Monday, August 24, 2009

Is Persuasion Manipulation?

Is persuasion manipulation? I recently read The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard, a book written in the mid-1950s to alert people to how advertisers were getting the public to buy products using their understanding of psychology. It paints the social psychologists who worked with big companies in a negative light and described "the advertising man" as a "journeyman psychologist." The cover of the book and the opening paragraph both state, "Many of us are being influenced and manipulated in the patterns of our everyday lives."

I enjoyed the read and have to agree in part because there are people who take advantage of their understanding of psychology in order to get what they want. Reading it made me think it was time to address the topic of manipulation. If we're to talk about manipulation we need to know what manipulation is. I looked up "manipulate" in several dictionaries and while they all vary somewhat their definitions, the word boils down to a couple of meanings, one good and one bad:

1. to handle or use skillfully (i.e., a carpenter manipulates wood - good)
2. to control something or someone cleverly or deviously (the car salesman manipulated me - bad)

I think it's safe to say the words manipulate, manipulated and manipulation all carry negative connotations today. After all, no one wants to be manipulated and no one wants to be known as a manipulator.

When it comes to understanding manipulation we need to understand motive. I love a quote from The Art of Woo by G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa. They wrote, "An earnest and sincere lover buys flowers and candy for the object of his affections. So does the cad who succeeds to take advantage of another’s heart. But when the cad succeeds, we don’t blame the flowers and candy. We rightly question his character."

Understanding influence and persuasion is completely neutral like the flowers and candy noted above. Why a man uses the flowers and candy as he does, or why a person uses persuasion and influence is the real question. In each case you have to wonder if the person is only looking out for #1 -- what's in their best interests.

The term "win-win" is popular today. It's encouraged in business and negotiations if you want to maintain a relationship with another person or organization. That needs to be kept in the forefront when it comes to using persuasion. You have to ask yourself, "Is what I'm asking this person, or company, to do in the best interests of all parties?" If it is and you're being truthful in your approach then you can probably feel okay about proceeding.

Something else to consider. As you learn more and more about influence and persuasion, wouldn't it be foolish to not use that understanding when making requests of others? If you knew there was a better way to hear "Yes" then why would you not use that method? If you felt bad that someone agreed then perhaps you have to step back and ask yourself whether or not your request -- influence and persuasion aside -- was legitimate to begin with.

Here's an interesting side bar: it was this very topic that got me in touch with Dr. Cialdini. When I read an ad for one of his videos it read, "Call it influence, persuasion...even manipulation." Knowing his stance on ethics I emailed the organization saying I don't think he'd agree or appreciate that description of his work. His company, Influence at Work, found out about my email and called me. That's what led to him becoming a guest speaker at State Auto in the summer of 2004, my attendance at his two-day Principles of Persuasion workshop and eventually my certification as a CMCT (Cialdini Method Certified Trainer).

On a more personal note - I used flowers, candy and a Rolls Royce on my wife's 23rd birthday to "influence" her decision when I asked her to marry me. I think she'd agree it's been a win-win relationship.

Before I let you go I want to point out the very cool drawing from a friend, Mike Franzese. Mike is in the advertising business and has a blog, Franzeseinklings, that I follow. I liked his drawings so much that I asked him for a picture that conveyed manipulation. I think you'll agree, he did a terrific job! Keep an eye out for more from him and give his blog a follow.

Helping You Learn to Hear "Yes! "


  1. Hi Brian,

    I like your distinction on good and bad influence (or manipulation as you talk about here). With regards to that difference, what are your thoughts on NLP, if any?

    I first came across NLP last year (which was a bit of a surprise to myself considering my background in psychology), and find many of the principles to be interesting. However, regarding sales I understand that quite a few people see NLP as a sneaky tactic. From my point of view, I see it also as someone communicating to another person the exact way that person wants to be (and needs to be) communicated to in order get the most out of the conversation. Of course, for the most part I'm looking at influence (and NLP) in terms of facilitation. What are your thoughts?

    Good post. Thanks.
    - Lars-Christian

  2. Lars,
    First, my familiarity with NLP is limited to reading Tony Robbins books and some other material. I know he and others claim it works but there's also debate in academic circles as to it's validity.

    I work in sales and I think it's obvious that a salesperson wants you to buy their product or service so that's out in the open. I think using communication tools that are honest are okay. With persuasion, if I know saying it one way gives me 10% chance of success vs. another that gives me 30% odds, I'm going to go with the second long as it's non-manipulative. I look at it as simply being a smart communicator.

    In situations where the intent is not as clear as a salesperson wanting to make a sale (i.e. talking with a coworker/friend not realizing the person has an agenda) then using certain communication styles could be seen as manipulative. You'd never want someone to feel like you talked them into something without their full knowledge. I think NLP, or any other form of communication, to get someone to do something they may not be aware of is bad.

    Having said that, I know NLP has used to help people overcome lots of issues but it seems to me those people needing help go into those situations with a desire change. If NLP or some other communication style makes that happen I think they'd be happy.


  3. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for the feedback. I agree with you in that there's probably a lot of people that already have the desire for change, and so the intention is clearer. As far as getting someone to do something without them being aware of it, in my opinion is definitely a form of deception.

    Again, thanks. I've read Tony Robbins and a few others within the NLP community as well, but it's always good to get different points of view. It's easy to get hooked on an idea and then lose perspective.

    Looking forward to your next post. All the best :)
    - Lars-Christian