The desire for control

Perhaps the deepest need people have is for a sense of control. When we feel out of control, we experience a powerful and uncomfortable tension between the need for control and the evidence of inadequate control. Note that the need is for ‘a sense of control’, not just for ‘control’. This need around how we feel about control is much deeper and has a wider scope than just seeking power and the control it brings. One of the most disturbing things about having a terminal illness, as those who unfortunately suffer from such afflictions will tell you, is the feeling of powerlessness, of being unable to do anything about it. Being unable to control the illness and knowing that others cannot help either can be even more painful than impending death. From an evolutionary standpoint, if we are in control of our environment, then we have a far better chance of survival. Our deep subconscious mind thus gives us strong biochemical prods when we face some kind of danger (such as the fight-or-flight reaction).

Other needs that lead to a sense of control include:

  • A sense of certainty.
  • Completion of outstanding things, so we don’t have to worry about them..
  • Understanding of how things work.
  • Being able to predict what will happen.
  • That people (including ourselves) and things are consistent.

Not control, just the sense
In fact, we don’t actually need to be in control all of the time. What we really seek is a sense of control. When our parents or our managers are controlling us, we can still be happy because we trust them to provide the control we seek in our lives. In fact many people actively seek parent-figures in all walks of their life who will provide this control. When seek the advice of experts and obey those in authority, we are depending on them for our sense of control.

The sense of control is closely related in opposite ways to power and trust. You can get a sense of control by taking control and acting, which is effectively about power. You can also get a sense of control by ceding it to others, which requires trust. Trust and control support one another. Not only does trust cede control, but the need for a sense of control drives us to seek trust, otherwise we implement trust substitutes, such as monitoring or barriers.

If we have control then we risk less. Threats can be avoided or handled. This has significant evolutionary benefit as it leads to a better chance of survival. We trust more and risk less when we have control. In this way powerful people will trust others more easily. Vulnerable people, on the other hand, can do little about avoiding threats and so must depend on others to help them.

Grabbing control causes resistance
When I grab control of the conversation, talking past the point when you want to reply, you will get increasingly frustrated as you wait for a pause in which you can respond. Sales people do this when they insist on going through the whole sales pitch even when the customer just wants to pay, take the product and leave. Parents do it when they over-do the lectures to their children. A point which is initially accepted is later rejected at what gets seen as unfair punishment.

Taking direct control of a conversation or situation does not persuade. It is possible that you get temporary compliance, but you will not get true persuasion. The control game is much like fly fishing. Pull to hard and the fish will slip the hook. Let it out too far and the line will snag or the fish will swim away. It is only through a sometimes-long process of give and take, you steadily reel in your fish.

Giving up control gets control in two ways. First, by choosing when, where and how you give control, you still have hold of the reins. You have defined the cage in which the other person can play. Secondly, having allowed them to exercise control, you can evoke the reciprocity principle, such that the other person will willingly give up control of the conversation to redress the social balance. As someone said long ago, ‘Give, in order that ye shall receive’.

Give control to gain control
Give them a choice: When people exercise choice, they are controlling their environment. So give them a choice, ensuring that whatever they choose gives you an advantage.One of the most common sales closes is the alternative close, where you assume the other person is ready to buy, and give them a simple choice (‘Do you want the red one or the yellow one.’). Don’t give them too much choice, because this makes the decision harder and can thus lead to a reduced sense of control. Because we make our easiest decisions by contrasting two things at one time, the best number of options to give is two.

Retrieved on October 1th 2014, from


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