Talk to Authority

Everyone has heard it at some point or another––the dreaded "See me after this meeting/class/practice, I'd like to have a word with you...". But this comment should not conjure up feelings of horror and anxiety. Try following the most pertinent of these steps and talking to authority will be a breeze.


  1. Realize that the person in authority was in your position once. All modern-day authority figures were kids, and people of little authority at one time, and all of them have been talked to by someone they saw as a superior or authority figure. They too have suffered the awkward conversation, and they know how you feel when talking to authority. Most will go easy on you because of this. Remember, they want to either ask you a simple question or give you some helpful advice––they don't necessarily want to scare you.
    • Obviously, some authority figures do use scare tactics as a means of seeking to control others. The operative word here is "seeking"; they can only control you or frighten you if you let them. There is no need to be rude or abrasive in response but neither do you need to act like nervous Nelly. Remain calm and assertive in the face of people who try to scare you.
  2. Put a hold on defensiveness. It can be easy to get defensive and to try to pass the blame or reject responsibility. Yet, defensiveness takes a lot of energy and can block you from hearing the real message. It can also make you seem guilty, even where you aren't. And ultimately, being defensive is akin to being defiant, which is circular and gets you nowhere. Be open to what is being said; you'll learn more and you'll realize that taking it personally is pointless. Rather, take it as constructive advice or a timely warning that is worth heeding. Stay calm and focus on doing or deciding better next time.
  3. Answer questions at appropriate times. Don't interrupt the other person with your answer before they've finished asking the question. If you do so, you will seem either suspicious or rudely overconfident about yourself. If they ask you a question that asks for information, like "Why did you take over the meeting from Shane when we didn't plan for that?", then look down a little for a moment, then answer politely and succinctly. Most people look down when they're thinking and this buys you time. If they ask you a question that requires you to look into past memories, look up for a moment and answer. This is where most of us look when remembering something.
    • Make sure you don't answer rhetorical questions (often posed by those in positions of power, for effect or as a way to think through their own thoughts), and yet be sure that you answer real questions. For instance:
      • If the authority figure asks something like "What were you thinking", don't answer. Simply look at them for a moment, showing in your expression that you know you did something wrong or lapsed in judgment.
      • If they ask you a question like "What do you think you did wrong?", then do answer. All they want to know most of the time is that you know what you did and understand the consequences.
    • Sometimes the authority can be rather harsh in asking these questions, causing you not to want to answer, out of fear or anxiety. Make sure you catch yourself at these questions, and answer them. But don't mistake questions that you should answer for rhetorical questions.
  4. Don't take a step back. Oftentimes when people talk to authority, and they ask a question, the person will take an automatic step back. This is instinctual for humans, because when we're about to be attacked, we'll automatically go back a step to try to avoid the inevitable blow. Instead of allowing your amygdala to hijack your thinking reactions, make sure you stand your ground with the authority figure. Moving back symbolizes fear and a lack of confidence, as well as a willingness to be subordinate without standing up for yourself assertively. They will digest your determination to stand your ground subconsciously, and if you do step back, they'll assume you don't have the guts to speak to them or that you're cowering with guilt or inability to accept responsibility.
  5. Control your nervousness. For some people, the mere sight of a uniform or the official title on a person's badge or door is enough to make them quake at the knees. Whether it's previous experiences with people in authority triggering the response, too many movies featuring cops, interviewers or high school principals, or just an overworked sense of guilt or paranoia about everything, controlling your nervousness is paramount. Try to focus on breathing deeply, drawing slow and gentle breaths direct from your diaphragm. This will reduce your edginess and give you time to focus, as well as relaxing you. Take everything slowly, even if the authority figure appears to want immediacy in responsiveness.
  6. Trust in the guidance capacity of the authority figure. If you're in a situation where the authority figure is calling out your behavior or attitude issues, see this as a learning opportunity. Most people in authority are in a position to see things that you aren't and they are trying, in their own way, to guide you and to keep you from repeating avoidable mistakes or pointless exercises. The authority figure is qualified to impart wisdom or expertise, so trust that responsibility as a source of guidance or even as a warning that can help improve your future approaches or thinking. Ultimately, this is about realizing that this person is usually on your side and they care enough to want to set you straight.
    • See this as aiming for a common goal. The authority figure can see where you went or are going wrong and has solutions to suggest for setting things right again. You are in the position of choosing to act on the soundness of their advice or warning to change your direction for the better.
  7. Focus on the positive. Accept that your boss, teacher, mentor, whoever has a point but rather than seeking to diffuse blame or make awkward excuses, focus on what you can do to improve the situation from this point on. This will show the authority figure that you're stepping up to their challenge or accepting their points and that you're finding solutions. For example:
    • Betty's boss complained that Betty has a bad habit of taking control of meetings that have nothing to do with her, the consequences of which include confused clients and angry coworkers. Betty acknowledges her enthusiasm and says that she will continue to remain enthusiastic but in future channel it all into the projects that are hers only and will only say her piece in meetings led by other coworkers if they've asked her to do so or if she has asked them if it's okay to add her piece beforehand. Her boss is reassured and Betty discovers that focusing more on her own work is even more rewarding than trying to meddle in everyone else's.
    • George's school principal has complained that George has been carving his name into too many school trees. George says that he accepts that he has done the wrong thing and that he will channel his artistic bent into woodcarving classes in future and that to make up for the trees he accidentally ring barked, he'll plant 40 new trees free of charge in the school grounds. George discovers as a result that he's a brilliant woodcarver and that he loves gardening too.
  8. Stand up to the authority figure when necessary. This step isn't relevant unless you're being pushed around in a serious situation, in particular one where you could lose privileges, a job or even your freedom if you are in real trouble. If your boss blames you for something you didn't do, and continuously harangues you with questions, stand up to him or her. Clearly state, "I didn't do that. I honestly don't know what you're talking about, because I didn't do what you claim, and I never would." They will admire you for being able to stand up to them and say that. If you know who did it, and are taking the blame so they don't get in trouble, tell them who did it. If you don't, you'll just have to keep that reputation with the authority figure. Don't consider that you're "ratting your buddy out", because you aren't. You are simply telling the truth, since you're lying if you don't tell them who did it. You are teaching them a lesson; that you have to take responsibility for your actions.
    • Don't say the wrong thing. Many people make the wrong comment while standing up to authority, and end up getting into more trouble. For instance, if you're being blamed for spray painting a building or for cooking the books, don't speak out if you know it's true. If the officer says something like, "We're going to need to take you to the station, just for some questioning", don't blurt out, "That's not fair, you can't arrest me! I did it with my friends/coworkers, it was all their idea!" Although they would have appreciated the information you supplied, this is the wrong time to explain yourself. Most of the time when getting blamed for something like this, they will ask you if anyone else was involved. That would be the time to disclose this information. And if you do explain that you weren't the only one, don't shove all the blame on someone else. You both did it together as a whole, the idea belonged to both of you. That means that both of you need to take the blame.
    • Accept the blame, and offer to do what's necessary to make amends if you are at fault for something. Always take the blame or accept responsibility if it was you who did something wrong or you who make a poor judgment call. You need to take responsibility for your actions, and you can't do that by avoiding your punishment. If you've taken the blame, offer to do what else is necessary to gain the authority's trust again. Remember to keep your promises. Hand your papers in a few days earlier than necessary, supply the donuts for work meetings, etc. But be aware that even after you do these things, they will most likely never trust you like they once did. You'll just have to live with that and keep proving you've changed by being your better self.


  • Asking questions makes you appear interested and shows that you're listening. Don't worry about looking stupid; remember the Chinese saying that a person who asks a question may appear stupid for five minutes while the person who never asks looks stupid for a lifetime. The authority figure has the experience and knowledge; by asking questions, you get to draw down on that advice to better your own understanding.
  • Be polite. And smile rather than scowl. Scowling may feel nicely defensive but it's also provocative and it puts people on edge, convincing them that you're stubborn and unwilling to change. On the other hand, a smile eases tensions and shows that you're open to listening and hearing what the authority figure has to say.
  • Supply any information they ask for.
  • Be aware that the perceived kindness or caring attitude of an authority figure can cause you to break down sometimes. This can happen when you feel that this person is someone who finally "gets" you or is giving you "permission" to drop your usual wariness or front. Don't beat yourself up over this; it happens and kindhearted people don't mind.
  • Picture the authority figure in his or her underwear if you have them on too much of a pedestal. Or, if that doesn't work for you, substitute something else, such as reminding yourself that they were once a baby their mother loved deeply.


  • Don't lie, this could result in even more trouble for you.
  • Standing up doesn't mean raising your voice. It means being assertive, realistic and calm.
  • If you continue to be terrified of authority figures or they cause you to cry or react badly each time (even when you've done absolutely nothing wrong), speak to a psychologist or other mental health specialist. You might have inculcated a phobia of authority figures that needs treatment. Alternatively, you might have an over-inflated neediness for approval or praise and when the authority figure is guiding you, you might translate their constructive comments into believing that the authority figure is attacking your core self. Either way, therapy may be helpful.

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