Dealing With Manipulative People
Standing Your Ground
It's the end of a hard week, and Luciana can't wait to get home and spend the evening with her family. Suddenly, her boss Karen walks into her office, sits down and sighs.
"Today sure went by fast," Karen says. "My mother just got into town, but it looks like I'll have to work late this evening to finish our quarterly report. It's a shame, because I had reservations for dinner, and we don't get that much time together."
"That's too bad," Luciana says, feeling uncomfortable.
"The last time you handled the quarterly report, you got it done in just a few hours," Karen continues, looking pointedly at Luciana. She then leans in closer to her. "Oh, and while I'm here, I wanted to let you know that I'm meeting with HR next week to discuss whether you should get a pay raise."
"Wow, thanks, Karen. I guess I could finish up that quarterly report for you..."
In this situation, it's clear to see that Karen has manipulated Luciana. However, this subtle form of aggression, which can leave us feeling confused, hurt and blindsided, isn't always so easy to spot.
In this article, we'll look at manipulation in detail, and discuss how to identify and deal with manipulative people.
What Is Manipulation?
According to Professor Len Bowers, manipulation occurs when someone uses deception, coercion, trickery, or fear to get what they want from others.
It differs from healthy social influence because manipulators care only for their own interests – they don't take other people's needs into account. When you influence people fairly, you don't use them exclusively for your own ends. Rather, you persuade them to see your point of view, while acknowledging their needs and feelings.
Why Do People Manipulate Others?
There are many reasons why people might be manipulative.
On a basic level, they may lack the skills or self-confidence to influence and persuade people legitimately, so they resort to underhand tactics to get what they want.
However, there are often other, more complex motives for their behavior. In her 2004 book, "Who's Pulling Your Strings? How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life," Dr Harriet B. Braiker identified that manipulative people:
- Feel the need to get what they want at the expense of others.
- Need to have power and authority in their relationships. (This may stem from low self-esteem.)
- Want to feel in control – of their environment and other people's actions. When they don't have this, they may get anxious.
Identifying a Manipulative Person
Manipulators are often intelligent, and they are good at using subtle aggression to get what they want. They're also highly skilled at deception, which can make it difficult to spot their behavior in the first place.
Professor Bowers conducted more than 100 interviews with forensic nurses and compiled a list of five common behaviors of manipulative people:
- Coercive persuasion: Manipulative people may use bribery or offer other rewards or inducements to get what they want. They may also bully people. This can include making threats, challenges and requests, and this can be verbal, emotional or physical.
- Conditioning: Manipulators might "condition" someone into forming a relationship with them by using flattery, intimacy or sympathy, so that they get what they want in the future.
- Misusing authority: They may use hierarchies or power structures to undermine the position of those they want to control.
- Fraud: Manipulators may lie to people, con them, or exploit their trust.
- Conflict: They may create conflict by pitting people against one another. They often use existing weaknesses or conflicts within a group.
In his 2010 book, "In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing With Manipulative People," Dr George K. Simon outlined additional behaviors that manipulators commonly demonstrate:
- Lying by omission: Manipulators may hide a significant portion of the truth.
- Diversion: They may change the subject abruptly to avoid discussing topics or answering questions.
- Denial: Manipulators may deny that they have done anything wrong when they are confronted.
- Rationalization: They will attempt to justify or explain their behavior.
- Minimization: This is a subtle blend of denial and rationalization. Manipulators often play down others' concerns about their behavior or actions.
- Guilt: Manipulators might try to "guilt-trip" people into doing what they want. Guilt tactics can be passive, such as using body language or vocal tone, or overt, for example by saying things to make people feel bad.
- Shaming: Manipulators might use sarcasm or put-downs to increase their power over their victims.
- Playing the victim: They might try to make others feel sympathy or compassion for them, so that they can get what they want.
Some people may use these tactics unconsciously, especially if they continue to get what they want.
How to Deal With Manipulators
Being a victim of manipulation is often upsetting and emotionally draining, especially if it happens repeatedly. Use these five strategies to stop being manipulated:
1. Identify Your Weaknesses
Manipulators are often highly skilled at "reading" people. They look for specific weaknesses that they can exploit.
Dr Simon identified the following character traits that can make it easier for you to be manipulated:
- You have a strong desire to please others, without taking your own needs into account.
- You don't believe that others would manipulate you, or do you harm, on purpose.
- You find reasons to excuse people's poor behavior.
- You have low self-confidence and self-esteem.
- You are emotionally dependent on others.
Consider whether you have any of these traits. Then think about what you could do to deal with them. For instance, you could build your self-confidence and develop an internal locus of control, so that you have more belief in your ability to control what happens in your life.
2. Spot Potential Manipulators
It's important to identify people who have manipulative tendencies. Awareness is the first step toward avoiding manipulation.
Look out for the behaviors we highlighted above, and also keep an eye out for people who:
- Want to have their own way, all the time.
- Won't take no for an answer.
- Will stop at nothing to succeed.
- Make excuses for hurtful or damaging behavior.
- Frequently make you feel guilty.
- Act differently with different people, putting on a "face" to serve an immediate purpose.
While you might not be able to avoid these people entirely, you can be on your guard when you're with them.
Also, take time to listen to possible manipulators and watch how they behave. You can learn their tactics when you pay attention to what they say and do – as well as what they don't say and do. When you understand the weapons and strategies they use, you're better able to sidestep them, laugh them off, or confront them.
3. Be Assertive
When you suspect that someone is trying to manipulate you, be assertive – this means that you stand up for your own interests, while still respecting his or her needs.
First, recognize how the other person views the situation. Then, express your needs directly – you'll project strength and confidence when you're specific about what you want.
Be direct and persistent, and use "I" statements to avoid generalities and accusations. For instance, you could say, "I would feel taken advantage of if I did that" instead of, "You're taking advantage of me!"
Manipulators will often change the subject or use other avoidance tactics when you confront them. For example, if you turn down a request, they might suggest a meeting to discuss it again later.
It can be very easy to get angry, defensive or upset when someone has manipulated you, especially if this behavior has persisted over time. Learn how to manage your emotions, so that you can assert yourself clearly and effectively.
In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to identify whether someone is manipulating you. If you're unsure, ask for some time on your own to think about the situation, so that you can formulate a response.
4. Identify and Set Personal Limits
Think about what types of behavior you will and won't tolerate from other people. Setting boundaries like this enables you to offer assistance when they need it, but not allow them to take advantage of you.
Consider how others have manipulated you in the past and what they ultimately wanted from you. Will you tolerate any of these behaviors again, or do you want to "draw a line in the sand"?
It can be useful to keep a journal of your thoughts as you go through this process. Writing down the boundaries that you're comfortable with will help you think about the situation clearly, strengthen your boundaries in your mind, and provide a healthy outlet for your feelings.
5. Stay Focused
When you stand up for yourself, manipulators might use evasive or diversionary tactics to confuse you, weaken your resolve, or throw you off-track.
Don't let them distract or sidetrack you. Stay focused on the issue that you want to address.
If you have any manipulators on your team, you may need to confront them about their behavior, if it's negatively affecting your group and its mission.
When you do this, there's a good chance that they'll brush off their behavior, or that they'll get angry at the accusation. They might also try to shift the blame (onto you or someone else) or rationalize their actions. Work on your conflict resolution skills so that you can manage situations like this effectively, and use role playing to practice the conversation if you feel nervous. You'll also need to take note of the behaviors that you've observed, before you confront them.
Speak with them privately. They might be unaware of how their behavior affects the people around them, so approach this conversation sensitively.
Be specific about how they're harming the team, and use "I" instead of "you" statements to communicate the effect that their behavior has on others. For instance, instead of saying, "You are very manipulative," you could say, "I feel uncomfortable when you threaten people like that."
Then make it clear to them that their behavior has to change. Consider using performance agreements to hold them accountable for this.
Also, make sure that they have the support and resources they need to change their behavior, including appropriate coaching to help them address the underlying reasons for their actions. For example, they might need training in increasing their influence and power legitimately. You may even need to encourage them to seek professional help, if you think this is necessary.
Manipulative people use deception, coercion and trickery to get what they want and to maintain power in relationships.
You can deal with them by identifying the weaknesses you have that they might prey on, and by spotting manipulative behaviors. If someone is manipulating you, be assertive and set personal boundaries, so you know what you will tolerate.
If you need to confront manipulators, identify the negative behaviors that you've observed, and be specific about how their actions harm the team. Also, hold them accountable, and make sure that they have the support they need to change.