• Terry R. Bacon

How to Be More Effective at Legitimizing

Legitimizing is an appeal to authority, which means that you influence others by using authority or citing an authority. When you use legitimizing, you are justifying your position or request by citing an authority that supports you. Here are some examples of legitimizing:

  • Traffic signs or stoplights. People generally obey traffic signs and stoplights because there are laws for using motorized or non-motorized vehicles on public roads and streets.

  • Titles and positions. Certain titles convey authority, such as professor, doctor, officer, judge, president, director, supervisor, boss, minister, priest, rabbi, imam, sheikh, teacher, and so on. People are more inclined to listen to, believe, and adhere to the advice or direction of someone whose title indicates that they have special expertise or otherwise have the authority to make or enforce rules.

  • Institutions, such as a religion or church, a legislative body, a political party, a government agency, the local or national police, the military, a court, and so on.

  • Laws, regulations, standards, certifications, and traditions, including cultural customs.

  • Accomplishments or honors, such as a Nobel Prize winner, an Eagle Scout, a PhD, an Olympic gold medal, and so on.

People often look to experts or authorities for guidance or clarity, for a “proven” path forward, especially when they are uncertain, anxious, or afraid. They want order rather than chaos. They seek to simplify the world and the decisions they must make, so a traffic light is welcome (unless they are in a hurry) because it organizes their world and allows them to operate with a minimum of decision-making effort. People understand that laws create social and legal structures that enables us to live together more-or-less peacefully and to earn our livings and raise our families in peace. So we are inclined to accept and obey laws, rules, and regulations. Of course, there are exceptions, but responding to authority is something we are taught from the moment we are born. When we disobey authority, we are often punished, so we learn to live with authority and recognize the consequences if we do not. When a mother says, “Because I said so,” that is her exercising her legitimate authority as a parent, and it is usually sufficient to influence the child she is speaking to.

Tips on Using Legitimizing

  • Legitimizing is not complicated. Generally, the most effective way to legitimize is simply to cite an authority:

As you know, the law recently changed. Now it requires us to. . . .

I checked the regulation again, and it calls for two years’ records before the agency will. . . .

According to the (Bible, Koran,Torah, or other holy book). . . .

The Supreme Court has ruled that. . . .

A yellow light means slow down and prepare to stop, not speed up.

I’ve read three reviews of this film, and they all say it. . . .

The police car behind us is flashing its red lights.

In his most recent book, Doctor Hill wrote that. . . .

In our culture, it is customary to. . . .

The boss wants our report by close of business today.

Dad said to come down for dinner.

  • It is important to recognize that everyone responds to some authority sometimes. However, not everyone responds to the same authority, so you need to know your audience well. When you want to influence people by legitimizing, you should know what kind of authority they find credible. Use this influence technique only with people who are inclined to respond to the type of authority you are citing.

  • All people respond to some type of authority, but some people have an aversion to control and are more likely to rebel against authority if they perceive it as an attempt to control them. They are iconoclastic and rebellious by nature and will resist the kinds of authority they consider intrusive and controlling. To a rebellious teenager, any use of parental authority is likely to provoke resistance. With people who react adversely to authority, either do not use legitimizing or legitimize only by citing the kind of authority you know they will accept.

  • Do not use legitimizing with someone who is a higher or greater authority than the authority you are citing.

  • Avoid being heavy-handed when you legitimize. Use authority to justify a request or reinforce a statement, rather than pressuring someone into complying. If you sense resistance, switch to logical persuading. Cite facts and logical arguments for complying.

  • Recognize that legitimizing normally results in compliance, not commitment. Legitimizing is a useful influence technique when you are simply trying to get someone to comply with your request or agree with your position, and it often results in quick compliance (like stopping at a stop sign). But legitimizing rarely leads to passionate commitment.