Learn to be Fair; Prepare for Unfair

Teaching persuasion and negotiation throughout my academic career, I always started each semester with distinctions among persuasion, manipulation and coercion — all forms of influence. Persuasion is something you do WITH others largely by appealing to reason. It is a very important skill throughout life. Manipulation and coercion are two other forms of influence that you do TO other people. They function by either deceiving and duping others or, in the case of coercion, using force of some type.

Persuasion is not always totally up-front. Let’s not be naive. All forms of communication involve some degree of indirectness. Sociologist Erving Goffman in his book, Interaction Ritual, wrote about facework. It occurs when people engage in ways of communicating that save face for those involved. Despite the need to consider rules of courtesy and respect and thus hold back from directness at times, persuasion is more up-front than manipulation and certainly less controlling than coercion.

Since persuasion is challenging and requires an understanding and even appreciation of an opposing point of view, many people resort to manipulation and coercion. They find persuasion too challenging and consider it annoyingly time consuming. The risk of relying on manipulation and coercion is not only an ethical one. When people figure out that they’ve been manipulated, they distrust and may retaliate in kind. When coerced, they may find a way to obtain the power to coerce as well. In other words, “what goes around comes around.”

But what if you live or work in an environment like the type describe in The Secret Handshake as pathological? In this environment, fairness is rarely respected. The ends justify the means. In pathological work arenas, daily interactions tend to be fractious. Nearly every goal is achieved by going around formal procedures. There is high distrust. Information massaging is the usual form of communication. Out of necessity, people spend a lot of time watching their backs. Pathological arenas tend to self destruct. But often not before considerable damage has been done.

There isn’t room in this one blog to go through how to fight such conditions. But recent events suggest a need to polish up. Persuasion is useful even here, but liars and power abusers dismiss even the most impressive argumentation if it suits their needs. To overcome them, you have to become very clever, “read the tea leaves,” keep good records of what has been promised and know their weaknesses just as they know yours.

What we need to teach our children, and remember ourselves, is that while fairness and “using your words” effectively is very important, there will always be people who manipulate and coerce. You need to be prepared to deal with them. This is largely why I studied and have written about politics in organizations. Often persuasion and up-front negotiation are not sufficient. You have to know how to manage the people who have adopted manipulation and coercion as their two primary means of influence.

I’m not suggesting that little children be told that the world is a manipulative, bullying place. But we do need to recognize that there are many people who just don’t tell the truth as a rule and many teach their children to behave this way. With disregard and outright meanness, they take advantage of those who have learned to communicate honestly and expect the same from others. In The Secret Handshake, honest people who do not prepare themselves to deal with deceptive ones are referred to as purists. People who are aware of negative politics are street fighters. This doesn’t mean they wouldn’t prefer to be purists or weren’t for some time. It means they’ve learned to keep alert and, when need be, fight fire with fire.

We all need a little street fighter in us. It’s dangerous to allow society to become fraught with lies and governments run by frauds. In order to make sure this doesn’t happen, we need to see manipulators and coercers coming long before they’ve gotten close enough to do harm.

Teach your children well means preparing them to deal with the honest and the deceitful among us. Otherwise the latter wins.


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One Response to Learn to be Fair; Prepare for Unfair

  1. And this type of deceit isn’t just present in business (or politics); it even shows up a lot in professions that are ostensibly dedicated to “truth” – such as the practice of science.

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