How to Deal with Manipulative People

September 30, 2019

Like it or not manipulative people are everywhere. Manipulation is about trying to influence your behavior or perceptions through indirect and perhaps deceptive tactics, that advance the interest of the manipulator. Bad as it sounds, it’s a very common human tactic. It’s not just politicians and big corporations that try to manipulate you, it’s very likely your boss, your partner, your angelic children, and even dear sweet mom.

The fact is other people are invested in you doing what they want you to do. While we are all susceptible to manipulation, if you are insecure, overly nice, or worry a lot about what other people think, you may be an easy target.

The reason manipulation feels bad is because it feels like you’re being pushed or tricked into something you didn’t really chose or want to do. Choice makes all the difference in how you feel about something. The exact same behavior can feel totally different based on whether or not you chose to do it or were manipulated into doing it.

For example, if you choose to buy your teenager a $200 pair of jeans, because he/she has gotten great grades and done all their chores for the past 6 months, and you want to give an extra special treat, that will feel extremely different than being guilted into buying something outside your budget because you’ve been made to feel you are an uncool parent who is destroying your teens social life if you don’t.

The most common form of manipulation involves trying to dominate or change your frame. A frame is a perspective or belief you hold that serves as a reference point for the view you take on any situation. All judgments are made with respect to a frame of reference.

For example, if your belief is—I am a hard worker and a good employee, and I can do this while maintaining a healthy work life balance and only work during normal business hours—that is your frame. If your boss wants you to work longer hours, he/she may tell you that—The most valued employees who get promotions are those who are dedicated to the company’s mission and are willing to work on weekends when needed. Your boss is trying to influence and change your frame. Are you really still a good employee if your work ethic isn’t valued by the company?

While that is an obvious example, influencing your frame can often be a lot more subtle and can be more about how information is presented to you. Would you rather buy a condom that is 95% effective or one with a 5% failure rate? Would you rather buy ground beef that is 80% lean or has 20% fat? Research by Amos Tversky and Daniel Khanemann demonstrated that most people are most likely to choose the first option in both scenarios. Different words, settings, and situations can have a big influence on the person being manipulated. Advertisers and marketers know this extremely well, but so do regular people.

When your teen cleans his/her room before asking to go to an unsupervised party or your partner takes you out for a lovely dinner before telling you he/she needs to go to an out of town work conference during the week of your mother’s 60th birthday party—these are attempts to influence your response. They are trying to send you the messages—I am a responsible child; I am a loving partner—to frame how you respond to the news they anticipate you won’t like.

So, given that manipulation is such a common strategy, how can you deal with it without feeling duped, or taken advantage of? Below are 5 steps to help you win with manipulators.

1)   Be aware and notice how you are feeling. Unless what’s happening is entirely subconscious, interpersonal manipulation by others generally feels uncomfortable. Sort of like twisting your arm, but in this case your point of view is being twisted. Defensive, angry, guilty, ashamed? Like you are doing something wrong? The uncomfortable feeling is the ding, ding, ding alarm bell that should be signaling to you—I am being manipulated. Once you are aware that it is happening you can plan an active response as opposed to falling into the trap being laid.

2)   Listen. The other person in most cases, is simply trying to get you to see it their point of view. Try to understand the other person’s perspective. Listening doesn’t require you to do much, but it gives you the opportunity to center yourself and it has the remarkable ability to build trust and bonds. When you listen, without changing your perspective, you give them something they do want which is to be heard. Understanding the motives and perspective of the other person before you ever present your perspective is important to ultimately resolving the situation.

3)   Maintain frame control. Your frame is your own unique perspective based on your experiences and values. Your perspective is just as valid as anyone else’s. Maintaining frame control is about maintaining your position and perspective even when someone else has a competing perspective.

It’s not caving to people in order to please them but rather maintaining your own perspective in terms of what is true for you. If you are feeling confused by the other person or what your own position on the situation is, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for some time to think about what they are saying.

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