Persuasion – just or unjust

“Was not the very sight of the friend who sat behind you, was not the recollection of what had been, the knowledge of her influence, the indelible, immoveable impression of what persuasion had once done – was it not all against me?”

The above quote is passionately spoken by Captain Frederick Wentworth, in the classic novel “Persuasion by Jane Austen.

Persuasion is not just the title; it is at the heart of Austen’s final novel. Eight years before the story starts, heroine Anne Elliot is happily engaged to naval officer, Frederick Wentworth. She decides to break off the engagement, persuaded by her godmother Lady Russell that he is an unworthy match, nearly spelling disaster for both parties.

According to literary scholar Dame Gillian Beer, Jane Austen was acutely aware that the human quality of persuasion (defined as: to persuade or to be persuaded, rightly or wrongly) is fundamental to the process of human communication.

Indeed, ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ persuasion – of one person rightly or wrongly influencing, or attempting to influence, another –is a recurring theme throughout her novels via various interactions between characters.

Beer also observes that Austen had very profound concerns about the levels and applications of persuasion employed among individuals in her society. This concern extended to her own influence and intentions when advising her beloved niece, Fanny Knight, whether or not to accept a particular suitor. The weight of responsibility ensures she offers both sides of the argument in an impassioned letter to Fanny on the subject.

Beer wrote:“Jane Austen cannot avoid the part of persuader, even as dissuader.”

“Thats all very well,” you might say, “but that was the 19th Century and by and large about people who did not work for a living”. And well you might! However, dear reader, as you and I both know, we employ the subtle techniques of persuasion all the time, whether consciously or not, and to varying degrees of effectiveness, in all areas of our lives and from a very young age.

In our business dealings, it is crucial to be effective at persuasion, perhaps now more than ever, given the current economic climate. In these uncertain times, fear, greed and resentment seem even more prevalent.

The landscape has changed and it is now particularly important that we use “just persuasion as well as “just measures for appraising a compelling argument. We also need to be very vigilant to those who use “unjust yet seemingly strong methods of persuasion.

A few years ago we saw the sentencing in the US of Allen Stanford to 110 years in prison for, in the words of the Prosecutors, “one of the most egregious frauds in history“; the defrauding of customers to the tune of $7bn. A prodigiously persuasive, as well as an unscrupulous, man. At least Bernard Madoff pleaded guilty to running a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, confessing to his sons that it had been “one big lie”.

But Madoff was still a highly effective persuader, using an impressive CV to enhance his credibility.  Allen Stanford, however, denied any wrongdoing, and told judge David Hittner “I did not run a Ponzi scheme. I didn’t defraud anybody.” Clearly a man in denial!

On this side of the Pond and in a totally different vein, we recently witnessed a master of persuasion, Sir Martin Sorrell, negotiate a golden handshake of £20million on his departure from his WPP after 33 years of being at the helm.

Many will have different opinions as to whether Sorrell deserved to be rewarded with such a huge windfall. I suspect most would share the view that Stanford deserved the substantial prison sentence he was awarded.

One of the simplest and most well-established tools for persuasion at our disposal was created by Aristotle. Known as ‘the three appeals’ or ‘the three proofs’: Logos, Pathos and Ethos, these make up the rhetorical triangle. A well-balanced technique that can be used as a health check that your argument has considered the preferences of all audience members.

This and other more recently-developed tools such as the “Two Routes to Persuasion by Petty & Cacioppo can be used to sway audiences, customers and clients. I use them often in my coaching and advisory work and sincerely hope they will be employed justly by my clients. 

The primary objective is to create and deliver the most well-balanced, powerfully persuasive arguments that win over your audiences fairly.

So how do we gauge whether persuasion is “just or “unjust? How do we make sure we neither use unjust means, as persuader or dissuader, nor become the victims of this deceit and duplicity? The initial answer is, for us as audiences or receivers of these acts, to pay attention and independently verify the information put forward. If you can’t do so, then it’s time to be sceptical.

However charming, attractive, articulate and engaging the persuader appears, and however compelling their argument, you need to look and listen for all the signs of incongruence.

Do the facial expressions match the words coming out of their mouth?

Does something feel not quite right? They may have remarkable credentials, their facts and figures may look impressive and their delivery may be slick. But….

We all need to carry out our own thorough “due diligence. As many found out the hard way, being a non-Executive Chairman of NASDAQ does not exempt anyone from being a crook!

As for our fictional couple’s fate, I shall leave the last word to Captain Wentworth, and his second marriage proposal:

“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago. . . . I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”