Persuasion or Manipulation?

Interesting question for anyone who finds themselves needing to persuade other people (that's pretty much all of us)…

A private group I am part of has been hashing over something I posted late last year – a little piece called “Is Marketing Evil?”

In this discussion, the inevitable debate erupted over what the difference is between persuasion and manipulation. Says one of my companions: “the difference is the intent.”

Well and good, and I have often said the same thing. But… here's my question:

What if your intent is good but your premise is wrong?

For instance, what if you believed smoking was good for unborn babies, and you passionately cared about those babies, so you tried to persuade pregnant woment to take up smoking?

Your intent would be good, but your facts are wrong.

So, in that case, does it matter whether we classify “talking someone into something” as “persuasion” or manipulation?

Does that mean that all persuasion is in fact manipulation, and vice-versa?

What do you think?

Ray Edwards is a world-renowned copywriter and communications strategist, writing for some of the most powerful voices in leadership and business including New York Times bestselling authors Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (Chicken Soup for the Soul) and Tony Robbins. Ray is a sought-after speaker and author, hosts a popular weekly podcast, and blogs at

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  • Great question. I’ve studied this quite a bit. Here’s my thoughts:

    I think real persuasion happens when someone decides to see things your way because THEY feel like your solution is right for THEM and it is THEIR decision to see things that way. There’s no amount of talking that makes that happen. Which is why persuasion has more to do with everything else other than what comes out of your mouth.

    Put simpler, I think persuasion is helping others decide for themselves to see things your way and letting it be their idea. You get what you want and so do they. There’s nothing manipulative about that. Persuasion is also neutral. Which means that it can influence anyone towards positive or negative causes. The devil is a master persuader and so it the Holy Spirit.

    In most cases, I think manipulation is really the antithesis of good persuasion. By it’s very nature, manipulation causes people to do things they don’t want to do, don’t like to do, don’t feel like doing just to appease the manipulator… and it’s NEVER their idea to submit to the manipulator. They just “give in”, which is all backwards from what true persuasion should be.

    If you ever have to talk someone in to something, that’s not true persuasion in my book. That’s most often convincing someone against their will. And we know what they say about that “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

    Trick is to ask the right questions to get them to convince themselves with their own answers so doing things your way feels like their idea. 🙂

  • Ray, that question should be answered before promoting a product or offer. That is why I have stopped promoting CPA offers no matter how good they seem to be. If they don’t buy, the visitor will get hammered with daily spam offers and that is not what they clicked on my offer for. If you work CPA offers, you are transferring control to a third party that you have NO control over. You must think of the end result, not yours, but the customers and how they will be affected.

    • Presuming of course you actually know how they will be affected and presuming you know what’s best for them. 😉

  • Dan

    I think your quick answer (“It lies in the intent”) is right a fair amount of the time, but it ignores a dominating factor in human nature: the ability to rationalize just about anything.

    I’ve heard people knowingly selling inferior info products say privately “They’d be better off with me than with nothing,” as well as people running charity schemes (that only give only 30% of revenue to charity) say “If I hadn’t persuaded them, zero of that money would go to the starving.”

    There are obvious counter-arguments to those quotes, but the fact is that we all have the power to rationalize our manipulations to the greater good.

    This is the problem inherent in sales systems like SPIN Selling, and NLP based persuasion methods. They lie in the ability to make a need more painful to a prospect and then associate the solution with you, without you necessarily having to prove you’re the best solution. Of course then you can rationalize “Well I know my product is good anyway!” but as your favorite book would point out, “The heart is deceitful above all things.”

    Not sure what the solution to this is!

    • I think the answer lies in having absolute standards of right and wrong, and in having a multitude of good counselors who can speak into your life.

  • I think you manipulate someone to buy into your idea, product or whatever, without letting him arrive on the conclusion himself. Persuasion is when you are so good at doing this, that the guy listening to you thinks the idea to buy, do or say what you said, was actually his 🙂

  • John Zander Schmitt

    Great Q Ray: My thought is, manipulation is attempting to convince someone for entirely selfish reasons. Persuasion is offering someone a solution to a problem they are having and you both benefit. For that to be true, it must actually solve the problem. Pregnant women smoking will not have turned out that way; it isn’t just misinformation, it is the responsibility to be correctly informed before offering solutions.
    John Zander Schmitt

  • Rod Newbound

    I think the only way to ethically persuade someone to do something is to point out both the pros and the cons and leave it to them to decide.

    • But what if you know they’re about to make a huge mistake?

      Would you be able to be totally even-handed if you knew one of their choices was illegal or immoral?

      Would it make a difference if it was someone you loved?

      What if you just knew that one of their choices was simply bad for them in every way?

  • Great post Ray!

    I think that we alone cannot answer this question, because to manipulate or persuade requires someone else to be involved.

    Neither persuasion or manipulation are things we can successfully DO to someone. In both cases they have to allow it to happen.

    And if there are 2 people involved then we have two different perceptions of what’s going on.

    That said, ask 100 people on the street if they like being manipulated, I doubt you’d find a “yes” in the crowd.

    If your intent is not to manipulate someone but they end up feeling like they were manipulated, is that good or bad?

    If your intent IS to manipulate them but they feel like the’ve come to their own conclusions, is that good or bad?

    What is good or bad? 🙂

    All we control is what we create and our intention in that creation. We certainly can’t control (even though we often think we can) what happens in other people.

    That said, I can’t imagine that carrying the intention to manipulate others to do your bidding will work out for anyone in the long run.

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