Accepting My Powers by Understanding Them
Being good at persuasion isn’t always ‘good’
By the time my younger sister was eight and I was nine, she was already toying with the ability to make people do things or think things of her own conception. Both children and adults alike.
She was top of the popular group in her grade, she easily directed other girls to fall in behind her at dance school, and she frequently charmed her teachers to hide her mischief.
It took me longer to unlock my powers.
As a child, I struggled with social cues for a long time, and I never organically learnt how to integrate into social structures or even into normal conversations.
So, I didn’t unlock my persuasive abilities until I moved schools as a twelve-year-old. Something that provided me the perfect opportunity to observe other kids in plain sight and catch up socially.
I spent a year analysing social conventions and interactions. I also practiced comparing myself to others (something unnatural to me) so I could see the difference in what I was doing compared to them.
Once I mastered this system of socialising and its language, my powers really started to manifest.
They’d appeared in my childhood in small ways. But as a teenager I more frequently began to influence people and make them think what I wanted them to think.
In group projects, in class debates, in arguments with friends, in disagreements with teachers over school policies or the enforcement of discriminatory, religious ideologies.
For several years I unconsciously enjoyed this power of swaying a room, a teacher, or a work group with just my words.
But at some point I became conscious of what I was doing, and I realised how terribly I could use my powers of persuasion if I wanted to.
I took these worries to my father. I had an inkling he was where my sister and I got our powers from.
I was right.
A Lesson in Power
My dad is a kind, empathetic, and introverted man. But he’s also an incredible leader and manager when he wants to be.
I went to him one evening, scared of my ability and habit of persuading others, and he asked me to walk our dog with him around the local park.
My dad told me a story from earlier on in his career, before I was born.
As a young, recently-made manager his company gave him their most difficult client to look after.
He told me he crafted the most efficient, hard-working team to deliver services to the customer. A team who idolised him, his words of encouragement, and the way he paid attention to each and every one of them. They idolised their work too.
He got caught up in this following, in the company and client’s delight, and in how easy it was.
He didn’t see that his team’s volunteering to be on-call during weekends, to come in on public holidays, to work double shifts, to ignore time with their own families, because they believed so hard in the job, the company, the client, and him, was akin to cultish devotion.
He told me when the customer contract ended, he’d almost ruined three people’s marriages, and had stolen a year of parenting time from many mother’s and father’s children.
He was so horrified he told himself he’d never use his powers to draw sacrifice from people ever again.
Instead, he’d use them to help people believe in themselves and in their own rights; to persuade his bosses into facilitating his workers needs for time off, for transfer, and for raises; to volunteer in the community and help disenfranchised young people learn how to value each other and themselves.
Even in raising my sister and I, he (and my mum) convinced us to stand on such foundations as self-belief, of knowing gender roles are ridiculous, and of always holding authority to account.
When he told me this story, I almost couldn’t believe the man I knew was able to do those things. But then I remembered my own abilities and it felt true.
It was encouraging that rather than giving up his powers my dad chose to do good with them instead. But I didn’t know how I could ever achieve his gentle control.
My powers of persuasion felt so gratifying and slyly unconscious.
Often, I didn’t realise I’d persuaded a person (or people) onto a path which served me best till days later.
How could I control what I couldn’t even recognise?
I had to learn what made my persuasiveness so naturally strong, and this is what I came to understand:
The ability to persuade people is a skill. It’s a skill because you need certain abilities to be able to attain and wield it.
Unlike ‘influence’ — which can be bought with money, traded economically and politically, or invented through avenues like celebrity and social media presence — ‘persuasion’ has to be personally developed and refined.
And while there are many techniques of persuasion that can be learned, in my experience there are two raw foundations that make somebody a naturally successful persuader: empathy and conviction.
I’m a naturally high empath, and I often need social breaks in life because I feel other people’s lives and emotions so intensely. It’s been this way since I was young.
My sister, comparatively, had to grow her empathy. She was hilariously self-centred as a child, but as she got older she worked hard to grow the genuine empathy which now lives within her.
So, some people are naturally empathetic, and others have to grow it.
Either way, empathy is necessary for successful persuasion because empathy is a two-way street.
It can make you a great carer of others, but it also gives you great power over them through the vulnerable doorway it provides into their state of being:
Essentially, if I can see into a person and ‘feel’ exactly how they’re feeling and why, then I know exactly what will push them in this direction or that, because I know them.
I’ve been using this exploit as early as I can remember. When I was a child, I used it defensively (to say, convince someone to leave me alone), but once I mastered social skills I was able to use it more offensively too.
However empathy, on its own, really only offers the power to persuade individual people (though this is still power). Like a radio, it works best tuning to one station at a time.
So, to be able to persuade groups of people, in classrooms, in meetings, during rallies etc., empathy also needs to be combined with conviction.
In order to make people believe in something, you first have to make them believe you.
That’s why conviction is so crucial to persuasion. It’s found, and projected outward, through many different means.
For example, my father’s conviction comes from his genuineness. He genuinely believes in everything he does and says. This means he doesn’t doubt himself, and he doesn’t fear leading a group of people.
My sister’s conviction comes from her confidence. She strides into the centre of attention and knows that whatever she reaches for she’ll attain. This means she doesn’t doubt herself, and she doesn’t fear leading a group of people.
My conviction comes from the gift of non-comparison. I don’t naturally compare myself to others or determine my self-worth on what others think. This means I don’t doubt myself, and I don’t fear leading a group of people.
Groups can can easily sniff out doubt and fear: doubt of the self, doubt in the argument, and a speaker’s fear of rejection or repercussion.
So a good persuader needs conviction in order to capture everyone.
Indeed, many of history’s most persuasive and influential people demonstrate high amounts of both empathy and conviction in their life’s work.
People such as Malala Yousafzai, Albert Einstein, Edith Cowan, Indira Gandhi, William Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, and even religious figures like Jesus and Muhammad.
Additionally, a lacking in one these two abilities makes a poor persuader:
- A person who has the conviction in their ideas but not the empathy to understand others will always seem arrogant, egotistical, and false
- A person who has the empathy to understand others but doesn’t have the conviction in themselves or their words to inspire confidence, won’t be able to foster belief
Subsequently, neither of them can persuade very easily.
This is why inept politicians can become stuck in public distrust, it’s why CEOs don’t make good world leaders (but great dictators), and it’s why children are often so profound in the truths they speak.
Understanding and Outlet
Nobody taught me any of this. I had to figure it out as I figured out my own abilities.
For a long time I was concerned at the ease I had persuading others to do or believe things they might otherwise have not. I was concerned because I didn’t know where the line between a good persuader and malicious manipulator was.
But after observing manipulative people I encountered in my life, and doing a lot of reading, I discerned that manipulation can be enacted through fear, false narrative, and the hidden wielding of either immense self-doubt or immense lack of empathy.
Persuasion, on the other hand, can be enacted through inspiration, selective truths, and the wielding of immense self-conviction and strong empathy.
This is not to say persuasion is inherently ‘good’. I’ve learnt the hard way with my own missteps that persuasion can be used to do great harm. My dad’s story and much of history also illustrates this.
But persuasion’s foundation is very different to manipulation’s foundation. Most importantly, especially to my own acceptance of my abilities, persuasion has the capacity to be used for good because it pushes for change.
My dad found how to use his persuasiveness to help people believe in themselves, their rights, and their own worth.
My sister is studying law because she wants to use her persuasiveness to fight for others, but has also found her powers are suited to helping people with high-care needs. She understands her clients, what’s important to them, and what will definitely convince them it’s time to get off the train because this is their stop.
I’ve continually used my persuasiveness to make myself an integral part of each workplace I enter while still remaining a part-timer, this financial stability-with-flexibility I create means I’m able to pursue the real passion of my powers: freelance editing and copywriting.
On a broad level I use my empathy to sense what an author means, what they’re trying to convey, and what their vision is when I read the work they send me. And I combine that with feeling what the reader will understand or misunderstand based on how it’s written. As a good editor does, I can gently persuade an author to see what I’m seeing.
And aside from manuscripts and such, I enjoy doing resumes and cover letters because I love making people feel good about themselves on paper, and I enjoy persuading potential employers to see a person’s value.
So, while my dad, my sister, and I have all found uses for our powers that make us happy, that isn’t to say we still don’t wrestle with them: observing your own actions is a life-time commitment.
But I’ve learnt that knowing yourself is accepting the things that live inside you without guilt or fear, so you can then choose how you want to live with them and be the person you want to be.