Lifestyle The art of exercising authority well in an empathetic...

The art of exercising authority well in an empathetic and flexible way


The way in which a person relates to authority, whether to accept it, question it or exercise it, affects their life. In childhood the foundations are laid for this process that continues into adulthood.

Who has not ever criticized their boss or been upset when receiving an order? Why is it so bad that they tell us what to do? Is it so hard to respect some rules? How affected is our freedom going to be? And if so, why does it hurt that they question our own authority?

The problem with authority is authority itself: sometimes you have to abide by it and other times, exercise it. And one thing can be as difficult as the other. Knowing how to manage authority would be like learning not to step on the dance partner. It is not enough to have a talent for dancing: you need experience and, above all, discover how the other moves so as not to crush one foot. In childhood, the family acts as a bridge between us and the world. Each family system has its own rules, which allow us to coordinate our actions with those of other people. When we follow group norms and internalize limits, our decisions and behaviors are more predictable for the rest of the system and provide stability.


The famous psychotherapist Virginia Satir interviewed thousands of families to see how parents addressed and raised their children and described four predominant styles of communication:

  • The accuser

It employs an authoritarian pattern based on the premise: I’m the boss here. He considers himself better than the others and communicates with tension, pointing to the other with his finger. It feels effective based on the obedience achieved and generates fear. Those who were brought up with this model are likely to behave poorly with authoritarian people , perhaps avoid confrontation or, on the contrary, tend to seek it unconsciously.

  • The appeaser

It seems to be saying: I live to make you happy. We can imagine him together with another person offering him attention, seeking his pleasure in a way that can generate guilt in the receiver. Those who received an excess of messages of this type can develop skills of demanding little tyrants. Other people who identify with this typology may have little confidence in themselves and live relationships in which they receive some type of abuse.

  • The calculator

He rationalizes everything with the presupposition: if I think enough, I will avoid the pain. Try not to show your emotions for fear of what may come from them. Whoever assumed this kind of authority may present a longing to be perfect and control everything. Wanting to be one hundred percent sure that things will turn out the way you want leads to feeling a great responsibility and experiencing fear of failure.

  • The distractor

His words have nothing to do with what is happening. He has the feeling that no one cares and lives accompanied by loneliness. With him nothing is safe because he seeks above all to amuse the other. You can feel very disoriented in life, especially when it tests you.

Generally, there is a painful experience of authority when these patterns are exaggerated or become fixed and immovable roles. For example, when there is the case of an always placating mother and an always accusing father, who do not vary or interchange these patterns under any circumstances.

Faced with these styles, Virginia Satir proposed communicating with the family in a more empathetic and creative way, fostering the self-acceptance of each person through a direct and clear transmission, using human, flexible rules that can be changed when situations require it.


Until recently, families were much more numerous than now and the parents smelled to exercise authority in an unsympathetic way, often assuming an accusing and constrained pattern to the little time spent at home. Today the family is focused on the care of a minority offspring, in a kind of inverted pyramid, where grandparents and parents are at the service of one or two children.

Among the families inspired by May 68, the permissive democratic model is frequent, in which decisions are debated with the children and any vestige of authoritarianism reminiscent of the one that could be suffered in their own flesh is rejected.

When the adult’s response is congruent, it has the power to reassure the child and help him to feel attached to the group. Sometimes that requires toughness, and sometimes being a soft negotiator or overlooking things. In any case, it will always require respecting the child and his moment of evolution, both in order to understand him and to assign him responsibilities that help him understand what he is part of.


Our way of living with authority in adult life is the result of the relationship we have had with it since childhood. There are as many ways to embrace it, to tempt it, or to reject it as there are personal trajectories. The difference from the child is that the adult has already con fi gured his place in the world; Whoever it is, it knows where it is and what it is a part of.

That is why the adult values ​​authority when the messages he receives respect his situation, both in content and form, confirming him in that place. The emotions that are generated in this case are respect, empathy, trust. If, on the contrary, the adult experiences a message of external authority that does not take into account who he is and where he comes from, he feels fear and mistrust. He does not feel understood, but questioned.

That is why it is important that we locate and recognize the people in their environment, values, beliefs, etc., even when from our references they may seem inappropriate. We all have creators and celebrities in mind who have a contentious relationship with authority, or who believe they are the only authority. Or people to whom the lack of limits taken to the extreme helped them touch the psychopathy despite being endowed with brilliant qualities. The truth is that, for many, authority in adulthood continues to be experienced as a drag.

Others were lucky enough to feel valuable and understood later on. Such people are likely to have no problem with authority or have reconciled with it. An anthropologist noted that the chief of a tribe only gave his people orders that they could carry out.

The investigator pointed this out to him and the boss looked at him in surprise saying “Of course! What kind of boss would you be if you didn’t do that?” The anecdote is illustrative of what the authority should contain of congruence and love. The philosopher José Antonio Marina also proposes to integrate, instead of confronting, tenderness and demand. If we can demand from tenderness, we can unite what seemed irreconcilable.


The following suggestions may be effective in exercising a more consistent and balanced type of authority.

  1. Be clear about what you want and what you can ask for. This way it will be easier to transmit it. Give more than you ask for and share your successes in such a way that others feel they are their own.
  2. Standards are useful as long as they are considered from the golden rule of flexibility: they can always be improved.
  3. Offer alternatives to criticism or make it easier for the person to reflect on how to do better.
  4. Learn to differentiate what people do from what they are. Saying: “You have thrown the water” only alludes to the event. “You are a disaster” disqualifies and affects the identity of the other without helping them improve.
  5. Practice humility by first discovering how you participate yourself in maintaining each problem you wish to tackle.
  6. Authority requires a certain self-control and sense of justice: any human being can be visited by anger or helplessness. The important thing is to recognize those feelings, put them in context, and act accordingly. If they invade us often, it is likely that they have nothing to do with what is happening: perhaps it is a good time to allow ourselves to be helped.
  7. It is impossible to be the good one at all hours. When exercising authority, you have to be firm or make decisions that you don’t always like.
  8. Leading by example means being more than saying: keeping commitments and respecting yourself and others in what you do
  9. Lose the fear of being flexible or demanding. The combination or choice depends on each case.
  10. The messages of authority must be given from empathy or respect for the place of the other in the world.


The leveling style of communication that Virginia Satir encouraged indicates how to exercise creative leadership, being connected with the learnings that experience provides and readjusting according to the circumstances. In the case of children, this facilitates an open and trusting link with society, which allows maintaining the polarity between the two ways of educating that we describe, between teaching and allowing learning.

Similarly, in their relationships with authority, the adult does not expect to feel displaced from the system through fear, but to be guided through trust. Our attitude as figures of authority could well be that of the image of the shepherd with the sheep, staying visible and close, neither too far forward nor too far back, and intervening only what is necessary for the harmony of the flock in the place.


“Whoever defeats others is strong, whoever defeats himself is invincible.” With these words Lao Tzu and Taoism suggest an interesting way to go.

Milton Erickson, a legendary psychotherapist, used to ask his patients to do things that might seem implausible to heal. When they asked him why he was so confident that they would listen to him, he pointed out: “How can they not do it, they know I’m serious!”

MindFixes Staff
MindFixes is dedicated to promoting mental health, preventing mental disorders and advocating, educating, and serving all people with mental and substance use conditions. MindFixes is determined to persevere, learn, grow, love and laugh through our wellness journey and we invite all to join.


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