“Ok Peter, if this is going to be a scientific demonstration, it needs to be a double blind test. That means I’m going to put you in an. . . isolation booth.”
I walk over to my case and pull out a brown paper grocery bag.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I say as I open it, “Chicago’s finest isolation booth!”
I slowly lower it over Peter’s head until he’s completely blindfolded.
Why in the world would anyone I barely know let me put a paper bag over their head; let alone have fun doing it?
I’m a master of influence.
And this makes people uncomfortable.
You can see it when I explain what I do for a living. “I’m a professional mentalist. I basically convince people I can read their minds using various techniques of influence.”
Their eyebrows raise ever so slightly as they lean back. (They won’t admit it but they’re secretly worried I’m going to reveal all their deepest, darkest fears.)
I don’t blame them. Who wouldn’t feel uncomfortable being in the same room with someone who could really do that?
But, that fear stems from a common misconception that influence, persuasion, manipulation, & coercion are all the same thing.
If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone and you were trying to get them to see your point of view, you were trying to be influential. If you’ve ever tried to convince your sweetie to go camping with you, you were trying to be influential. If you’ve ever explained how something could be a win-win situation, you were trying to be influential.
Maybe you were successful, maybe you weren’t. The fact remains you were trying to influence another person.
As is every single person alive, every day since the dawn of time.
Some people come by this naturally. They seem to instinctively know what to say during a conversation to get the outcome they want.
But most people don’t. They’re shooting in the dark.
People who lack the natural grace of conversational influence seem to miss the subtle clues that provide valuable feedback you can use to shift tactics midstream.
Even people who are good at conversational influence rely on one or two strategies that have worked over the years.
I have a whole toolbox full of ’em.
This is handy because influence isn’t limited to figuring out where we should eat lunch today. Influence plays out in courtrooms, boardrooms, bedrooms, and everywhere between.
Years ago I wanted to understand how influence, persuasion, manipulation, & coercion intermingle so I came up with a way to graph their placement.
Imagine a 4 quadrant graph made from two lines that meet at right angles. One is vertical, and the other is horizontal.
The vertical line has “Behavior” at the top, and “Belief” at the bottom. The horizontal line has “Self” on the left, and “Others” on the right.
The X & Y axis represent two questions:
- What are you trying to change: behavior or beliefs?
- Who does it benefit: only yourself, or everyone involved?
Influence affects behavior. Persuasion affects beliefs.
If you’re trying to change someone’s choice, that’s influence. If you’re trying to change a belief that governs their choices, that’s persuasion.
As long as the intent of your influence or persuasion is to benefit everyone involved, then we can usually assume it’s a net positive effort when we do our moral calculus.
When most people are uncomfortable with influence or persuasion, it’s usually when done with the sole intention of benefitting the person doing the influencing.
This is known as manipulation & coercion.
Manipulation is the unethical attempt to change someone’s beliefs by way of lying, withholding the truth, or other subversive techniques. Coercion is attempting to produce a particular outcome by any means necessary.
If the intent of your persuasion is to solely benefit yourself without concern for the impact it has on others affected, you’re being manipulative. If the intent of your influence is to benefit yourself with no concern for the negative impact it has on others, you’re being coercive.
This “ends justify the means” approach is the path to utter destruction of your self, your relationships, and your ability to connect with other people.
This is what we call “The Dark Side.”
Now, when you think about interactions you have with people, you can have a better idea of whether you’re trying to be influential, persuasive, manipulative, or coercive.
The more detailed & nuanced your language is, the more adept you will be at its use.
Influence is a Tool
Just like with fire, handguns, a knife, or anything else it lacks inherent morality; whether it’s good or bad is based on how you use it.
If you want to get better at achieving outcomes that not only help you, but also help everyone involved (the mythical land of Win-Win), then you absolutely must practice the skill of understanding what the other person wants. This is why thinking like a mind reader can help you in every area of your life.
Only then can you use powerful language to communicate why your path will get them what they want.
You will be like a mental Kung Fu master.
They never fight strength head-on. Instead, they see where the energy is coming from, then move to blend with it. This allows them to take control without the other person feeling a thing.
It is the masterful blending and redirecting of a conversation you must master if you want to use your powers of influence for good, and not evil.
The Right Way to Do Wrong
A while back I wrote a short article on a book Houdini wrote in the 1906 titled “The Right Way to Do Wrong.”
Within its pages Houdini explains how to con people out of money, how to pick locks, break into buildings, among other dastardly skills.
Reporters challenged his books as being dangerous, ill advised, and in poor taste.
“How dare you teach people how to lie, steal, and cheat!”
His reason for writing it is as good now as it was back then.
“The better educated you are about the skills & techniques used by those who would try to do you harm, the better equipped you are to defend yourself from them.”
Bad people are already using manipulation and coercion to get their way, every day. Why should you, the good guy, intentionally cripple your ability to recognize & defend yourself from those people?
The technique that’s most effective in this quadrant is the use (or threat of using) force; whether it’s physical, mental, emotional, etc. it doesn’t matter. The most expedient way to get someone to do something that benefits you is to put a gun to their head and make them do it. My idea is any time violence is introduced to a human relationship, it is fundamentally immoral.
The best way to manipulate people is to deprive them of the facts & information they need to make a fully informed decision. The way to do that is to lie. Withhold information to maximize your ability to change someone’s beliefs to be more favorable to your position.
It takes a remarkable amount of effort to understand someone’s position, and see how what you’re proposing could benefit them. That’s why so few people are good at being persuasive! If you want to help change someone’s beliefs, you have to demonstrate how everyone’s lives will be better with that new set of ideas about how the world works.
Really, the only way to influence someone is to withhold nothing, use no violence, and propose nothing that will violate that person’s beliefs. Only then will you be able to influence someone towards doing something you want to do. This is a much higher standard than either manipulation or coercion, but it’s the only way I think you could sleep well at night.
What Say You?
Do you think you’re free from influence? Do you prefer the term “psychological direction?”
And if I might influence you to share this post with your friends? It will help me by getting more eyeballs on my writing. It will help you because your friend will appreciate you thinking of them. And it will help you friend equip themselves against those who would do them harm.
Just click the little round icon of your favorite social media platform and share away!
“…Persuasion is dangerous, particularly in an advertising and capitalistic world. You are persuading people to do things that may not be in their interest. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve become conscious of the difference between informing and persuading. It’s a moral question for anyone involved in communication.” -Milton Glaser