coercion awareness

Woulda Coulda Shoulda

I’m very excited to begin this post, even though it may be completely wrong.

As I mentioned in the last Weekend Roundup podcast, I’m going to begin an exploration into the idea of coercion. With relatively few exceptions, I’m going to be talking about the various ways that the phenomenon is a part of our practices, a part of our lives, and certainly a part of our love.

Coercion has a bad reputation; usually the word is not looked on favorably. Yet synonyms are used in some the most revered philosophies out there: How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, for example. The art of the Persuasion Speech is taught in high school forensics as a useful skill, and it can be argued that the many books, courses, and coaches for interview techniques are about coercing employers into hiring you.

photo courtesy of Gexydaf
Hint: It’s not quite this obvious.

The problem comes when the power of coercion moves into darker waters, when it becomes manipulation. Yet even then it is sometimes championed – Robert Greene’s bestseller The 48 Laws of Power, for example, has chapters such as “USE SELECTIVE HONESTY AND GENEROSITY TO DISARM YOUR VICTIM”. Even children, Mr. Greene says, are manipulative:

“Children may be naive in many ways, but they often act from an elemental need to gain control over those around them. Children suffer greatly from feeling powerless in the adult world, and they use any means available to get their way.” (emphasis added)

And therein lies the truth of the matter: coercion is a strategy developed by humans as a form of power in order to get what they want. It may be used for “good” (I persuaded my partner to do yoga) or “evil” (I totally made her believe I was a Doctor and got her digits!) but in the end it’s done for selfish reasons (…because I don’t want to be alone).

We, uh, culpa

Most likely, if you were accused of being coercive, you’d either deny it or at least feel bad. Let’s agree, for the duration of this exploration here on Love Life Practice, not to do that, ok? We are all coercive as well as all coerced almost constantly, from the larger form of obeying societal laws under the threat of controlled violence to the simple act of convincing yourself to get out of bed because you should…or, more likely, because you promise yourself coffee or the equivalent.

So we’re all coercers. It’s like privilege; everybody’s got it, in one way or another, and what matters is that we recognize it and not abuse it and, if possible, use it for good. Before that can happen, though, there need to be some time noticing when we are doing it. And it’s not usually as easy to spot as someone lying about their job to catch the eye of an attractive mate. It takes physical form, it takes nonverbal form, it takes rhetorical form, and obviously it takes form in words.

Here, I’ll start. Here are the ways I am coercive during my professional life:

  • I will smile and be cheerful towards service industry workers regardless of how I’m feeling, because I know it will give me better service.
  • I usually dress with slightly more vanity than any particular social situation requires, because I know that it is a subtle way to make an impression and stand out in a crowd.
  • If a client is upset with me or with someone else, I will become extremely focused on polite responses and sticking to simple facts, avoiding letting any of my personal feelings of wrong or right or fairness show in my words.
  • If I am having a conversation with someone and I want them to think I’m smart, I will ask them to talk about something that they care about, and then turn on “active listening” skills so that they feel heard, knowing that it will give the impression of intelligence regardless of whether I’m actually interested in what they’re saying.
  • If I am managing a large group in a teaching situation and I identify someone who is likely to derail or monopolize the situation, I will deliberately create a topic I know they can speak on in order to make them feel valued and then guide the rest of the conversation towards the contributions of other people (technically a version of the previous coercive tactic applied to large groups).

There it is. My secrets lay revealed and I have come clean. Whew! Feels good to finally admit that I do those things. Maybe you’d like to try it? Go on down there into the comments and just let me know what kind of manipulations you use!

Unless, of course, you feel that my baring of my soul was actually another coercive tactic designed to appeal to your desire to reciprocate. In which case I will admit: yes, you caught me. You are astonishingly perceptive. As long as you don’t notice that I write in the first person in order to give you a false sense of being personally invested in my blog, I should be ok, though…

Your Power, Your Self

It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole. Suddenly we’re second-guessing each other and ourselves and that way lies paranoia and madness. Since those are not particular personal developments I’m interested in fostering, please don’t think about it too much.

Plus, I don’t happen to think that all these habits are things that should be changed. These coercive – sorry, I mean persuasive – techniques are part of why I am somewhat in demand as a speaker, teacher, and facilitator within certain circles. I know that the skills have benefited people besides me; that makes it ok, right?

Don’t answer; that’s what we’re going to be talking about for a while. But do take the time to try and watch, from a more objective place, the ways that you shape your behavior for the purpose of affecting others. Don’t worry about changing them; it’s likely that a lot of them are subconscious and I suspect more than a few will surprise you.

If they do, I really would appreciate hearing about it in the comments, or if you want a bit more anonymity I’m happy to get a personal email. We’ll figure out whether we want to change later on; the first step is just noticing all the little tricks we’ve developed in order to get what we want…

* I do have some people personally invested in my blog; they’re my patrons and I am immensely grateful to them for what they do. Would you like to help them support my work here at Love Life Practice? It’s as cheap as $1/month and only a click away!

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