A Beginner’s Guide to Managing Manipulation
Everyone uses ‘manipulation’, every time they open their mouths to speak to others. We cannot help but speak with an agenda, whether hidden or transparent. The word ‘manipulation’ is often used with a negative connotation, describing someone using persuasion tactics for their own benefit and to the detriment of others. This is the kind of manipulation I will be discussing in this article, though it’s worth noting that manipulation can be a totally positive experience.
Every day you are subjected to manipulation by others and not all of them have your best interests at heart. This is sadly one topic not taught in schools, yet being unable to recognise and manage manipulation tactics from others is essential to success. It has a huge impact on all sorts of important fields of business and entrepreneurship, such as sales and bargaining, customer service and brand management.
There are four main types of manipulation and I used to be subjected to these every day, when I was working with offenders on parole. Through this work I was able to hone my skills to manage these tactics, in their various forms. So as we go through each I will share the basic tips on how to first identify and then manage these.
1. Aggression and intimidation
This is by far the easiest to spot. However manipulation is not identified by how the other person is behaving; it is identified by how you feel. Keep this in mind as we go through, because self-awareness is the primary factor in managing manipulation.
Aggression and intimidation are all about using fear to control another person’s behaviour. Particularly, fear of harm. The person will literally be trying to make you feel afraid for your safety, and then will present you with options without you realising it. A lesser version is a person being very overbearing, loud or extroverted, making you feel small and insignificant.
For example, I once had a gang member the size of a house start breathing really hard during an interview, staring at me with bulging eyes, and refusing to answer my questions. He was covered in facial tattoos and had a reputation for assaulting Police. Pretty scary right? This is called a ‘standover’: the threat of physical violence without actually needing to say or do anything.
HOW TO MANAGE AGGRESSION:
I manage these situations through a method called ‘frame control’. Frame control is worthy of a book by itself, but in brief it’s about having the strongest, most unmoving view of the world when in a group of 2 or more people. What I mean is, when the guy is trying to intimidate me, I simply behave as if he is upset and just needs someone to reflect his feelings back to him. That’s my ‘frame’. His frame is that I am scared of him. So it’s all about which frame is strongest, mine or his.
I don’t back down, but I don’t fight back either. I remain neutral and just calmly reflect back what I’m seeing. The guy eventually becomes uncomfortable because I am not being moved by him. This resistance is the key to frame control. Eventually he succumbs and brings his mood down to match mine.
This is a really complex technique used by the most masterful of manipulators. It’s particularly used by abusive partners to control their spouses. Invalidation is about making comments that indirectly attack a person’s self-worth and self-esteem. It’s all about making them doubt themselves. If you feel like your self-confidence is decreasing when someone is talking to you, they are probably invalidating you.
A common example is when a customer is complaining about something and asks to see your manager. By asking to see the manager he is implying that you do not have the skill, ability or authority to meet his needs. He is saying you are bad at your job, without actually saying it.
When I was a probation officer this one would always be used by the sexual offenders, who are the most manipulative of all. They would say things like ‘I want to change probation officer, you don’t get me’ or ‘that’s not what you said last week, aren’t you taking notes or something?’ They were constantly trying to erode my confidence in my ability to manage offenders. They always seemed to say it when I was restricting them in a way they didn’t like (insert sideways smiley-face).
HOW TO MANAGE INVALIDATION:
Reflective listening is part of it, you need them to hear themselves when they speak. Reflecting emotion is always a very powerful way to call out manipulation and make the manipulator uncomfortable. Saying things like ‘I’m hearing that you’re unhappy with my approach’ puts them in a position where they have to defend their stance.
This means you don’t defend your stance… ever. Frame control is about not needing to defend yourself because you have no doubt. If you get even slightly defensive, if you so much as try to explain yourself, they have won. You are off your track and onto theirs, so they now have control. Do not accept their frame!
The second part is to have complete intolerance for invalidation. You need to stop it in its tracks, but you absolutely must remain emotionally unaffected. If you display a reactive emotion, they have won. This article is designed to help you become genuinely unreactive, because once you see these manipulation styles for the weak and pathetic tactics they truly are, you should feel like laughing at them!
Intolerance is about not accepting what they have indirectly implied about you, e.g.: ‘I’m afraid my manager is not available. I understand you feel you cannot work out this issue with me. Fortunately this is a matter that I am fully trained to deal with, so I would appreciate the opportunity to work through this with you. How can we move forward from here?’
You’re basically saying: ‘Welcome back to my frame!’
This could also be called validation. The more persuasive and clever offenders I’ve worked with have realised that this is probably the single-most effective form of manipulation. People are suckers for flattery because they lack self-confidence. Any prisoner will tell you that the easiest ‘mark’ is a prison guard who has no friends. A few compliments later and, before you know it, he’s supplying drugs to the prisoners.
You have a psychological tendency to like someone more if they like you too, so be aware of this. When people flatter you with what feels like genuine compliments, you will feel a desire to be nicer to them and favour them. It’s the oldest trick in the book.
Bear in mind, just because someone is complimenting you doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. This is where flattery differs from the other two styles above: flattery can just be about making you feel good, with no hidden harmful agenda.
However, if you’re interviewing a potential employee, or haggling for a price, flattery could lead to terrible decisions.
HOW TO MANAGE FLATTERY:
You will recognise this when you feel the light embarrassment or positive glow of recognition. Flattery is usually direct, where they compliment something you’ve done or a personal quality of yours. To deal with this, you need to be aware beforehand that you are going into a situation where flattery may be used.
If I was speaking with a peer, I would not get too worked up about flattery, and just take the compliment confidently. However if I’m meeting with an offender or a staff member, I would always have my radar on for manipulation. That includes friendliness and complimentary comments.
Once you’re prepared, you deal with it in two ways. The first way is non-confrontational, where you simply deflect the recognition back to the person, i.e. give them credit so that they can’t hold a compliment over you. So if you’re haggling for a price and they say ‘Wow you obviously have great taste in x, y and z’, you can reply with ‘Thanks for that, but I would like to discuss…’ The use of the words ‘Thanks, but…’ invalidates their compliment, removing its power.
The second method is my favourite for people trying to win me over, but is much more confrontational. You simply call out the flattery in full disclosure. So, with offenders I would often say things like ‘My training is telling me that you are being trying to flatter me in order to change my mind. How do you feel about that observation?’
The trick here is to make flattery uncomfortable so that they stop doing it. In business it would be something more like ‘I have to stop you there mate, I would prefer we don’t use flattery during this process as it makes me feel suspicious. I’ll be much easier to deal with if we just keep it professional. So moving on…’
4. “Poor me” and other distractions
Sex offenders are really notorious for using this approach. This is where someone makes you feel sorry for them. The people who like to use this approach tend to pour it on thick, where they will make it sound like everything in their life is a complete disaster. The whole idea is to distract you and control your frame.
I had one offender who would come in and make it sound like she was going to completely fall apart. The first time I met her I got really concerned and made loads of calls to support agencies and the like, to help her out. Surprisingly, I didn’t manage to find the time to go over her legal obligations that day. The next time she came in, it was a whole raft of different issues. And again. And again. Until I finally saw the pattern.
In sales, this is the part of the pitch where the vendor wrings his cap and says ‘But I will make no money at that price, I have a family to feed, they will all starve if I cannot sell more this week…’
HOW TO MANAGE DISTRACTION
Reflect and then return to the point. Some people are genuinely in crisis so this is not always a manipulation ‘tactic’. But it is always about trying to make you feel sympathy. By reflecting, you show that you have heard what they have said, which will reduce the amount of times they repeat themselves. For example, you might say ‘Gee, it sounds like you’ve had a really challenging week. That must be so frustrating that he did that to you. Listen, before we talk more about that, I need to cover x, y and z with you’.
You must be unrelenting in returning to the point; controlling the frame. If they are actually in crisis, the reflection will make them feel heard and they will appreciate that you are strong and taking charge of the direction of discussion. If they are just trying to manipulate you, they will get the strong impression that you are an empathetic but unaffected force.
The keys to managing manipulation can basically be summed up into three points:
- Always assume you are being manipulated for either good or bad, and be prepared for it. Everyone is trying to achieve something when they talk to you, and it’s OK.
- Be unaffected. Manipulation only occurs when it affects your emotions. So maintain awareness of how you feel, because that will be your indicator as to whether or not you are being manipulated.
- When in doubt, call it out. The single most effective way to manage manipulation is to bring it out of hiding. Just say ‘I think you’re trying to manipulate me because you are doing x, y and z’. It will be really hard for them to continue doing it after that!
You will know you are managing manipulation when they start trying different things, like moving from complimentary to intimidating. This means they are trying to find your weak points and not having much luck.
Eventually they will either walk away, or give in to your frame and play nice.
Dan is a lifestyle and career coach, with his own company The Inspirational Lifestyle Ltd. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and loves to share his advice and opinions on how to attain success. Make sure you checkout more of Dan’s advice at: TheInspirationalLifestyle.com
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