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Persuasion

How Do You Want to Influence Your Partner?

Does it seem easier to have negative influence than positive?

Key points

  • To positively influence anyone, especially loved ones, you can’t simply relate facts, or you’ll sound manipulative, with a hidden agenda.
  • To positively influence loved ones, you must show that you care about what they think and feel.
  • Listen respectfully and tell a coherent story, based on what they already believe, rooted in their humane values and hopes.

The easiest thing in the world to do is influence people negatively. Whether you’re an intimate partner, coworker, social advocate, or politician, all you need do is act superior. It doesn’t matter if you’re factually right; if you sound arrogant, your influence will be negative and your efforts will be self-defeating.

To positively influence anyone, especially loved ones, you can’t simply relate facts. For one thing, most facts are open to a range of interpretations, and interpretations are subject to multiple cognitive biases. Relying solely on facts, you’ll sound manipulative, with a hidden agenda. To positively influence loved ones, you must show that you care about what they think and feel and tell a coherent story, based on what they already believe, rooted in their humane values, and in their hopes.

Therapists are in the business of positively influencing people—namely, to act authentically in their long-term best interests. Most of us learn early in our careers that we can’t do it with facts or research findings. I learned it the hard way in the 1980s, in my first year of practice with domestic violence offenders. At least with them, the fact that they could go to jail had utility in the beginning of treatment. But positive change did not occur until they internalized a coherent story of a better future.

Once I identified the precursors to violence and shifted my practice specialty to chronic resentment, anger, and emotional abuse, the need for greater skill in helping clients behave in their long-term best interest became apparent.

Counter to popular stereotypes about emotionally abusive partners as narcissistic gaslighters, the hundreds I’ve treated really wanted to be better partners. The key to successful treatment lies not in labeling their behavior, however grounded in fact the labels may be. The key to lasting improvement is joining with the usually hidden belief that they want to be better partners, appealing to their humane values, and instilling hope that they can be better partners.

Of course, they rarely come into treatment asking how they can be better partners. These days, to save money and time, I come right out and ask them:

Would you like to have a better relationship?

Most say they would, usually implying that it’s a stupidly obvious question. Then I ask:

How do you think you need to behave to have the relationship you most want to have?

Most reply that they want to behave with integrity. Webster's definition of integrity is “Firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” I have never seen a happy relationship that wasn’t moral or an unhappy one that wasn’t less than moral.

The Corruption of “Integrity”

My clients don’t use the word to mean what the dictionary means. They refer not to morality but undivided devotion to their egos—how they prefer to think of themselves and how they demand their partners regard them. In the beginning of their relationships, most tried to influence their partners positively, through appreciation, support, and affection. But those are inconsistent with selfish concerns of the ego, which soon took over the relationship in the guise of “getting my needs met.”

For a while, partners may give in to ego demands to avoid arguments, but they eventually stand up for themselves. Abusers deeply resent when their partners stop giving in. As the resentment becomes chronic, angry outbursts, criticism, and silent treatments turn into emotional abuse.

The Coherent Story

The change formula must be grounded in what they already believe, specifically that they’re unfairly accused, wrongly labeled, underappreciated, disrespected victims. Beneath the mask of ego, they suffer.

Recall the Buddha’s famous words (roughly translated):

I teach only two things, the fact of suffering and the end of suffering.

They must learn that they are suffering and that their perceptions and egos cause their suffering. Acting on their most humane values relieves their suffering and opens a path to realize their hopes of better relationships. Integrity of values must displace integrity of ego.

Though values are more central to the sense of self, ego disputes are usually more intense than value disagreements. Ego protects us from vulnerable feelings, such as sadness, guilt, shame, or the hybrid species of shame—fear of being wrong. We can’t afford protection from guilt, shame, and sadness; they drive us to behave in accordance with deeper values so that we feel consistently authentic, which feels better than insisting that we’re right. If we don’t undermine the motivations of vulnerable emotions by blaming them on others, they serve as correction signals to be true to our deeper selves.

Ego-driven partners feel entitled to punish disagreement by withholding affection, compassion, and kindness. But they feel liberated when they act on the motivations of sadness, guilt, and shame to become better partners.

Exercise

Develop a coherent story about the relationship you want to have, one of integrity, based on humane values. The following is a guide.

List the three most important assets your partner brings to your relationship. (Example: sensitive to others, generous, caring)

List what you consider to be the three most important qualities about you as a partner. (Example: loving, respectful, compassionate)

List three ways you would like to improve as a partner. (Example: be more engaged, more positive, and more aware of the good moments)

List the five things you most appreciate about your relationship. (Example: companionship, fun, sensuality, vitality, security)

List five behaviors you need to do less of to have the relationship you most want. (Example: be less critical, defensive, demanding, withholding, selfish)

Construct a coherent story about your relationship using the 19 items you listed above.

(Example: My relationship brings me fun, sensuality, vitality, security, and companionship. My partner is sensitive, generous, and caring. She deserves to have me work hard to be loving, respectful, and compassionate. My relationship is important enough for me to make the effort to be more engaged, positive, and appreciative of the good moments. I will eliminate criticism by focusing on improvement, defensiveness by trying to understand my partner’s perspective, demanding by giving what I want to receive, withholding by enjoying generosity of spirit, and selfishness by recognizing that my partner matters as much as I do.)

Notice that to positively influence your partner, you must first tell yourself a coherent story, based on your deeper beliefs, humane values, and hopes. The change in your emotional demeanor will likely influence your partner positively, without you having to say a word.

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