Separating The Four Horsemen: Influence, Persuasion, Manipulation and Coercion
It was odd. His face scrunched up for a split second. I immediately sensed that I had said something unpleasing. I had only answered his questions, "What do you do?"
I've noticed that lately I've been avoiding answering this question. Don't get me wrong, I'm very proud of what I do for a living and can't imagine doing anything else. It's not out of shame that I avoid the question. It's just that most people don't understand it or it leads into a very long and in-depth conversation. So, I respond with a vague, easy-to-digest answer. "I'm a consultant."
But today, I went ahead and gave him the full description. "I help business leaders become more influential."
And there it was. The quickly scrunched up face. What did I say wrong?
"Oh," he said as he nodded while turning his body to face the center of the room. We sat in silence for only a few seconds, but I could tell something was brewing. He looked like he was in his mid-fifties, had a kind face and a full head of wavy silver hair. His bohemian look gave him an airy aura, but his voice was surprisingly low and commanding. He was staring into space while facing away from me. I checked my phone. Still another 40 minutes until we board the plane. Will I have to sit next to this guy in an awkward silence for another 40 minutes? I started strategizing my graceful exit. Grab a cup of coffee at Starbucks? Go to the restroom? Check out the gift shop?
Then, he couldn't contain it any longer. He had to say what was on his mind. "I'm sorry, but doesn't it feel kind of wrong, what you're teaching?"
"How do you mean?"
"It's just, aren't companies doing enough brainwashing by overdosing us with advertisements. But now, they've got someone like you teaching their leaders how to manipulate the people below them. It's just a scary thought that someone would be okay teaching people how to, I don't know, take advantage of the little guy even more than they already do."
I smiled. This was going to be a fun conversation.
"Just so I'm clear, what exactly is it that you think I do? What do you think it looks like? How do you see it playing out?"
"I don't know. You tell me. I just see you gathering all these evil CEOs and stuff. They ask you how to get their employees to do things they don't want to do. It's like whittling down their spirits."
"Gotcha. Well, I think there are two main points that I can probably clear up. The first one is simple. I do work with CEOs and the C-suite. You're right about that. But, I'm also brought in to work with mid-level managers as well as the front-line employees. So, it's not just the "evil" overlords who get this information. I work with everyone in the organization.
"The second thing is, I think there's a misunderstanding of what influence actually means. And, you know, it's an understandable misconception. People often use words like influence, manipulation, persuasion, and coercion interchangeably even though they each have very different connotations and uses.
"If you don't mind me asking, have you ever been in a long term relationship?"
"Yeah. I was married for 7 years," he answered, but was slightly thrown off by the question.
"Perfect. Did you ever want to buy something that your wife didn't want in the house? Or, did you ever disagree on where to take a vacation?"
"Did you ever get to go the mountains? Did you convince her to go somehow? Like, did you say if you go to the mountains then you'd pay for a spa getaway while you're there? Or did you paint a picture for her, describing how cozy it would be to snuggle next to the fireplace and how she could drink hot chocolate all day long?"
"Ha! Yeah, that last one. That's how I convinced her to go the first time."
"Then you were influential. You convinced her to take a desired action using only your words. That's influence. Now, here's the important point. You didn't have any bad intentions about wanting to vacation in the mountains. There was nothing that you did that harmed her physically or emotionally. You simply aligned your objective - going to the mountains - with some of her objectives - wanting a romantic getaway.
"No, that's just having a conversation."
"Well, yes and no. For you, being persuasive might come naturally so you don't realize the tactics you use. And, trust me, there are specific tactics. But, you have to keep in mind, influence doesn't come naturally for a lot of people. They don't have the self-esteem to engage in that kind of conversation. They don't know how to pick up on the subtle signals happening during the conversation. They don't know how to guide a conversation towards a specific objective. This list can go on and on.
"And, you have to keep in mind that you might be very familiar with some influential techniques and use them often. I'd day that everyone has 2-3 dominant techniques. I teach people an entire repertoire of influential techniques so that they can handle all kinds of situations and people."
"Okay, but not all conversations are as innocent as figuring out a place to vacation. You're teaching corporate guys to manipulate all kinds of situations."
"So, let's talk about the differences among influence, manipulation, persuasion and coercion."
. . . . .
I am going to now do something that I rarely, if ever, do. I'm going talk about the definitions of words. Ick. (It seems like so many books, blogs, and speeches open with a word definition or the etymology of that word. So, I have a slight distaste for it. It feels like a hack move, but for this article, I see no way around it. Let's talk about definitions, baby!)
: the power to change or affect someone or something : the power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen: a person or thing that affects someone or something in an important way
I think the important point here is, "without directly forcing them to happen." Other definitions of influence refer to influence as being undetectable by the other person, and/or that influence reveals little to no effort by the influential person. I, personally, believe that influence and persuasion are fairly interchangeable.
: the act of causing people to do or believe something : the act or activity of persuading people
Now, let's talk about the nasty cousins of influence: manipulation and coercion. Usually, when people have a negative reaction to the word influence, they are actually conjuring images and ideas about these words:
manipulation: exerting shrewd or devious influence especially for one's own advantage; "his manipulation of his friends was scandalous"
coerce: to make (someone) do something by using force or threats : to get (something) by using force or threats
Coercion is probably the ugliest of the lot. It's pretty much a do-whatever-it-takes approach. Brainwashing and torture fall under the heading of coercion. Manipulation is unfortunately and incorrectly equated with influence. I guess it's understandable since there really is only one small difference between the two.
A person who is manipulative usually has bad intentions or doesn't care if the other person gets harmed. Manipulation insinuates that you don't care about the consequences that befall the other person. Conmen are manipulative. They will slyly convince someone to part with their valuables or be an accessory to a crime. The conman knows full well that he or she plans to walk away at some point, leaving the victim to deal with the fallout.
The term influence itself is a neutral term. It does not mean influencing someone toward a positive or negative direction. Although, I use it regularly to mean positive influence. I hope that this helps you see the differences between negative influence (manipulation and coercion) and the more positive and neutral sides of influence and persuasion.
Ultimately, influential power exists and everyone holds its potential. It's up to you if you will use the tools and techniques in a positive way.
. . . . .
"Okay, I get it now. You're not teaching manipulation, but more influence. But, don't you think it's dangerous for people to know how to use those techniques? I mean, they still could turn manipulative with the tools."
"Well, I guess I've never been the kind of person who believed ignorance is bliss. I fall more under the 'knowledge is power' camp. And, you know, it's just like anything else. A car can get you from point A to B, and it can also kill someone. The internet has expanded our culture's knowledge and increased our connection to the world, but it's also a place where people can learn how to cook meth or build a bomb.
"It all is determined by the intention behind the action.
"Yes, there are a lot of bad people in the world who do bad things. I know that. But, ultimately, at my core I believe that people are good. And, I think that if more of the good people learned and used these tools, then it would spread.
The bad people are already actively searching for ways to manipulate. There's no reason why the good people should be at a disadvantage.
"Who knows, maybe someday the good people will use their influence to persuade the bad people away from a negative action. That's my hope."
What do you think? Is knowing the dark arts of influence a bad thing? Did this clear up any preconceived notions about influence vs manipulation etc? Is there another term or phrase that resonates with you?
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