Originally published on Maria Shriver’s

“Please, sir, can I have some more?”

Some of you may recognize the above quote as Oliver Twist’s request for more gruel in the orphanage. And, while I doubt many of you have experienced similar circumstances, I’m 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 titles/uniforms/framed diplomas on the wall have the ability to reduce us to dithering dodos? And more importantly, what can we 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 to put some verbal parameters around the questions by beginning with, “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 writing them down 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 talk 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. Whenever you find yourself with your mental, empty gruel bowl in-hand,

  1. Put a verbal stake in the ground: articulate your need to speak up,
  2. Prepare notes for yourself about what you plan to say,
  3. Keep it factual, not feelings-based.

I guarantee these three steps will ensure both parties leave the encounter satisfied.

Frances Cole Jones is the founder of Cole Media Management and the author of How to Wow: Proven Strategies for Selling Your (Brilliant) Self in any Situation, and of the new The Wow Factor: The 33 Things You Must (and Must Not) Do to Guarantee Your Edge in Today’s Business World.