How to talk to adults 101: start on a positive note, maintain eye contact, and keep calm

  • Speaking to your parents or teachers doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating
  • Mala Sundram, head of Drama, Communication and Literacy programmes at Julia Gabriel Centre, shares tips for clear communication
Doris Wai |

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You might sometimes think adults are a totally different species, but you can learn how to communicate with them

Have you ever had to tell your parents you’ve failed a major exam but you’re not sure how exactly to break the bad news? Or perhaps you need some space from them, but just can’t find the words to explain that?

Mala Sundram, head of Drama, Communication and Literacy programmes at Julia Gabriel Centre, an international speech and drama centre, gives some pointers on how to speak to an adult – and be taken seriously.

As you might already know, talking to an adult is, Sundram says, a whole different ball game from talking to your friends, and for good reason.


“When teenagers speak to their peers, it is relatively effortless and stress free. They use more informal language, interjected with lingo and their communication style is more casual.”

Communicating with adults, on the other hand, can be daunting. Sundram says teenagers can feel intimidated, and uneasy at the thought of being judged by an older person, so are reluctant to speak freely. As such, they tend to give short replies without elaboration, especially during a tough conversation. This, in turn, could be seen by adults as being rude.

But this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Anyone can have a proper conversation with an adult – yes, even your parents – with some planning, Sundram says.

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Start by “drafting” the content of your discussion, and include details and justifications if you’re looking to convince them. As much as possible, arrange for the conversation to take place when both parties are calm, and at a time and place when you are guaranteed to have one another’s full attention.

You should also speak respectfully, and refrain from emotional outbursts if things do not go your way.

“Raising your voice or bursting into tears may lead your parents to think you’re being impulsive and irrational, and they’ll be less likely to take you seriously.”

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If you’re struggling to begin a difficult conversation, Sundram advises opening on a positive note, and starting with issues that both sides agree on. As much as you want to get your point across, be ready to listen to what adults have to say, without judgment, and try to understand their concerns. This puts you in a better position to negotiate with them.

Sundram adds that the way we speak is perhaps more important than what we say, and this includes non-verbal cues such as eye contact, facial expression, gestures, and tone.

She points to research that suggests we’ve only got seven seconds to make the right impression when speaking to someone.

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“This means our manner of speech is crucial as people will form an impression of us very quickly after we begin speaking. Teenagers who are presenting to an adult audience or are interviewing for university admissions will need to be aware of this,” she says.

If you want to get adults’ undivided attention, speak clearly with suitable pauses and a calm tone. Sundram says this sends the signal that you are ready to engage in a serious conversation.

Adjusting your pitch plays a part in making adults feel at ease, and more willing to have a discussion. Sundram recommends using the middle register – neither too low nor high. She explains that a higher pitch may trigger an unnecessary emotional response, and the listener might battle to make out the details of the conversation if your voice is too low. Volume, too, matters: keep your voice at a level suited to a small private setting.

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It’s also helpful to maintain eye contact at all times, while keeping an open and relaxed posture with your hands resting comfortably on your lap, rather than folded across your chest.

“Talking to parents and other adults doesn’t have to be intimidating,” Sundram says . “Try practising these tips before you throw yourself into a difficult conversation to minimise misunderstandings, and unnecessary arguments. Communication is a two-way street – how you talk can influence how well an adult listens to you.”

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