There were a handful of us, some of them I knew and another handful of people I’d never met before. I eventually circled around to one conversation with a new friend. We were talking about a topic that I was fairly passionate about and we had some pretty different opinions.
I believed in my heart that, if adopted by my new friend, my point of view would benefit the way that he looked at the world, moved through life, and it impact the world around him both on a personal and a business level.
As we were talking, we kept going point by point and discussing my worldview, his worldview, how they differed, and eventually circled around to a place where, when we left the conversation, this new friend had been substantially persuaded to my point of view. That left me pretty happy because I believed in my heart that we’d had an honest respectful conversation and his new outlook would benefit not only him, but those he served.
Now, there’s something else that was going on during this conversation.
Over a period of years, or honestly decades, I’ve spent a huge amount of time, energy and money studying the human condition, human nature and the way that we process arguments and facts. Put another way, I’ve invested a lot in understanding the psychology of persuasion and learning how to present facts and interactions in a manner that will be more likely to persuade somebody to my point of view.
I’m actually far more effective at this in print than I am in face-to-face conversations, which is probably why, for years, I’ve resorted to print as my prime tool for both expression and persuasion. It also is one of the things that has led me to be reasonably successful writing copy.
And, last week I had the great pleasure of presenting on “writing that moves people to action” as part of an online conference on writing. During the hour or so that I was speaking, I shared a number of principals of persuasion – tools and techniques to take the psychology of persuasion and translate it to print. And, I shared and demonstrated a number of pointed strategies and tactics designed write in a way that persuades people to your opinion, to your argument, or to actually buy a product, service or idea.
The last 15 minutes of that presentation were reserved for Q&A and during that time I got some really great questions diving deeper into some of the strategies and principals. Then, somebody asked an interesting question one that I’ve been asked a whole bunch of times in the past…
Aren’t you just teaching us how to manipulate people in print?
It’s a fascinating question.
The way I answered that question during this call, and the way I’ve answered it in the past, is that the difference between persuasion and manipulation lies largely in underlying intent and desire to create genuine benefit.
Understanding how people form opinions, arguments and present and integrate facts into their mental models is mission-critical in your ability to convince anybody to buy into an idea and then act on that idea. That’s the essence of persuasion.
The difference between persuasion and manipulation lies in:
1) The intent behind your desire to persuade that person,
2) The truthfulness and transparency of the process, and
3) The net benefit or impact on that person
Manipulation implies persuasion with the intent to fool, control or contrive the person on the other side of the conversation into doing something, believing something, or buying into something that leaves them either harmed or without benefit.
It may also imply that you are concealing a desire to move them to your point of view in a way that will benefit you. And if this benefit were disclosed, that revelation would make the other person far less receptive to your message because it would either:
- Demonstrate a strong bias towards their lack of benefit in the exchange,
- Demonstrate an ulterior motive for the attempt at persuasion, often driven by one-sided benefit, or
- Some combination of both.
So for example, let’s say I was selling somebody a car and I had all of my tools of persuasion and strategies. That person walked into my dealership and it was apparent, with a family of six kids, they were looking for and genuinely needed a family-sized, affordable vehicle.
But, I then leveraged all of my persuasive abilities to convince the parent that he shouldn’t be buying a mini van but rather a two-seater convertible to reclaim his youth, and in doing so, teach his children how important it is to stay true to their youthful ideals, knowing full well that I would make twice the commission on that car and it was completely unsuitable for them.
Now, what if that same parent came into my dealership with the same six kids and said to me, “Man, I just want to blow some cash. I should buy a six-seater. I know it’s completely irrational and I really can’t justify this, but I’m just jonesing for the two-seater convertible?”
And, what if I then I used my persuasive abilities to slowly and methodically lay out a conversation and a set of facts that led this parent to understand the genuine benefit of purchasing the more affordable and suitable family car?
That’s persuasion, not manipulation.
Because I used the same set of skills to convince somebody to do something that I genuinely believed was in their best interest, instead of convincing them to do something that I was pretty sure was not in their best interest – and very likely was being less than truthful with at least part of what I was talking about.
In the end, persuasion strategies, tools, and an understanding of how to present facts, arguments and interactions in a way that’s more likely to get somebody on the other side of the conversation to buy into your point of view is simply about persuasion.
It’s the underlying intent, the net benefit and the veracity with which you bring this toolbox to life that creates the difference between persuasion and manipulation.
As always, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.
Photo credit Andrew Mason