“You’re not trying to make me feel guilty, are you?” Brian Tracy – world’s leading personal development coach.
Note: if you feel that your personal safety or someone else’s is threatened, skip this article and go directly to the authorities.
I have been on the receiving end of a manipulative relationship more times than I care to admit. As a consequence of all the disappointments and failures that resulted from being the target of emotional manipulation, I’ve since become an avid reader of self-help books and psychological articles. It was one of the first times when I really stood up for myself and tried to understand what makes a manipulator tick and how to prevent him or her from having any power over me.
If you want to learn how to outsmart a manipulator, you first need to know what makes a person a manipulator and then how to easily recognize those traits in someone.
Table Of Contents
A manipulator is a person that tries to use other people to influence the following:
- the outcome of a situation
- to seize power
- to gain control at work or in a relationship
- to make you into a scapegoat
- to reap the benefits off of your hard work
The tools they might use are:
- false hope
How To Spot A Manipulator
No, you are not crazy, you are really onto something. This is what your gut feeling was trying to tell you all this time – more often than not, a person that tries to influence you to their own advantage falls into certain behavioral patterns. What that means is that they have a few strategies that they use over and over again to gain the upper hand. If you know what you’re looking for, recognizing and foiling their attempt to control you in one way or another becomes a lot more easier.’
“When you know what a man wants, you know who he is and how to move him.” – George R.R. Martin in the Game of Thrones series.
A master manipulator makes you talk more about yourself than they do about themselves. The reason for this is that they want to find out about your strengths and weaknesses, to test your boundaries and even to induce a Freudian slip (a slip of the tongue). Yes, it might be genuine interest, but if the person you’re speaking to avoids direct questions and changes the topic whenever you ask them a question about themselves, you should probably listen to your gut and not fall prey to their tactics.
You are at work. You are very anxious because you have deadlines and expectations to meet, numbers to crunch and a shifting economy force you to be on the very top of your game. One of your coworkers seems very interested, even concerned in what you are going through and what you have to say about it. After chatting for a few minutes you might think you have just met your best friend in the whole world, but whenever it is this person’s turn to talk about themselves, they quickly change the topic back to you. Their questions are pointed, even purposeful and their entire focus is on you, even for trivial topics.
“Belief can be manipulated. Only knowledge is dangerous.” – Frank Herbert
After getting to know you a little bit, a person that wants to influence you to their direct or indirect advantage might try to manipulate the way you see them, e.g. they victimize themselves, they always put themselves in a favorable light and they try to condition you to react in certain ways that are favorable to them. They might also try to twist the facts in a way that will lead you to react (draw conclusions or take action) in a way that is favorable to them.
“Hey Mike. I am a little bit worried about you. Those jerks at the office are envious of your success and how that made the boss pay close attention to your ideas. As a fact, the other day I heard Jennifer say something on the phone about ‘that arrogant bastard’. I think she might’ve been talking about you. This has also happened to me, I think we should have each other’s back and point out to the big man how valuable our ideas are. He’ll know who to listen once he sees the obvious, no doubt about it.” Observe how he expresses concern – he is worried about me. He points out how he has also experienced this and suddenly the “I” becomes “we” and his best interests become our best interests.
While writing this, I can’t help myself to stop from observing how all of us, at certain moments in our lives use some of the manipulation tactics described in this article.
Knowingly or unknowingly, we try to drive our point across to our loved ones – spouses, children, friends or even at work to impress our coworkers or supervisors. Knowingly or unknowingly, we find excuses for our behavior – ‘of course I needed to tell her that – it is the right thing for her to do, obviously’ or “I needed someone else that can see through their actions and support my claims”. Knowingly or unknowingly, it does make a difference whether the manipulation process is a conscious one or not and if there is a well laid out plan behind it or not.
“And pity–people who inspire it in you are actually very powerful people. To get someone else to take care of you, to feel sorry for you–that takes a lot of strength, smarts, manipulation. Very powerful people.” – Deb Caletti,
So what are some common signs of a manipulator? Usually, they use a few or all of these tactics:
- They make you talk a lot more about yourself than they do about themselves. It is the first step in their process and they use it to discover your strengths, weaknesses, what you admire, what you abhor, what you fear and what you desire with all your heart. Another word for it is reconnaissance.
- They try to get you to be indebted to them. My friend Robert’s eyes will pop out of their orbits for telling you this (yes. I know, I’m giving strangers weapons to use against me), but this strategy works with me more often than not. When someone offers me kindness, I feel an obligation to pay them back tenfold. It is not the case with Robert, but I have people consciously use that against me. I am a big believer in the better nature of most of the people but I have learned through years of trial and error how to reduce the amount of leverage that others have with me. I have done that by becoming more suspicious (a trait that I dislike in myself, but still need) and by offering new acquaintances a small something, be it money, possessions or a small amount of influence to test them out. This way, the stakes are small enough that I will not hurt if I lose and can help me detect possible manipulators. Yes, you’re right, it is practically baiting and will not work if the other person is a master manipulator and waits for bigger jackpots. But it will help me escape the clutches of a lot of wannabe manipulators and, for the rest of them, I will let my newly cultivated suspicion foil their plans.
- They use small threats to leverage their demands. “If you are an approval addict, your behavior is as easy to control as that of any other junkie. All a manipulator need do is a simple two-step process: Give you what you crave, and then threaten to take it away. Every drug dealer in the world plays this game.” Harriet B. Braiker
- They manipulate the facts. Master manipulators are also very persuasive and use their skills to change the way you see certain things.
- They victimize themselves – no one understands them, but you might be the exception. They suffer and you are the knight or dame ( I had to google the feminine equivalent for knight) on a white horse that comes to their timely rescue.
- They make you feel guilty, usually, by putting words you didn’t say into your mouth or by making you feel responsible for things that are not actually your responsibility. There is a lot more to be written on this single manipulator tactic and we will do it shortly. Until then, remember that you cannot save someone that doesn’t actually want to be saved and you are not responsible for what other people do to themselves.
- They constantly judge and criticize you. They actively work at lowering your self-esteem. This has also happened to me a lot of times. It took a loooong time to get rid of the “I’m not good enough” and “No one wants me” beliefs. DO NOT LET ANYONE DO THAT TO YOU. Especially friends, family, and significant others. On the topic of beliefs, here are couple of gems I have found recently: Get rid of beliefs, Change your life – this second one could use a better structure for the website content and articles but once you get to actually paying attention to them, they are worth their weight in gold (how much do words weigh?!?).
- They give you false hope. This is one of a master manipulator’s worst offenses. Don’t even get me started on it.
- They lie with ease & if they are caught, they try to turn it into a joke. Usually, their actions do not match what they say or promise. Lying comes naturally to them and, if you are a believer in the better nature of people, like me (they might call us gullible, but they are wrong), they’ll have you caught in their web before you know it.
How You Might Unknowingly Help An Emotional Manipulator
If you have strong beliefs, guard them closely. Some of the best of us such as motivational speakers, missionaries, visionary leaders are very outspoken about their beliefs. But they also have some very impressive track records and, with a tremendous amount of practice and some very strong beliefs they are the ones that influence millions, in a measurable, positive way. The starting point for you and I is to measure our words and our very beliefs through the eyes of others. To do that, you need to know your audience, their goals and what it means for you if they choose to twist your words and use it against you.
But, the words are just a part of your behavior. Let’s put them aside and take a look at the other ways in which you express yourself, such as:
- your body language
- your tone of voice(what do you sound like if you only focus on the sound of your voice, not the words themselves)
- your facial expressions
- your eyes
- your very presence in a certain place at a certain time
You probably have heard or read the following statements countless times: ‘her eyes gave her away’, ‘he had a puzzled look on his face’, ‘she sounds scared’, ‘he stood tall’, ‘her presence encouraged me’. The way in which you present yourself to the world is determined by your emotions – your eyes never lie and your body language tells a true story. If you do not consciously guard these tell-tale signs closely, this is how emotional manipulators learn how to push your buttons, sometimes without you even knowing it.
Searches such as “can emotional intelligence be taught” and “how emotionally intelligent are you” have spiked by 3-400%, according to Google Trends. This shows an increasing interest in finding ways how to interact better and more efficiently.
If you will allow me, I will use part of Wikipedia’s definition of emotional intelligence:
“Emotional intelligence (EI) is the capability of individuals to recognize their own, and other people’s emotions, to discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and to manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt environments or achieve one’s goal(s).”
to make my point – first step is for you to recognize the emotions you might be feeling when you talk to someone else and to use that awareness to guide your actions and protect yourself from emotional manipulators by controlling your body language, tone of voice, etc.
So you’re probably thinking – this is easier said than done. You are absolutely correct, I thought the exact same thing while writing these words. Emotional intelligence and how to use it to guard yourself against emotional manipulators has a bit of a learning curve, but being aware of your emotions and how they influence how you express yourself is a very good first step. Another way to prevent your body language from giving away too much information is to set some well defined, specific goals that help you control your reactions and achieve what you want. This takes us to our next topic:
How To Outsmart A Master Manipulator
“Why am I letting you comfort me?” He stared over her head. Because I’ve made sure you have no one else to turn to.” – Kresley Cole,
A master manipulator is different from the other puppet masters because he or she are very good at what they do and also very subtle. They have 2 main goals – to achieve what they want and not be caught manipulating other people because, well, news of this sort spread fast. To achieve these 2 goals, they use their observations of other people to actively plan each step necessary to get what they want.
There are roughly 150 searches per month just on Google asking these 2 questions: how to be a manipulator and how to become a master manipulator. I did come across a few people that behave like they have a Ph.D. in manipulation…
- Avoid contact with a master manipulator. Yeah, I know, you’re thinking “duh, are you obvious much?”, but, if you can do it, stay away from emotional manipulators.
- Say no. A lot of us feel sorry for others (that do not necessarily deserve our pity) and agree to things that go against our better judgment. Just say no. The more often you practice it, the easier it becomes. You are still a good person even if you say no once in a while and you know this for a fact.
- If you cannot avoid a master manipulator, then find ways to ignore them. Do not contradict them. Listen to them, nod and do whatever you think it is best to do, anyway.
- Set boundaries. Oh, this is so important, it has me quivering with impatience to put the words down on my computer screen. Setting boundaries is ohhh, so important in any kind of relationship. It is a lot easier to do so at the very beginning of the relationship when people do not know what to expect of you, than it is to change course midway, when the will start asking questions and try to make you feel guilty for doing it. How to do it? Let them know, clearly, that you will not accept certain behavior: “No, I am sorry, you cannot use my notes, I put a lot of work into them and I’d like to present them myself when I am done with the initial draft.” It’s sorta like the second point, saying no, but is saying no with a purpose. “No, I will not go with you to the boss to pitch in your half-assed idea and help you ask for a promotion.”; “No, you cannot call me every night, we are not in a relationship and I need to study for my exam.” “I will call you when I have the time to do so.” or “Stop calling please, you are a good person, but we are not a good match. I think you’re better off looking for someone that matches more with you.”
- Set goals. If you clearly define your goals (personal improvement, professional career, health, financial and relationship goals) it will become that much harder for someone else to manipulate you to their on advantage. When you know where you are going, your path on how to get there becomes a lot more clear and you’ll be able to see distractions and detours from that path for what they really are.
- Assume responsibility for what you do. Good or bad. Manipulators especially at work, tend to take advantage of other’s people work and claim it for their own and they are really good at blaming someone else for their own mistakes.
- Keep track. Of everything. Calls, text messages, meetings, your work, their work (whatever you have access to), finances, etc. Make sure you do not go too far and infringe on their right to privacy by recording, using monitoring software without their knowledge/consent because it can have serious legal consequences. Brush up on workplace privacy and spouse monitoring before you do anything. It is generally acceptable for you to keep a notebook or a dairy with times and days and a description of what happened. Make sure you leave a paper trail and/or files on your computer detailing your personal work and your individual part in a work project. Keep your call history part of the phone bill and save the text messages and emails you receive.
- Don’t get emotionally involved. I am still working on this one myself, but I think I’m making progress. Master manipulators will twist and blow your emotions out of proportion once they figure out which buttons to push.
- Recognize mental illness when you see it. Sometimes there is no manipulator to outsmart, but just a disease in need of treatment.
- Be someone they’d rather avoid messing with. This goes hand in hand with setting boundaries. Make it too hard to get what they want from you and too risky for them to be discovered if they try to manipulate you.
- Hit them where it hurts. Turn their allies into enemies. Destroy their power base. Let the other girls know he’s cheating. Make sure what you do doesn’t land you in more trouble than it solves.
- But wait, there’s a 12th way on how to deal with a master manipulator (not recommended):
How To Manipulate A Manipulator
As Athena Walker skillfully describes it in her answer on Quora:
“In regular dealings, the issue with outwitting is that it normally takes manipulation to do this. We manipulate all of the time. It is how we live our lives. So, trying to turn that around and applying it to me, chances are the ploy you are going to use, I have used it. I have used it, abused it, and already grown past it. So, I will recognize it straight away.[…]
It is tended to be recommended to not try it because we are very good at studying you, whereas you are less inclined to be as good at studying us.”
If you, however, decide to go on with it, make sure the possibility of failure is acceptable to you. Be patient. Be very subtle. Observe, learn and test your conclusions, ever so subtly as to not disturb their suspicions.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen?
A little bit of Latin is a good and fancy way to end an article. If you want to learn how to manipulate a manipulator, to watch over their dealings and foil them, make sure you do not become one in the process. After all, if you do turn into a manipulator, who is going to watch over you?
Conclusion – it takes 2 things to outsmart a master manipulator:
- awareness of the fact that you are dealing with a manipulator
- actively looking for ways not to get caught in their web. You can use my suggestions on how to do that, or, if you came up with your own, please share them with the rest of us in the comments section.