Part 5 of a Series on Persuasion


Persuasion is a cost-effective way of approaching many conflicts. It does not require weapons or high-tech (and high-cost) research. When it works, therefore, it is a great boon. The protagonist has gotten his counterpart to change her or his behavior in a desired direction at little cost. But, persuasion is not likely to be effective in getting others to do one's will in all conflicts.

Carol S. Lilly's provocative Power and Persuasion: Ideology and Rhetoric in Communist Yugoslavia: 1944-1953 is a testament to the limits of persuasion. In her careful study, she documents how the Communist Party chose persuasion over coercion because they believed that coercion "could help realize the party's political and economic policies but it could not effect the long-term cultural transformation of society."[1] In looking at the variety of persuasive techniques used by the party in its crucial foundational phase, Lilly concludes that:

[Per]suasive efforts are effective only or mainly when they seek to build upon already existing values and beliefs and are much less so when they try to change people's values or create new ones for them. In other words, party rhetoric could confirm and sometimes manipulate the existing culture, but was generally unable to transform it.[2]

Keeping in mind that primary means of persuasion such as newspapers, radio, television, educational curricula, and the arts were largely under the control of the Party, the implications of these findings suggest even greater limitations for those who do not enjoy such resources. This particular failure takes on additional significance when one looks at the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia in the recent past.

[I]n seeking to paper over Yugoslavia's national question, the Communist regime refused fully to confront the atrocities committed during the war, treating them only as additional signs of the prewar bourgeois government's moral and political bankruptcy.[3]

The bloodbath that erupted after the fall of Communism may have been even worse than what might have transpired had these inter-group conflicts been played out, even violently, in the immediate post-war period.

In addressing intractable conflicts, persuasion can be a key ingredient in landmark events, such as Brown v. Board of Education. By itself, however, it cannot achieve the level of community building necessary for transformation. For this, a fuller and deeper array of integrative approaches (suggested in fact by Deutsch's list) needs to be employed. In winning the hearts and minds of the targeted group, techniques that target minds only are likely to be inadequate for the task.


[1] Lilly, Carol S. Power and Persuasion: Ideology and Rhetoric in Communist Yugoslavia: 1944-1953. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001, p. 7.,

[2] Lilly, p. 8.

23] Lilly, p. 30.

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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.