comes to mind), are focused on what’s being said, and follow up relentlessly if they sense a lie or evasion.
Most of us have sent a late night email we’ve regretted, or responded to a verbal attack in kind. We’ve been defensive when we sensed we were being criticized, and have pointed the finger to try to shift blame. These instinctual reponses are childish and incredibly transparent to everyone around us, and yet they persist, despite the fact that they make bad situations worse. As they say, the cover-up is always worse than the crime.
Adults have managed to learn the secret recipe behind avoiding these traps. Don’t send email after 10 pm. Take a deep breath when angry, and only reply after you know what you’re trying to accomplish. Listen to criticism and ask whether it’s justified – maybe the other person has a point? The only way you’ll know is if you evaluate what they’re saying instead of unthinkingly treating it like an attack. Take the blame when it’s yours (or your team’s, which is the same thing) – if possible, claim it before it’s assigned. This not only demonstrates maturity, it robs your critics of their most powerful weapon.
All of these are specific (if common) examples, but come from a central core of emotional intelligence. Adults aren’t coldly logical Vulcans, but their approach to their emotions is different. They listen to their internal state, are able to identify and question it, and have developed specific processes for overcoming the automatic responses that get us into trouble. They respond to difficult situations on their own terms, instead of letting their responses be externally dictated.
Of course, this is a gross oversimplification. We all do better some of the time, worse at others. The people who seem particularly good at these skills can also lose their tempers, get over-excited about their own ideas and stop listening to others, and react defensively when criticized – it just happens less often. If you confronted them with their “adultness,” they’d probably laugh, and while appreciating the compliment, would brush it aside. They know better. And this, perhaps, is the third leg on the stool. The better you get at a skill (and make no mistake, these are learned skills, not magical innate characteristics that you either have, or don’t), the more accurately you can judge your own performance, identify problem areas, and work on them. Adults know when they’ve made mistakes, and instead of shying away from the memories, they use them to get better.