Politics of Persuasion, Persuasion in Healing

If there is anything I know a lot about, it’s persuasion. I don’t mean to say that I am a genius sales person or politician, but I had a big lesson about psychotherapy some years ago. I edited a book about persuasion and did a lot of literature research in the process. I realized just how many persuasion techniques I was using as a therapist—in addition to those that I (and many other therapists) were aware of (e.g., Ericksonian hypnotic language and motivational interviewing in particular). Of the previously unconscious (on my part) techniques, one of the most important is priming, which means activating implicit (unconscious, basically) memory, so that the person is more likely to experience a particular state, or evince a particular kind of behavior.

Hand-in-hand with other techniques, you can really help lubricate the channel to a new chapter in a person’s life. Or, if you are a sales person, “help” the person buy something they don’t really need. I say this, not as an assault on sales people, but to point out that, if you must use such techniques to sell something, I must raise the ethical questions, “Why is such psychological firepower necessary to sell someone what they need? Are they resisting the truth? If so, who are you to have a higher truth?” Of course, those questions are merely red herrings. The answer is: follow the money.

And it is in this spirit that I raise another question, “Why is so much psychological firepower needed on American political TV?” As a student of persuasion, I am observing very sophisticated techniques used very consistently; so consistently, that I have no doubt that there is training and networking toward perfecting them. I’m also sure that, just as I am finding with psychotherapy, many of these political media types are more intuitive than studied in their skills. But why? Again, follow the money.

Here one of my favorite (in a bad way) skills. Watch for them when you see people debating politics on TV or elsewhere.

Targeted interruption: This is an amazing ability to know exactly when to interrupt the other party so they will not effectively get their points across. After years of watching this, I finally saw someone confronted on this behavior. But Noam Chomsky, a famous intellectual and linguist no less, was effectively undermined at the hands of an expert interrupter, William F. Buckley. Buckley was so talented, he almost made apartheid sound like it was a boon to civilization.

An ethical use of interruption (and priming): A therapist may use forms of interruption to prevent a client from getting into a state of mind that would block them from succeeding at a task in therapy. For example, consider a couple that is on the verge of having a constructive dialog. They begin to fall into their characteristic conflict pattern. The man begins to feel rage. Family therapist Virginia Satir might put her maternal hand on his belly and say that she could feel the hurt in his voice. Not only did this interrupt the rage state, but it also primed the husband for vulnerable feelings. This created an opening for dialog, with constructive results.

Would you like more examples? I could go like this all day! Comment, please.

One of my reasons for wanting people to reflect on these techniques, is that much of the American public appears to be adopting the unethical and illogical methods of debating and presenting that they see on TV. As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the signs of the apocalypse (figuratively speaking, of course). Let’s all work to turn this trend around. Educate! Develop compelling ways to highlight and dispense with unethical moves! If anyone should pick up this mantle, I should think it would by psychologically-minded people, because you can see the meta-level communication such as manipulation of implicit memory.

Robert A. Yourell, MA

Robert A. Yourell, MA, has extensive experience in the mental health and social services dating back to 1975. His training includes Ericksonian communication and hypnosis with John Grinder, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing with Francine Shapiro, PhD, Body Integrative Psychotherapy with Jack Rosenberg, PhD, and solution-focused psychotherapy. He provides free audio experiences on his site that include bilateral sound and Shimmering.
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