The term, persuasion, is often associated with a market-saturated world where we are very sensitive to anyone trying to manipulate us or tell us what to do.

But on a deeper level, the practice of persuasion is a process of interpersonal communication that builds sufficient mutual trust to allow for free and intentional behavioral or attitudinal change. It is a very normal behavior that is neither threateningly coercive, nor clandestinely manipulative.

Persuasion results from my trusting that the person who is attempting to persuade me cares for my well-being, is open to the possibility of my influencing him/her, and has relevant competence in and control of pertinent knowledge/social/material/authoritative resources. People, in other words, are persuaded in a condition of mutual influence of trust where they give free assent to engage in some communication aiming at change, be it 'pass the salt' or 'marry me please.' 

In a pluralistic society, this ‘practice of persuasion’ is a crucial and valuable way of comparing and clarifying options – reflecting the indo-european root of the word:  "swad", meaning "sweet" – with persuasion being the art of making the truth "sweet" (attractive, palatable, meaningful, digestible) to the hearer.  

Persuasion can be employed for mere manipulative ends by people that do not care to win the free assent of another’s heart and mind.  Thus persuasion can have a negative reputation as a mere sales technique or worse.  Thus the method and motive of persuasion is crucial to understanding its use.

Douglas Walton has argued that persuasion is the art of starting with others’ assumptions as you attempt to explain your own views – with a goal “persuasive dialogue” one of proving one’s thesis “from premises that others accept or are committed to” (p. 4).

In this way, the truth one person embraces may be framed in ways which are intelligible to the hearer, and which provide bridges from the (partial) truth others already know to the (fuller) truth which they may not yet know.  

As A.J. Muste, one of Martin Luther King’s inspirations, once said, “You always assume there is some element of truth in the position of the other person, and you respect your opponent for hanging on to an idea as long as he believes it to be true. On the other hand, you must try very hard to see what truth actually does exist in his idea, and seize on it to make him realize what you consider to be a larger truth.”


Arthur M. Peña, Randall Paul, Jacob Hess

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