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Confronting Authority: 3 Things to Consider

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

It’s Friday afternoon and you’ve promised to be home early to get a head start on a weekend getaway. At 3:30 PM your boss bursts into your office with great excitement. Your company has been awarded the contract it’s been pursuing for months! However, the customer needs the proposal revised and on their desk before the end of the day. You’re the only one your boss trusts to do the job, and it’s going to take 2-3 hours to complete. Your boss asks you to do the work.

Q. How do you respond to your boss’ request? Yes, no, or maybe?

You just learned that he knew about the need for the changes on Wednesday but forgot about them.

Q. Is your response still the same?

And he would have done the updates himself, but he promised to be home early today.

Q. Still the same response?

Many things enter into our decision when it comes to saying “no” to authority. Normally the first question we ask ourselves before responding is, “What’s going to happen to me if I say no?” The second question follows naturally from the first by asking, “How is he going to respond?” The third question flows just as easily as the second: “Given how I think he’s going to respond and what might happen to me, what will I do?”

Not knowing how someone in authority will react to our confrontation can keep us preoccupied with worry. To avoid the inevitable trap of self-talk, consider these three things before possibly saying “no”: 1) pull yourself together, 2) put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and 3) proceed by saying “yes” – but to a different question.

Pull Yourself Together: It’s easy to get frustrated when you’re affected by things outside of your control. Something like the scenario above is an example of one of these times. Such circumstances can evoke strong feelings of resentment, anger, or even despair. You’re inclined to either erupt in a burst of regrettable words or swallow down anything you feel like saying before slinking off in defeat. These feelings can be so frustrating. The truth is, “your boss doesn’t frustrate you. You allow yourself to be frustrated.” So says Henry Cloud in his bestselling book, “Boundaries.”[1]

How we react to others rarely has much to do with the present circumstance or the person involved. Rather, our reaction stems from earlier experiences where we felt threatened in a relationship. Cloud refers to this emotional dynamic as transference, where old feelings of past realities kick-in old patterns of response, which are transferred to the current circumstance. Ultimately, you’re responsible for controlling your feelings. Only you can come to grips with why you feel the way you do. Only then are you in a position to respond to authority with clarity, unobstructed by overwhelming and misplaced emotion.

Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes: When our perspective is clouded by our emotions, we cannot see things from the other person’s point of view. By forcing ourselves to examine the issue from their perspective, our focus shifts away from our emotions to what the other person is feeling or thinking. We begin to put ourselves in their position by asking ourselves, “What are their possible thoughts? What are they expecting? What would I want to have happened if our roles were reversed?” With these questions answered, you’re prepared to engage in the conversation guided by these rules of engagement:

  1. Always ask for permission to provide an opposing view to their own. Asking permission shows respect for their authority and avoids their purely defensive response.

  2. Restate their position or the situation in your own words. Be sure to gain agreement on what the circumstance truly is and what the expectations really are. Be prepared to seek alternative win-win outcomes.

  3. Address the circumstance and not the person. Seek clarity on the situation and don’t digress into personal attacks that characterize the person in a negative way. Stay on point with the circumstance and the ideas surrounding it.

Going into a conversation this way calms the emotions of both parties and allows you to start by talking about something rather than someone with the proper levels of authority clearly acknowledged.

Proceed by saying, “Yes”: Saying “no” to authority has a nice ring to it, but typically it’s not the best initial response. Doing so risks insubordination. It also compels the one in authority to get defensive, which could manifest itself in over assertiveness. As an alternative, let your first response be “yes,” but to a different question. Always say “yes” to helping, even if the final answer is “no” to the request.

Our first response to nearly all requests should begin with a readiness to help. Responding this way keeps us in control of the level and type of help we’ll choose to provide. By establishing boundaries related to our help, we maintain a sense of control which calms our emotions. Saying “yes” to helping also conveys to the requester an openness to work toward an effective resolution. Ultimately, you want to satisfy the need without causing harm to other important facets of your relationship.

Confrontation is a normal part of the working relationship. Confronting those in authority - effectively saying “no” to what they want - can be especially difficult on many levels. By keeping your emotions in check, approaching the one in authority with respect, focusing on the issue, and always agreeing to help as a first response, you can confront those in authority without harm to your relationship or your company and its work. [1] Henry Cloud, John Townsend, “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life”, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2017, pg. 205.

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