Some of you may recognize the above as Oliver Twist’s request for more gruel in the orphanage. And, while I doubt many of you have experienced similar circumstances, speaking from my own experience, I am betting some of you have adopted a similar tone when dealing with an authority figure in your life—I know I have.
Why is it that some people have the ability to reduce us to dithering dodos, while others make no dent in our composure? While I don’t know that there’s any hard and fast rule, I do know these feelings are often triggered by titles/uniforms/framed diplomas on the wall—I’ll take things that make us feel inferior for $500, Alex.
More important than why, then, is what can you do about it? If, for example, you have a doctor who sighs deeply after you ask a question, or who brushes it off with an impatient, “That’s impossible,” how can you gently assert that he needs to both acknowledge the validity of your question and respond to it?
My recommendation is first to put some verbal parameters around the questions by saying, “I need to ask you some questions.” The use of “need” here is very specific: if you begin “I want” or “May I?” you begin as a supplicant. “Need” puts your need for answers on par with his need for the conversation to be over. Next, “I’ve written down three that I need answers to.” (Note, please, have them written down.) The reason for this is that being at the doctor is often distressing, and when we’re distressed, it’s difficult to think clearly. Additionally, even if we are thinking clearly, we are often so put off by the feeling of being rushed that we tell ourselves our questions aren’t that important and so, skip some. Citing how many we will be asking keeps us on track. It also gives him an “estimated running time” for how long he is going to have to be talking to you, which will help him to focus.
Next, phrase your questions in a factual way. Instead of, “The blood pressure medicine you prescribed makes me feel weird,” you need to state, “About half an hour after I take X medication I become dizzy if I stand up too quickly. Is this something to be concerned about?” This questions serves multiple purposes in that it doesn’t blame the authority figure (there’s no use of “you”), it reminds him of what he prescribed (because he’s not going to want to have to ask), and nowhere do you use the word “feelings.” Nope, you are having a fact-based conversation. The aggregate of these choices makes it far easier for him to hear you, and far more likely he will respond in a way that acknowledges the gravity of the question you’re posing.
The same steps apply beyond the world of white-coated figures. When you’re dealing with an authority figure, put a stake in the ground for your need to speak up, make notes for yourself about what you’d like to say, and keep it factual, not feelings-based.