Manipulation: Recognising and Responding to It
You know the feeling. The person seems to be making a reasonable request, or advising you to do something “for your own good”, but inside your guts are completely churned up! What’s going on? The chances are that you are experiencing an attempt to manipulate you. Sadly, manipulation is rife in the real world and it is hard to resist: meaning that you are unlikely to be in practice too long before a client presents in some angst because they have just fallen prey to manipulatory tactics.
How you can help them to respond now and recognise it early on in future interactions is the topic of today’s discussion. We define it, look at why we’re all vulnerable, and outline the warning signs that a manipulatory overture is in play, highlighting the manipulator’s techniques. We discuss, finally, how you can help your client to respond.
What is manipulation?
We can define psychological manipulation — the kind we’re talking about — as “the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control, benefits, and/or privileges at the victim’s expense” (Ni, 2015).
It can be distinguished from “social influencing”, which appears naturally without anyone trying to force it. A social influencer may affect others’ choices, preferences, and judgment without threatening their health and emotional or physical well-being. Conversely, manipulators seek to create an imbalance of power in order to exploit others’ weaknesses so that they can further their own ends, which usually include motives of personal gain, a desire for power and superiority, a desire to control, self-esteem issues, or boredom (Psychologia, 2019).
Why we’re vulnerable
Manipulators are so effective at working their “black magic” on most of us because of two related realities:
- As human beings we are “hardwired” to be social, to attempt to belong, because we know deep down that survival is more likely if we are part of the tribe — and if the tribe values us. So gaining approval of the “tribe” (defined as narrowly or broadly as you wish) seems tantamount to survival. Beyond that, some people have chronically low self-reliance, an external locus of control, emotional dependency, or loneliness, which exacerbate the built-in programming to try to belong.
- Most of us did not have perfect parenting or perfect childhoods. In addition, many have survived various sorts of trauma. Thus we currently “carry” these past experiences as what some call our “baggage”: the leftover psychological effects of childhood wounding, which have covered our psychological bodies with “hot [easily ‘pushed’] buttons”. These include all of the items in (1) and also the desire to please, love addictions, lack of assertiveness, fear of confrontation, low self-confidence, naiveté, immaturity, and/or an unclear sense of identity (Psychologia, 2019; Dawson, 2018).
Manipulators are, in a dark way, skilled psychologists in that they are hugely adept at tapping into the needs that arise from the above. Temporarily “blinded” by the need to, say, be well thought of, avoid certain shame, or because we fear consequences of taking a particular action, we become emotional and close-minded. The manipulator presents a “relief” option with such exquisite timing and in such a manner that — given the state we’re in (or which the manipulator induces in us) — we fail to see the big picture and the ulterior motives at work. Because we fear real-world consequences of failure, manipulation works on offering a guarantee of an outcome (Dawson, 2018). It is typically an outcome that results from actions we could take which the manipulator will say are “more righteous” or which lessen our anxiety and fear about getting things “wrong” and being rejected. How do they do it?
The cycle of manipulation in three easy steps
- The manipulator targets our psychological sensitivities (the “hot buttons” above), where we believe we are not enough, or not good enough: as a parent, partner, professional, sibling, friend, employee, member, or whatever. Obviously, the list of ways in which we could consider ourselves inadequate is potentially infinite, so manipulators have a lot of material to work with.
- The manipulator “pokes at” these inadequacies we perceive in ourselves until getting an emotional reaction, one which has to be strong enough to induce “tunnel vision” in us: a temporary inability to use common sense to weigh up pros and cons, think ahead, and assess differing viewpoints. Once at that point, we are unable to recognise the ulterior motives behind the machinations.
- The manipulator uses the narrow-mindedness (or “blindness”?) created by our emotional reaction to persuade us that a particular action is “righteous” and will be approved of by groups that we belong to — or desire to belong to. At that moment, we are unable to see the bigger picture. The (implanted) thought that a particular action is sure to be productive or successful gives us emotional relief from the anxiety, fear, or anger we were feeling and discourages any further consideration. We are prompted to act immediately and thus fall prey to manipulation (Dawson, 2018).
Red alert: Manipulators operating nearby
Fortunately, regardless of which particular tactics a manipulator is using, they tend to produce a similar off-balance sense of disquiet in us. You can tell your client that she is probably being manipulated when:
- She feels terrible after receiving the manipulator’s “help”
- She often experiences many negative emotional states around the person, such as
- A sense of falling short of expectations
- The feeling that she is always walking on eggshells
- A sense of being isolated from friends and family
- Unhappiness in the relationship but fear of losing it
- Her words are used against her, and in fact, when she registers a disturbing statement by the manipulator, he will claim that she misunderstood
- A sense of questioning her own sanity
- Love and affection are withdrawn because she wasn’t forthcoming with what the manipulator wanted
- She experiences the relationship as deeply complex (Psychologia, 2019).
Techniques, tactics, and tricks
Forewarned is forearmed, so let’s address the “tools” used by psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists, borderline personalities, unprincipled negotiators and salespeople, abusers, co-dependents, and other sorts of manipulators/predators to gain control over a person, whom we’ll call “the victim”. They fall roughly into about three overlapping domains.
Manipulation of facts and/or reality
This may be the toolbox used most commonly used by manipulators. While it is true that they often do tell outright lies, you may be more likely to find that they:
- Do not tell the whole story, keeping parts to themselves to disadvantage the victim
- Deny that the thing they are accused of ever happened
- Behave “two-faced”, saying one thing today and the opposite tomorrow
- Minimise (playing down their own actions as not important or not damaging)
- Exaggerate or understate
- Overwhelm the victim with facts and statistics (an attempt to presume “expert power” in order to push through their agenda)
- Overwhelm the victim with procedures and red tape (a technique for delaying fact-finding, hiding weaknesses, and evading scrutiny, while making the victim’s life more difficult)
- Shift blame onto the victim for overreacting at any of the above
- Accuse the victim of wrongdoing to mask their own manipulation (putting the focus on the victim)
Mental and emotional bullying
These tactics occur to disempower their intended victim, bolstering their own position. Included here are when manipulators:
- Consistently judge, criticise, and nag the victim, fostering the impression that there is always something wrong with them; no matter how hard the person tries, he or she will never be good enough
- Shift the goal posts if a person has met a challenging expectation or demand
- Use sarcasm or negative humour (especially in front of others) to de-value the victim, lowering that person’s self-esteem
- Induce guilt (e.g., “You don’t care about me. If you did, you would ”; “You’re selfish for _”)
- Subject the victim to “the silent treatment”: a mental tactic employed by not responding to communications of the victim in order to implant insecurity and doubt, thus using silence to gain leverage
- Use mood swings and other emotional blackmail to make victims more malleable
- Isolate the victim: say, from friends, family, and other supports (to increase control)
- Use over-the-top aggression, including shouting, anger, threats of intimidation or shaming, and aggressive non-verbal communication (physical violence could occur here, too, but we are mainly talking about psychological manipulation rather than physical coercion)
- Give little or no time to decide an important matter (high-pressure salespeople often use this tactic)
- Employ a negative surprise, such as low-balling in a negotiation or unexpectedly announcing they will not be able to come through with their part of the deal
Playing the innocent good guy, somehow maligned
Manipulators do not always “play the heavy”. Sometimes they attempt to disarm or knock the victim off-balance through bursts of supposedly positive, or at least neutral, action. They may:
- Go on a charm offensive, making the victim think it’s the best relationship ever, but then — for no reason — devalue or even drop the other person (a relating style used typically by narcissists)
- Flatter, praise, or give intense attention to the victim, even buying expensive presents, until the victim lets down his or her guard
- Bribe the victim, promising great rewards “if you’ll just do this . . . “
- Feign love and empathy: feigned because serious manipulators cannot genuinely feel love and empathy for others, but they can pretend to in order to get victims “onside”
- Play the innocent victim, which helps them to gain sympathy and compassion from those around them (we are drawn as human beings to helping suffering others)
- Play dumb, feigning ignorance of what the victim is asking in order to avoid complying
- Divert the conversation away from what the manipulator did so that the victim will “forget” the hurtful act
Lists adapted from Lancer, 2018; Learning Mind, 2019; Dawson, 2018)
Responding to manipulation
Manipulators have a long list of “weapons” in their arsenal with which to assault us if we are unprepared. What can we put in place to counter their attacks? The good news is that, in reading this article, you have completed half the battle preparations: the easy half, comprised of recognising how manipulators operate. Refer back to our lists whenever you are wavering, wondering if this pleasant-voiced, ingratiating person is actually behaving in a predatory manner.
Recognising our sensitivities
The second, more difficult, half of preparation deals with recognising how you (or your client) operate. Let’s say it’s you being manipulated; recall that manipulators “get under our skin” through our sensitivities. What are yours? Are you aware of all your “buttons” which could be pushed? If you have been steadily doing the work of self-awareness, you may already understand, for example, how events in your childhood have caused you to have toxic shame, or that you are chronically prone to feeling guilt. You may already know that you struggle to feel competent in your work. If you are not aware of where your sensitivities are, try this: ask some people whose opinion you trust and value (in other words, not manipulators who would use the information against you) (Dawson, 2018).
Lessening the emotionality around sensitivities
Once they are identified, you can work to reduce the emotional impact of having your sensitivities exposed. The person who feels incompetent as a parent, for example, can do the psychological work of owning the ways in which they are parenting effectively, and reframe any areas of perceived incompetence as a growth edge. With your help, the client can soften a bit, accepting that — even when a wrong decision is made – they were doing the best they could given the options they saw (Dawson, 2018).
Stopping the pretence that you are not getting an emotional reaction. If/when a manipulator makes a bid to control/manipulate you, pretending that you have no “buttons to push” is futile; the manipulator will see through it in an instant. Acknowledging the emotion upfront, however, takes away some of the manipulator’s power, as they typically will be hoping to cow you in shame about the tendency (Dawson, 2018).
Strengthening your boundaries
Yes, it’s Boundary-Setting 101. The clearer your boundaries are — and the more willing you are to recognise and respond to boundary violations — the safer you can keep yourself from manipulation. If your assertiveness skills are not tiptop, there is no time like the present to upskill. Then, when the manipulator starts using, say, guilt induction to control you, you can call it for what it is (Lancer, 2018).
Building your self-esteem and self-respect
A priority growth area for anyone who wants a quality life, a good self-image is a powerful tool for resisting attacks. That deep-down trust that, even if you make mistakes you are ok, lends you an unshakeable capacity to rebuff manipulations. Self-acceptance simply does not create the intensity of emotional reaction that allows the cycle of manipulation to continue (Lancer, 2018).
You need to be able to get a second perspective if the manipulator starts using tactics. Be sure to maintain all your normal relational supports if you are in close relationship with a manipulator. A close relationship, however, is highly ill-advised (Psychologia, 2019)!
Manipulation may be an art, but it’s an ugly, dark one. You can reassure the client that, while attempts to target us are unpleasant, we can learn to reduce our vulnerability at least some of the time. And the rest of the time? Just run.
- Dawson, R. (2018). Resisting manipulation: What you need to know. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 7 May, 2019, from: Website.
- Lancer, D. (2018). How to spot manipulation. Psych Central. Retrieved on 7 May, 2019, from: Website.
- Learning Mind. 2019). 20 most common manipulation techniques used by predators. Learning Mind. Retrieved on 7 May, 2019, from: Website.
- Ni, P. (2015). 14 signs of psychological and emotional manipulation. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 7 May, 2019, from: Website.
- Psychologia. (2019). Infographic: Psychological manipulation. Psychologia. Retrieved on 7 May, 2019, from: Website.