Every person who ventures into the company of others engages in persuasion. Since we all differ in our goals and our means for achieving them, we inevitably get in each other’s way. Without the ability to persuade, we’d be reduced to a steady diet of deception and force.
As it involves attempts via reasoning and/or emotion to guide others toward a desired way of thinking or behaving, seeking change by its very nature states or implies that something isn’t quite right about the other’s beliefs, attitudes or behaviors, which is why it’s easy for people to resist or reject engaging in persuasion. Why listen to how you need to change?
One important reason: Of the three primary forms of influence -- persuasion, manipulation and coercion -- persuasion is the most transparent. It uses reason and emotion in ways that usually are discernable by an astute observer. It is done with rather than to people.
Persuasion doesn’t try to pull the wool over people’s eyes, in contrast to manipulation, or threaten them in some way, in contrast to coercion. Thus of the three forms of influence, persuasion has the highest transparency and capacity for civility. While persuasion may not always be in the best interests of the person toward whom it’s directed, at least he or she can reciprocate with reason and emotion – often resulting in reciprocal influence.
It follows that when persuasion ceases to be the primary means of attempting to bring about change in a relationship, trouble is brewing. As transparency becomes devalued, maneuvering and/or bullying can take over. Someone seeks the upper hand. Happiness gets measured in wins vs. losses rather than in finding common ground, engaging in quid pro quo, or reaching an arrangement that at least maintains the integrity of the relationship such as agreeing to disagree.
How can you know whether one of your relationships is in such jeopardy?
First, it’s important to understand that some degree of deception takes place in most communication. We tend to put our best selves forward in important situations. We often engage in conversation in ways that save the “face” or sense of self-worth of others. In turn, we expect them to do the same for us. We collude in economizing on truth. Occasional stretching the truth, such as saying, “No, that tie doesn’t look bad on you” when it does or “No, that idea doesn’t sound stupid to me” when that exact thought crossed your mind does not necessarily mean that a relationship is in jeopardy. Often it means we are abiding by rules of courtesy and doing our part to maintain a civilized culture, especially with regard to issues that aren’t that big a deal.
However, when people cannot talk together about their different views, especially in private and about issues important to one or both, or when one person tends to have the last word, the final say, or the option to terminate any discussion, then persuasion has left the building. The problem has gone beyond social collusion and devolved into negative conditions that can include an unwillingness to even exert the effort needed to develop reasoned arguments, an attitude of disrespect or disregard, and/or a focus on maintaining a power imbalance.
Attempts at persuasion can stand as a barometer of sorts in a relationship. Granted, at times it may be annoying to engage in conversation that requires you to develop effective arguments, but if such conversations are on the wane or largely absent, then important relationships can slip toward reliance on manipulation, coercion or even toward a lack of any significant communication at all. If you’re the one declining to persuade, it may signal that you’re no longer interested in the other person’s thoughts and opinions or that you’re not “all that into them” any more.
Finding a way back from this abyss may be awkward. Once relationships have slipped into reliance on manipulation or coercion, it is difficult to pull them back to transparency. But it’s better to nip the problem in the bud. One option when you’re on the receiving side of a breakdown in persuasion is simply to say, “Are you asking my opinion this time or are you telling me something?” It can be a useful opening move on the way back to a healthier relationship.
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