How to Tell When You’re Being Manipulated

puppets2Let’s be honest, we all use a little bit of manipulation now and then in order to get what we want.

Some of us know how to turn on the charm when we need to. We have a few strategies up our sleeve for bringing reluctant people on board with our plans.

We know which buttons to push to persuade our Young Person to tidy their room, or to get a colleague to do the tedious bit of the project, or to ensure the decision for a camping versus a beach holiday favours our choice. You might ‘soften up’ someone by cooking their favourite meal, or ‘butter up’ someone by using a bit of flattery. You may have your own little ways of getting out of doing something without actually saying no.

None of this is necessarily bad. Many of our interpersonal transactions involve the use of influence and persuasion.

In the workplace, the pressure of office politics may require a range of persuasive techniques and strategies. And many households run more smoothly when indirect pressure nudges people in a certain direction. The washing-up liquid placed next to the dirty cups can be an effective way of getting a kitchen-sharer to clean up their stuff. Anything that avoids predictable family rows or those painful house meetings…

We know where we are with the skills and techniques of straightforward argument and debate.

We are familiar with the battery of strategies which, for example, salespeople employ. The rules of the game of selling are clear — someone’s job is to make you buy or sign up and they will know the best ways to establish rapport and draw you in. But you know that they are not really your best friend (sorry) and they may not really like your little dog (even more sorry).

There are two aspects to consider when assessing the dividing line between influence and manipulation.

Someone is pulling your strings

Manipulative behaviour is a form of aggression. Manipulators want to force you into certain positions or behaviour, but they are not upfront about this, and they use indirect means to get their own way. Some of the techniques they employ are:

  • giving you the silent treatment
  • staging an outburst
  • sulking
  • making vague threats
  • saying one thing to your face and another behind your back
  • not following through on promises
  • conveniently forgetting
  • hinting
  • sabotaging arrangements
  • never accepting blame
  • flattering
  • flirting
  • putting down other people
  • misrepresenting your relationship
  • making you feel special

Your feelings and gut instinct

Sometimes we can recognise what the other person is up to, and we can choose whether to play along or not. But sometimes we we only know that we feel uncomfortable and as if we have been pushed into a position we don’t want to occupy. We feel we don’t quite trust the person, and we’re confused about how they see us.

You could ask yourself:

  • Am I always trying to please this person?
  • Do I feel guilty if I don’t want to go along with them?
  • Do I feel they are taking advantage of me?
  • Do I feel that I have been manoeuvred into a situation not of my choosing?

Check your buttons

Knowing which are your vulnerable soft spots will help you to realise when someone is pushing one of your buttons.

If you recognise your areas of emotional weakness, you can send yourself a mental alert when that particualr nerve is being tweaked.

The guilt button

We feel guilty when we think we have fallen short in one of the areas which really matter to us.

If you care about being, say, reliable, or thoughtful, or kind, or a protective parent, or a good son, or daughter, or a loyal friend, any suggestion that your behaviour is transgressing this area activates your guilt.

You are ripe for someone to make you feel you are letting down a friend, or that you are not being a team player, or that you are being insensitive to others’ needs. All it takes is for someone to suggest:

  • If you really cared about your child’s well-being you would…..
  • Surely this isn’t too much to ask after all the help you’ve been given…

The fear of loss button

Our behaviour is influenced by our fear of losing something that is important to us. It could be fear of losing security, or respect, or comfort, or control, or love, or health. The fear of losing something can be stronger than our desire to gain something.

All a skilled manipulator needs to do is to suggest that a certain course of action threatens the loss of something that matters to you:

  • Of course you don’t have to attend the conference, but I know you want to stay on the team, and appraisals are coming up…
  • I’m only saying this out of concern for your health.

The desire to gain button

We’re motivated by the desire to get our needs met. You may be driven by the need for money, or security, or love, or fame, or excitement, or acceptance, or recognition.

This button can be pushed by a suggestion, hint or promise of the positive good outcomes for you if you do as required:

  • You don’t want to be the only one who…
  • Think how pleased everyone will be!

The self-esteem button

We all need validation of ourselves. It’s lovely to receive attention, compliments and personal comments which reflect back a pleasing picture of ourselves and make us feel good.

When we are in a robust frame of mind, we can give and take these validations while keeping them in perspective.

But when our self-esteem is fragile, our need to be liked and accepted clouds our judgement and makes us easy prey for those who spot a way to exploit this weakness for their own ends.

Self-knowledge is a powerful first step in protecting yourself from being manipulated. Skilled game-players will suss out the personality traits they can take advantage of, so steal a march on them by being prepared.

Once you see how their tactics are working, you can begin to formulate ways of dealing with them.

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