top of page
seagulls chatting on beach walk



September 19, 2020

Both persuasion and influence, when well-informed, well-intentioned, and used in appropriate context, have important roles to play in our daily lives. However, when it comes to difficult conversations pertaining to repairing or maintaining a relationship, Robyn encourages influence over persuasion every time.

When I ask participants in my Courageous Conversations training sessions for their understandings of the difference between “influencing” and “persuading” there is usually general agreement that the two do differ but less agreement on how or why. Then, someone in the group usually asks me – “Does it even matter? Isn’t it just semantics?”. This is a fair question, given that in our day-to-day interactions, the two terms are often used interchangeably without causing confusion or divergent outcomes.

However, when it comes to having an important, difficult conversations, or managing a conflict, understanding the distinction is, I believe, critical.

Let’s start with the definitions

‘Persuade’ comes from the Latin per- (through to completion) and suardere (advise). Its current definitions are along the lines of: ‘induce/coax/make/get/lure/sway/convince…someone to do something through reasoning or argument’.

‘Influence’ originates from the Latin in- (into) and fluere (to flow), and its modern definition is: ‘the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something, or the effect itself’.

There are two key differences, as I see it

Firstly, timing differs.

Persuasion is often used when time of the essence and quick action is required or desired. For example –

  • A marketer uses a flash or short sale to coax you into making a purchase

  • A service professional tries to get a client to promptly pay an overdue bill, whilst preserving the ongoing business relationship; and, at the extreme,

  • A firefighter tries to convince a terrified person to jump from the window of a burning building to safety.

Charisma and ‘sales’ techniques come to the fore with persuasion, in order to quickly ‘close the deal’.  

Influence, on the other hand, generally requires a greater amount of time (to fluere or flow as the Latin derivative tells us). For example –

  • A people leader works to bring about a change in team culture

  • Parents endeavour to instil good manners in their children

  • An environmentalist endeavours to raise awareness of impact of climate change

Trust, credibility, and repetition predominate in these instances.

Secondly, the level and type of engagement differ.

While both a persuader and an influencer start with their own goal (to sell, save, protect, develop, instil etc.…), effective influencing involves a greater degree of two-directional communication and requires greater buy-in on the part of the person being influenced, that is, if the goal is to be achieved.

To put it another way, influencing relies on a process of meaning making (Note: this does not necessarily involve agreement on a meaning or meanings, and that is okay), whereas persuasion tends to rely more on a process of exchanging information. Generally, with persuasion, the information exchange is more slickly and purposely presented in one direction over the other.

How does this relate to having ‘difficult conversations’?

Difficult conversations (or what I call ‘courageous conversations’) are the important conversations we tend put off for too long or avoid altogether. Just the thought of having that conversation may fill us with fear - fear of how the other person may respond, fear of how we may ourselves respond, and/or fear of the potential consequences. We may feel under-equipped or under-confident to even instigate the conversation, or we may have tried to have the conversation before and been unsuccessful and/or suffered some consequences.

There are many skills, strategies, and tips I offer my students on how to have these conversations effectively and genuinely (it’s a big topic, one which I am very passionate about, and one that I won’t attempt to cover in the space available). But, how do persuasion and influence, and the distinction between the two, relate to challenging conversations?

Consider this scenario

Two work colleagues have quite different needs, interests, values and/or predominant communications styles, and are finding working together tough going. This situation is not only having a negative effect on them each personally, it is negatively impacting on their work and members of their broader team too. Both have maturely and bravely decided to sit down together and discuss how they might achieve at least the baseline for a functional working relationship. Both come to the conversation with good intentions.

Our work colleagues try persuasion

Remembering that with persuasion (think convince/get/coax), time is usually of the essence and the focus is on an exchange of information (e.g.  a sales proposition and a responding acceptance or decline of that proposition), how does this look when applied to our difficult conversation in the workplace scenario?

Our two work colleagues, in trying to coax the other over to their point of view, are likely to find one of two things – the conversation either quickly escalates into a debate (or argument), where both parties strive to ‘win’; or, the conversation rapidly collapses as one or both participants close it down in the face of conflict. While the debate remains alive, our participants are likely to find themselves, when listening to the other, ‘listening to respond to’ as opposed to ‘listening to understand’ (as it is all about the ‘exchange of information). Rapport and trust will likely remain low as no work has gone into building it in the first place - persuasion wants our participants to expediently reach their destination.

At best, our two colleagues may manage to achieve a compromise, however, as those of us who have had the experience of buying and selling houses know, dissatisfaction is a close companion of compromise (“I should have held out for more” (vendor) versus “I should have negotiated them down further” (buyer) – neither side is generally entirely satisfied). A compromise, in the case of our work colleagues, may achieve the goal in the short-term, but is unlikely to be a sustainable solution, due to the presence of some lingering dissatisfaction or growing resentment, say about a perceived inequity.

Our work colleagues try influence

With influence (think raise awareness/instil/bring onboard), the focus is on the ‘making of meaning’, (not necessarily agreement on the meaning); and, if persuasion is all about reaching a destination, then influence is all about the journey itself.

Our two colleagues are, in trying to influence each other, more likely to find it a fruitful experience. While this approach offers no guarantee of them achieving their goal, it has a higher chance of success than going down the persuasion route. It is also more likely that a sustainable solution can be achieved.

In the much slower, less time-bound process, ‘listening to understand’ (as opposed to ‘listening to respond’) can be accommodated and supported. My professional experience as a mediator and conflict management coach tells me that if the two colleagues listen to understand each other, they are more likely to feel genuinely heard by each other, and, as a flow-on effect, they are less likely to give up on the conversation and more likely to work to achieve a satisfactory outcome.

Why? Because rapport and trust has been built by the two participants simply through their efforts to genuinely grow their understanding of the other’s perspective.

If both workmates also adopt a curious, non-judgemental and ‘I’m leaving my ego at the door’ mindset they increase the likelihood that both people will have their own individual ‘a-ha’ moments as some of their pre-existing assumptions about the other person slip away and new understandings emerge.

Blaise Pascal said, “People are usually more convinced by reasons they discovered themselves than by those found out by others.”, and it is so true.

Extending this further, the more our workmates experience their own a-ha moments, the more fresh, previously unthought-of possibilities emerge, and enable possible collaboration (generally win-win) over compromise (generally partial lose-lose).

Last word

Both persuasion and influence, when well-informed, well-intentioned, and used in appropriate context, have important roles to play in our daily lives. However, when it comes to difficult conversations pertaining to repairing or maintaining a relationship, I encourage you to use influence over persuasion every time, and to keep trying and learning from your attempts – this is hard stuff, it requires practice. Do this and you will likely find that having difficult conversations becomes less difficult for you, and that the results of your courageous conversations start to take you positively by surprise.

Robyn Hill is an accredited mediator, a courageous conversation and conflict management coach, a facilitator of important meetings and conversations, and a trainer and presenter on the topic of courageous conversations. She is the Director of Courageous Conversations NZ.

bottom of page