How do I influence without manipulating or coercing them?

Leadership AdvantEdge Header Image (4)When I started my first degree at university, I knew I had to get myself a car.

Until this point, a motorbike had served me well, but I was going to university in Manchester, England, 200 miles from my job and my girlfriend.

I spotted an advert in the local paper from a local used car dealership offering a “Reliable, one careful owner, full service history, Austin 1100 in British Racing Green.” It was old but almost in my price range.

The dealer was friendly, kind and helpful. He took me out for a test drive and assured me that the car was an absolute bargain. He told me how thrilled he had been from the response to the advert and even forewarned me that someone else had called just before I arrived and they wanted to buy the car too.


Does it matter whether I influence or persuade or manipulate, so long as I get the right result?

Does it matter whether I influence or persuade or manipulate, so long as I get the right result?

He shared a story about his own Austin 1100 that had been such a reliable little runner. Cheap to maintain and would quite happily trot up and down the motorway regularly. On top of that, it was cheap to insure and easy to get parts “should anything ever go wrong with it.”

I asked if he could knock a few quid off the price because I was a little short. He tried to get his boss to help, but there was sadly now way.

I borrowed the difference from my best friend and I was thrilled to head off that very afternoon down south and was a little surprised as I hauled past Oxford and an orange light appeared on the dashboard.

I had bought a lemon.

So why had I, an educated, not completely dim, and otherwise quite sensible person been duped into buying something?

Are we influenced when we are duped?

Yes we are.

You'll remember from the Triangle of Influence that we are influenced when someone connects a desired result in such a way that the benefit outweighs our cost resulting in motivation.

Influence is often considered to be a positive thing. But it has some closely related cousins known as:

  • Persuasion
  • Manipulation, and
  • Coercion

Persuasion is still considered OK, but to have been influenced rather than persuaded would be better.

To have been forced or threatened into doing something is particularly unpleasant, while being manipulated to do the very same thing is regarded as wrong.

How do I tell them apart?

Sadly, we may not know until after the fact. Certainly the difference between influence, persuasion and manipulation can be very subtle.

You could be using the exact same words to achieve the exact same result. The intent behind them, however is different.

How do we influence?

Beyond having real empathy with someone, there are four specific aspects of life we can use to influence or persuade anyone:

Encourage their dreams

Every single person I have ever met has dreams. They want to achieve something in their life, they may not know exactly what that is, but it is better than whatever they have achieved thus far in life.

To influence someone you could encourage their dreams. That the benefit they will attain moves them towards their dreams

Allay fears

Everyone has fears. Most people will admit that they fear failure to some extent. Many people fear death. Does anybody like to be rejected? Some are afraid of flying. According to studies, more people fear public speaking than anything else.

To influence someone to act you could allay their fears. That the benefit will be greater confidence for example, competence or simply the courage to act at all.

You might also reduce the cost burden by allying someone's fears of undertaking the action you are proposing.

Justify their failings

We have all failed in our lives. Many of these failings we keep to ourselves through a false sense of pride, or worse that others will think badly of us if we admit them. Yet we all have them. Nobody likes to fail. It hurts. And isn’t it so good when our failure is not our fault?

A powerful tool in the influencers arsenal is to have enough courage themselves to admit their own failings to others (you are not alone) and that there is a perfectly good reason (excuse) for failing.

Help them throw rocks at their enemy

There's nothing quite like a common enemy to unite people. And that enemy doesn't have to be other people. An “enemy” could be as simple as “dirty hair” – watch any shampoo advert.

So what did that car dealer do to me?

The car survived that first trip by the way. Although I couldn’t get her to go faster than 50mph. I pulled off the motorway and continued my journey south on the A roads. The following morning I called a mechanic from the local village near the hotel. Oh did he have a good laugh.

It was all so amusing. How I had paid good, hard-earned money for a “total lemon”. Gosh, how I enjoyed his joyful banter and bemused expression as he noted the growing list of necessary and expensive repairs.

It would seem that I had been manipulated into buying the car. The dealer had deliberately and shrewdly given me misleading information about the benefits I would get from buying the car. He might not have lied when he had said “one careful owner”, but he certainly could have told me that there had been several less than careful owners. Selling me that car was beneficial for him and not really for me.

Does it matter whether I influence or persuade or manipulate, so long as I get the right result?

Have you ever visited a shopping mall and spotted a badly behaved child lying on the floor beating their tiny little fists, and screaming that life is unfair?

At that moment, that child is practicing their influence. Just being sweet, kind and alive didn’t trigger the desired reward. Perhaps asking nicely hadn't had the desired effect. Raising of the voice yielded no benefit. Sulking and crying to induce guilty feelings about parental control quickly evaporated as a waste of effort. Now, at the stage of ‘bad-tempered meltdown', the child is recruiting the assistance of social pressure as an outside force and potential threat to the parent's standing in the community. After all, which parent hasn’t felt the pressure to give in just to stop those looks?

  1. When we influence someone, we do so unwittingly. We have power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen.
  2. When we deliberately act to cause someone to change, we begin persuading them to do so.
  3. If we are being shrewd or devious and the benefit is largely in our own favour, then we are said to be manipulating someone.
  4. And if we threaten or are forceful, we begin to coerce the other person.

For most people, the process of moving from one to another is simply an escalation of force to achieve a desired result.

Surely the end justifies the means, right?

It's an argument that the tobacco companies use to this day.

It's really a question of who benefits and at what cost?

As we move from influence, to persuasion, to manipulation to coercion, the amount of effort on the part of the influencer increase.

The benefit gained over the cost for the influenced decreases and thus, any change becomes less sustainable.

As soon as the influencer neglects to mention certain costs, or exaggerates the benefits – then they have shifted to manipulation.

Is it right to do so?

Only you can be your judge.


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