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December 12th, 2020
The only suggestions worth describing are the suggestions that someone has asked for. In other words: advice. All other suggestions are a waste of breath - but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make suggestions - that is, literally build structures that create a particular suggestion.
This is the art of influence, or manipulation. That last word might seem like a bit of a bad word, but realize how little difference exists between manipulation and influence? They are rivalnyms, which is to say they have the same functional definition, but one is regarded as positive and desired and the other is negative and seen as harmful.
The word influence carries a bit more of a suggestive air and therefore leaves the agency squarely in the control of the person being ‘influenced’. Manipulation, on the other hand evokes more a sense of control, as though it’s an attempt to explicitly control someone to a specific end with no choice on their part. However, if the person has agreed ahead of time in order to achieve a certain end, is it still manipulation?
Take for instance the agreement a person has with a physical trainer. Someone looking to get fit and healthy turns over all of the decision making to the physical trainer, and then the physical trainer decides how that person should physically and literally manipulate their body to achieve a particular result. In such a situation, neither influence nor manipulation seem to fit right. Influence is too wishy washy and manipulate too deceptive. But functionally speaking they are appropriate. The physical trainer makes “suggestions” about what to do with the expectation that such suggestions will be followed. In such circumstance, however, there is a clear and obvious agreement regarding agency, action and decision making. The nature of suggestion can straddle that uncomfortable divide that we sense with influence and manipulation, and this is easily elicited with language: we can hope to be a good influence by making a wise suggestion, but someone can also try to be manipulative by wearing suggestive clothing - but even that can go both ways…
Someone is fairly likely to wear suggestive clothing on a date they are looking forward to in order to suggest the potential incentive of pleasure and intimacy. This may not be conscious or designed, but it is a rather unwise ignorance of human nature to believe that it won’t function in this way. As further example, wearing a hazmat suit to a date obviously suggests something quite different.
Point is everything probably suggests something, but those suggestions that are linked up with a clear and present incentive are going to have the greater practical effect. Notice how this applies to the suggestions we actually give others. Is there ever much incentive baked into our use of language? We might try to bargain, as with “make your bed and you can have some ice cream” but then again, the incentive is very clear and practically available in such bargaining.
Giving someone the suggestion to develop a practice of meditation in order to begin the long-term process of developing emotional regulation in order to deal with issues of anxiety…. While an excellent idea in theory, is actually a very poor suggestion: the incentive is distant and completely impalpable.
This gives rise to an important and unfortunate aspect of incentive: short-term return is far more attractive than long term gain. We have a great difficulty thinking long-term, especially if it’s coupled with a short-term version. But the better results are almost always locked behind long term incentives. That ice cream in exchange for making one’s bed is far less valuable than the exquisite good of being able to properly regulate one’s emotions. But one is far closer, so close you can even taste it.
But change the incentive to meditate, and things can change. For example: I’ll give you a dollar everyday that you meditate. Suddenly the incentive is closer, more palatable: but notice, the point of meditation is not money. It’s simply another incentive that’s been arbitrarily linked up to it. This is often the game we have to play. In order to reach for long term incentives we need to invent additional short term incentives that have a suggestive effect and thereby keep the process rolling consistently.
The art of suggestion isn’t so much one of influence, manipulation, but one of structure and incentive. Proper suggestion requires that those who receive the suggestion always feel a sense of agency, of control over their own destiny. The best suggestions are never explicit, but ones that naturally arise in the other person’s mind as a result of incentive structures that have been created around that person. This may sound manipulative - it is: but it can also be an effective way of being a good influence.