A Checklist: How Emotionally Mature Are You in a Heated Conversation?


Melissa Killeen

[This is the final in a series of posts about my interactions with a recovery coaching client. In these blogs, I wanted to share what happens during a recovery coaching engagement, the discussions that take place, what usually comes up for the client and how, as a recovery coach, I respond. The series will pick up again in the near future]

I asked my client a very specific question after a blowup between he and his live-in girlfriend. If you have been following my blog, recently, you know that I have dedicated a number of posts to the topic of this particular client’s recovery and relapse, and his attempts to repair his relationship with the woman with whom he lives. So it’s become fairly obvious to me that this is going to be a recurring subject in our coaching and recovery relationship.

My client would like to believe that he is a mature, rational, 40-year-old adult. But if he is honest with himself, just as if we all are honest with ourselves, he’s surely held on to some inner emotional immaturity. The truth of the matter is that we can act like adults in our relationships or we can act like we’re 6 years old. When one partner displays emotional immaturity during a discussion, the other often follows suit, seemingly without much hesitation. Then the entire conversation fails. Perhaps the trigger is a feeling of being less-than, or of rejection or abandonment. In a flash, we become the 6-year-old that was lost in the department store, the 9-year-old that was reprimanded by a teacher or the 12-year-old listening in as their aunts and uncles fight at a Thanksgiving dinner.

As a coach, I like to differentiate between the emotional maturities of the 6-, 9- or 12-year-old, and those of the forty-year-old. When we begin to mature, our childlike behavior no longer reaps the same reward and we are forced to act more maturely. A 6-year-old is extremely limited in their choice of options when it comes to handling most types of situations. They learn as they grow, finding out what works and what doesn’t work. As adults, we have far more choices and options than a 6-year-old. Before reacting to questionable comments from another, it’s important to ask ourselves the very same question I asked my client: Do you want to be 6, 9 or 12 – or do you want to be 40? A true adult gets to choose!

Let me illustrate the difference . . .

Immature   Mature
I snap at my partner because I feel irritation. I recognize that I am irritable and why, so I calmly let my partner know how I feel and what I need to help me feel better.
I hold something that bothers me inside until I blow up at my partner. I hold something in until it comes out sideways. I tell my partner as soon as I am aware that something is bothering me so we can calmly discuss it.
I call my partner names and belittle them when we are arguing. I point fingers, invade my partner’s space and raise my voice. I realize that name-calling and belittling does not help the situation and I can voice what is really bothering me, instead. I recognize my body language, keep my hands at my sides, lower my voice and keep my distance.
I stuff my feelings, or lie to my partner because I am afraid it will start a fight, or that they will reprimand me. I am honest with my partner because I am emotionally prepared for their reaction.
I act on my sense of urgency to fight with my partner, knowing that I am reactive and emotionally activated. I recognize that I am reactive and I force myself to wait until I feel more stable to discuss it with my partner. I never respond immediately to something when I am angry, even if my partner insists.
I am defensive, hurt and argumentative when my partner complains about something I am doing. I recognize that my I am not perfect. I say I am human, I can make mistakes. I expect that sometimes my partner will have comments about my actions or behavior.
When my partner complains about me, I remind them that they have done the same thing or they did something that bothered me in the past (pointing the finger, deflection or cross-complaining). I hear that my partner is bothered by something and I validate their feelings. Any complaints I may have about them can be brought up at another time.

I spent some time with my client to discuss his reaction to this most recent blowup with his girlfriend. He identified with several of the immature characteristics in the above columns, characteristics evident in this and past exchanges. How many did he use? Did this number of immature responses overwhelm the number of mature responses? We discussed what the mature responses would have been.

Immediately, he said this was a good chart and that he was going to show it to his girlfriend to let her know that she had also displayed immaturity in their past discussions. I suggested he not do this, pointing out that as a mature adult, he need not shame his partner, even under the guise of using, to her benefit, a learning tool. It would be more effective, I explained, for him to practice mature, adult responses to future, potentially explosive situations. That that would help ensure the temperature of the next conversation not rise to a dangerous level, and expect his girlfriend to recognize his positive responses and emulate his mature behavior in these dialogues.

Using correct tools of engagement in heated discussions is seldom taught in families, or school. We learn how to argue and fight from our parents, family members or friends. At forty, it is time for my client to approach a heated conversation as a forty-year-old, not a 12-year-old.

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