Part 1 of a Series on Persuasion


Faced with an adversary who is doing something we do not like, or who is not doing something we wish to have done, persuasion can be an invaluable tool. Though "power" is generally considered to be coercion or force, persuasion can be powerful too, as is evidenced by the common saying, "the power of persuasion."

Social-interest theorists tend to define persuasion as a form of social influence:

Influence investigates the causes of human change -- whether that change is a behavior, an attitude, or a belief. Inducing a change in behavior is called compliance. Inducing a change in attitude is called persuasion. Inducing a change in belief is called either education or propaganda -- depending on your perspective.[1]

Rhodes is using the term "influence" in a way similar to my use of the word "power," "the capacity to bring about change." From his viewpoint, it is important to identify what is being changed, i.e., behavior, attitude, or belief. In this series of essays (Theories of ChangeUnderstanding Power, Coercive PowerExchange PowerIntegrative Power, and Persuasion), the important distinction is on the "how" of the change.

Sometimes, social-influence scholars include under the term "persuasion" the concept of inducements, which tend to better fit my definition of exchange power or even coercive power, rather than persuasive power. At other times, efforts focused on behavioral change may be left out. In those cases, the writer is concerned only with efforts to change attitudes, not with efforts to change behaviors. Some of the most useful research on persuasion can be found in the social-influence literature, but the key term may be used somewhat differently in that literature from the way in which it is used here.

Here I use "persuasion" to mean the form of power that relies exclusively on symbols (such as words) to influence another to change. That change may affect beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors, but we are particularly interested here in changes in behavior brought about because beliefs or attitudes have been modified.


[1] Rhodes, Kelton. "Introduction to Influence" Accessed March 27, 2003,

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By Máire Dugan

Máire Dugan is currently directing Race Relations 2020, which she founded. She also developed the Masters in Conflict Resolution curriculum at Columbia College. Dr. Dugan is a member of the Board of Directors for the SCCCR. She developed the "nested theory" to delineate how a given interpersonal, familial, or organizational conflict is symptomatic of over-arching societal systems and structures. Dr. Dugan suggests an intermediate level, which she calls the sub-system, as an arena that practitioners can use to simultaneously address the conflict at hand, the relationship, and the larger system.