Tag Archives: rhetoric

What Counts as Genuine Persuasion?

Bill Lumbergh in Office Space
Gary Cole’s Bill Lumbergh in the film, Office Space

When there are differences of opinion, the richest forms of communication still allow those with contrasting views to walk away, without penalties. 

The word “persuasion” is the preferred term to identify moments when one individual or group attempts to alter the beliefs or behaviors of another.  But the word is frequently misused, especially if one “persuader” has used extra-verbal inducements to get what he or she wants. It’s interesting that when Aristotle wrote his own study of persuasion 2500 years ago, he noted that the use of knives and torture counted as “inartistic” forms of influence.  He didn’t miss much.  He would no doubt marvel at the additional bludgeons we moderns use to threaten physical or psychological harm.  The modern equivalent of torture might be the denial of fair compensation, extortion, the possibility of a bad job review.  The ways we can cow each other are nearly endless.

Properly used, “Persuasion” occurs when an individual freely assents to what another asks. No coercion. No risk of retribution.  No organizational advantage has figured in the outcome.  Everything else that may look like persuasion is really what could be called  “compliance-gaining,” as when a boss “asks” an employee to work late.

This is not just an academic distinction with little real-world application.  The difference actually matters. To fully understand persuasion we need to know who or what is actually doing the heavy lifting. The use of threats, power or position are all coercive, a fact that takes away a receiver’s opportunity to truly exercise their own judgment. 

As a student of this subject, I’m not especially interested in the idea of compliance. In communication terms  there’s not that much going on.  There’s no grace in using force or a power advantage.  In such cases the unequal distribution of power does most of the work.  It’s like shooting animals within a fenced game reserve.  It’s easily done, but not very sporting.

What is interesting is how we manage to perpetuate the delusion of free choice. My impression is that managers often see themselves as having a knack for engaging with employees, as with the smarmy Bill Lumbergh in the iconic film, Office Space (1999).  The soul-destroying demands made by Gary Cole’s character are covered in a sticky syrup of forced collegiality. Lumbergh may believe he has the pulse of the office, but the film knows better.  As this clip from U-tube shows, he doesn’t have a clue.

Office Space – Working Tomorrow

Scene from Office Space

By contrast, there’s real pleasure in participating in communication where every side retains the right to walk away with no penalties. That fulfills our faith in a democratic values, especially another person’s right to their opinion. That’s why democracies are called “open societies.”

The problem is the indiscriminate mixing of persuasion and compliance-gaining as more or less the same thing . For example, journalist Steven Greenhouse misses the point when he notes in a recent Atlantic article that Wal-Mart “persuades” its employees to be anti-union. What his otherwise useful reporting actually describes is pure coercion. Try and unionize and you are simply out of a job, or your unit is shut down. Similarly, courses and texts in “leadership” often trade heavily in the language of equal-to-equal communication, ignoring explicit organizational hierarchies.  All of this is represented in phrases like “team-building” and “group problem-solving:” the kinds of things we are likely to hear from faux-egalitarians like Lumbergh.

No one wants to be the apparent autocrat issuing orders. Most of us would like to be seen as good listeners open to the ideas of others.  But openness needs to be earned by accepting the right of an audience member to say no, without penalties.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

Tell Them You Like It

Comment boxWe need their music, and the music of your words. Let them know they’ve done something you like.

The other day I was searching online for information about a brilliant but mostly forgotten figure in the film industry. As expected, I found a brief entry on Wikipedia, but also a link to a beautifully written and illustrated blog post written  by someone motivated to express his appreciation. The rekindling of interest in the composer/arranger Conrad Salinger with the help of this particular blogger is the kind of thing the internet does so well. The part that’s new for most of us is the impulse to follow through on a digital discovery and actually tell a talented an expert, performer, or amateur enthusiast—anyone whose work you admire—that you really like what they’ve done. We need to get in this habit. And most websites are set up to make responses easy.

We live in an age when there are often more sellers than buyers, more writers than readers, more supplicants to join the ranks of musicians and actors than audiences to support them.  Our politics is now described as more “oppositional” than celebratory.  In sum, recognition, praise and gratitude are increasingly rare forms of response.

There are two parts to this. We are used to consuming the products of our culture as commodities, letting it slip from our notice that someone worked hard to produce a piece worthy of praise. In this age of fragmented media–and especially writers and musicians who tend to be underpaid and over-copied–a little personal praise is a small but useful gesture. Beyoncé can probably live without hearing from you. But musicians appearing at a local club or releasing their first recordings would probably welcome an encouraging word. The same is true for bloggers, journalists, newsletter compilers and others whose labor is likely to be taken for granted. We need their music, or the music of their words. Really useful internet content does not simply happen. Do more than “like” them on Facebook. Let them know they’ve done something that moved you, even transformed your understanding of a subject.

The second part of this requirement seems unnecessary to acknowledge, but is important in a era of mindless trolling. Be complementary. As we know, web anger seems to be the new normal. Comments after news posts or in Twitter feeds are notoriously cranky, and all the slimier for usually being anonymous. Instead, say something nice and sign your comments.  Meaningful and constructive criticism is best when knowledge of a subject makes it fully earned. But praise is an important gesture of acceptance and needs to be more freely expressed, especially in a society where most of us are stuck looking inward.

Comments?  Write woodward@tcnj.edu