Seeking and Resisting Compliance: Why People Say What They Do When Trying to Influence Others


Steven R. Wilson

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Describing Influence Interactions

    Part II: Metaphors for Studying Persuasive Message Production

    Part III: Theories of Goal Pursuit

    Part IV: Studying Persuasive Message Production in Context

  • Dedication

    In memory of Robert Thomas Wilson


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    In this book, I review the literatures on seeking and resisting compliance from a message production perspective. The primary issue addressed here is captured by the following questions: When we want to convince another person to do something, why do we say what we do? Consciously or unconsciously, how do we decide what to say as an influence interaction unfolds? To address these questions, I integrate the research tradition on “compliance gaining” with emerging theories of “message production.” This integration, which I refer to as persuasive message production, is tempered by a healthy respect for the interactive nature of seeking and resisting compliance. Examples of compliance-gaining interactions, from both my research and my personal life, are scattered throughout the book.

    There are four major sections in this book, sandwiched between introductory and concluding chapters. Chapter 1 describes the scope and themes of the book. For readers new to this area, it should help clarify exactly what the book is about. The chapters that make up Part I then address four different approaches to the description of interpersonal influence interactions. Before one can discuss theories of message production, one needs to clarify exactly which features of influence messages and interactions one hopes to explain. In Chapter 2, I address the traditional approach of analyzing message strategies, and in Chapter 3, I discuss the three alternative approaches of analyzing message themes, behavioral dimensions, and temporal characteristics.

    The chapters in Part II describe two metaphors that have dominated the study of persuasive message production. Historically, issues concerning message production have been phrased as questions about “strategy selection.” In Chapter 4, I review two research traditions that provide the genesis for contemporary theories of persuasive message production: the compliance-gaining literature associated with the late Gerald Miller and his colleagues at Michigan State University, and the early constructivist tradition associated with Jesse Delia and his colleagues at the University of Illinois. Both traditions imply a “strategy-selection” metaphor of message production. More recently, issues concerning message production have been phrased as questions about “goal pursuit” In Chapter 5, I describe a “second generation” of scholarship, which has moved toward studying the production of influence messages as a goal- driven process. I discuss how researchers today are grappling with the issues of conceptualizing, measuring, and modeling interaction goals.

    The chapters in Part III survey theoretical perspectives on how individuals pursue influence goals. In Chapter 6, I review discourse perspectives, provide background material about pragmatics and conversation analyses, and then review work on two topics with special relevance to persuasive message production: obstacles to compliance (as framed by attribution and speech act theories) and threats to “face” (as framed by politeness and message design logic theories). These approaches highlight the pragmatic knowledge individuals need to seek/resist compliance, as well as the unfolding sequential structure of influence interactions. In Chapter 7, I discuss cognitive perspectives on the pursuit of influence goals and review theories of plans/planning and action assembly theory. These approaches present detailed assumptions about the knowledge structures and psychological processes that underlie persuasive message production.

    In Chapter 8, the sole chapter in Part IV, I address persuasive message production within two specific relational and institutional contexts. Specifically, I discuss research exploring (a) how physically abusive versus nonmaltreating parents seek to regulate perceived misbehavior by their children and (b) how employees attempt to influence members at higher levels in the formal hierarchy of their work organizations. In each case, I draw on the theories reviewed in Parts II and III for insights into how individuals seek/resist compliance within these particular contexts.

    In Chapter 9, I summarize the themes that run throughout the book and then ponder future challenges and prospects for theories of persuasive message production. These challenges include whether comprehensive theories of persuasive message production can be developed as well as whether emotional processes can be incorporated into such theories.

    As the above description of this book's organization makes clear, I do not devote specific chapters to issues of culture, development, or gender. Instead, I pose questions about how children acquire knowledge and skill at seeking/ resisting compliance and about how influence interactions vary across cultures and genders throughout several chapters.

    I have been motivated to write this book by four interrelated goals. First, I want to highlight the pervasive, potentially complex, and important role of interpersonal influence episodes in our personal and professional lives. At present, no single-authored text focuses solely on how individuals produce messages within influence interactions. This omission is a noteworthy one. Interpersonal influence episodes have real consequences—in some cases because it matters whether we are successful at seeking and/or resisting compliance, and in others because seeking and resisting compliance themselves play important roles in (re)defining our relationships.

    My second goal is to provide theoretical grounding for the literatures on seeking and resisting compliance. People seek and resist compliance in a host of relational, institutional, and cultural contexts; thus literatures on compliance-gaining and -resisting strategies have sprung up in many different disciplines and specialties. Unfortunately, these specific literatures often are isolated from work on interpersonal influence in other contexts, as well as from broader theories that might guide the work. I hope to breathe new life into the literatures on seeking and resisting compliance by reframing them from a message production perspective. I show how theories from communication, psychology, and sociolinguistics can be used to guide theoretical choices about how to describe influence messages and interactions, explain regularities in how we seek and resist compliance, and offer suggestions for reframing problematic or dysfunctional interactions.

    My third goal is to draw links between communication and cognitive processes during influence interactions. The compliance-gaining literature often is criticized for being “one-sided.” Compliance-gaining interactions are interactive and incremental (Sanders & Fitch, 2001), and yet scholars often study acts of seeking or resisting compliance as if these acts were performed in isolation. The literature on message production also has been criticized for being too “individualistic”, in the sense of focusing on only one participant in a dialogue. In this book I attempt to address such criticisms by focusing on the interdependent nature of seeking and resisting compliance. I describe the emergent nature of both participants' perceptions, emotions, and goals as influence interactions unfold.

    Fourth and finally, I want to show that work on persuasive message production can speak to issues of larger societal import. In Chapter 8, I discuss how theory and research in this area can offer insights about parenting and child abuse as well as about upward influence and mobility in the workplace, illustrating how research on interpersonal communication can play a role in helping us to address issues that our society has identified as important challenges.

    Given these four goals, this volume can be useful as a supplemental text for graduate- or bridge-level courses on persuasion and social influence. It also can function as a primary text for special-topics courses on interpersonal influence or message production. The book presumes no prior background in these areas, only basic familiarity with the goals and methods of social science. If you are a seasoned colleague who shares my interests in compliance gaining and message production, I hope that this book stimulates your thinking. If you are a newer colleague, I hope that it helps you analyze interpersonal influence episodes in your own life.


    This book has been more than 5 years in the making, and I am indebted to many people who have helped me initiate and complete the project. I have been blessed with a number of talented teachers who have shaped my thinking about persuasive message production, as well as about conducting and evaluating communication research more generally. Brant Burleson, Linda Putnam, John Greene, Dale Hample, and Vince Follert have been especially important in this regard.

    I am indebted to many colleagues, including Jim Dillard, Frank Boster, Mike Roloff, Charles Berger, and Barb O'Keefe, who have contributed many of the concepts and theories discussed in this book and discussed them with me along the way. I am indebted also to Joel Milner and Ellen Whipple, two colleagues from other disciplines who have helped me appreciate the relevance of communication theory for understanding family violence. I am especially grateful to dozens of students who have read, and provided feedback on, parts of this book. My thanks to participants in graduate seminars at Northern Illinois University, Northwestern University, and Purdue University.

    Margaret Seawell, executive editor at Sage Publications, has been especially patient as I have set writing this book aside at various points and then returned to it. She and others at Sage have been instrumental in helping me complete the project.

    My family has been extremely supportive throughout the writing process. My mother, Marilyn, has made many trips to our home and folded endless baskets of laundry to give me time to write. She and my father, Robert, to whom this book is dedicated, both were educators. My parents instilled in me the values of hard work, personal confidence, and regard for others. My sister, Sheryl, and her family graciously allowed me to live with them for two nights a week during a year when I completed several chapters.

    My own children—Brendan (and his wife Ashley), Sheridan, Ashlee, Lisette, Annie, and Robyn—have provided much fodder for this book. They have taught me a great deal about seeking and resisting compliance. I hope they can laugh when reading about our lives together in the pages of this book. My greatest debt is to my wife and partner, Patrice Buzzanell. She has listened politely on countless occasions when I talked about the book, encouraged me to do what it took to finish it, and spent endless weekends giving me the chance to do so. I could not have completed this project without her support. Finally, I must say thanks to Christopher and Teddy Buzzanell, who have kept my ego in check and taught me that one can be adored simply for being (well, for being a terrier).

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    Author Index

    About the Author

    Steven R. Wilson is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication at Purdue University. He is one of five associate editors for the interdisciplinary journal Personal Relationships and past chair of the International Communication Association's Interpersonal Communication Division. His research and teaching focus on interpersonal influence and message production in a variety of contexts, from parent-child interaction in abusive families to intercultural business negotiations. He has published nearly 40 articles and book chapters on these topics.

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