Avoiding Manipulation: Why and How

Avoiding Manipulation: Why and How by Jerry Minchinton

We can define manipulation as "getting people to do what you want without giving them something they value in return".

How does manipulation work? When someone says to you, "If you don't help me clean my house I'm going to be mad at you," that person is attempting to manipulate you. He is not offering you anything except to withhold a display of bad temper, which he could do in any case. But if the same friend says, "If you'll help me clean my house, I'll take you to the baseball game this afternoon," and your friend knows you love baseball, that is not attempted manipulation because you are being offered something you value in exchange for your efforts.

Or if we tell someone, "I'll be very disappointed if you don't come to my party," we're trying to manipulate her by indicating she will be responsible for the state of our emotions, a highly dubious "privilege" at best. On the other hand, suppose we say, "If you come to my party, I'll introduce you to the famous producer you want to meet." If the person we're talking with is an aspiring actress and the famous producer actually is coming to the party, then we are non-manipulatively offering her something she desires in exchange for what we're requesting.

WHY MANIPULATORS MANIPULATE

Why do people seek to manipulate us? For reasons ranging from the meanest to the most benevolent:

  • They derive emotional satisfaction from others' negative reactions.

Some people, because they are so dissatisfied with themselves and their lives, try to create problems for us so we will feel bad, too. If they are able to make us unhappy or uncomfortable they can focus on our pain instead of their own and momentarily feel better.

  • Manipulating others gives them a feeling of power.

People who consider themselves weak and believe they lack power sometimes try to manufacture it by persuading people to do as they wish. When they are successful, they experience a temporary feeling of domination. Unfortunately for them and those with whom they associate, the sensation dissipates quickly, and they must continually reinforce it.

  • They believe they aren't important enough.

Some individuals believe they are so unimportant that others are unlikely to give them what they want simply for the asking. To make up for their lack of bargaining chips, they try to convince us we should feel guilty or ashamed if we do not do as they ask, thinking (often correctly) that our desire to avoid those painful feelings will be so great that we'll do what they want.

  • They believe certain tasks are beneath them.

Some profoundly misguided people tend to regard us more as servants than as equals. Because of the lowly status they've assigned us, they expect us to do tasks they're averse to doing themselves, whether because of their ignorance, reluctance, laziness, or an unwillingness to clean up after themselves.

  • They don't know how to do or get what they want.

Some people believe themselves incapable of achieving their goals directly, as mature adults do, so they feel they have no choice but to manipulate us so we will achieve their goals for them.

  • They are sure their manipulation will benefit those manipulated.

This idea is embraced by fanatics of every kind, who have deluded themselves into believing they know what's best or right for practically everyone. Since they are certain they are gifted with a special insight, they feel gratified if they can manipulate "less knowledgeable" people like us into taking the path they've chosen.

In fact, most would-be manipulators are not genuinely bad; they are just weak, self-centered, insensitive, inconsiderate, and misguided. They think of those they seek to manipulate as members of a lower order of creature, a less important form of life, whose needs and desires are also less important. To manipulators, other people are less "real" than they are, somewhat like a clever puppy or a beast of burden, which is to say, a nice enough creature, but one without a real existence of its own.

THE FORMS OF MANIPULATION

Avoiding Manipulation: Why and How by Jerry MinchintonManipulative techniques vary, but in general, manipulators try to get our emotions to work against us. They do this by saying or doing something they hope will induce in us guilt, shame, anger, fear, or some other uncomfortable emotion.

They may imply, for instance, that our failure to do as they wish will bring about a major disaster. They may describe in minute detail the various kinds of unpleasantness that will occur if we neglect to take the action they suggest. They may insist certain things are our duty or responsibility, or they may appeal to us on the basis of morality, ethics, or anything else they think might persuade us to agree with them.

Some will pull out every emotional stop and tell us of the horrible pain they'll experience if we "let them down". We may be told we'll feel better about ourselves, that we'll make the manipulator extremely happy, that he or she will love us forever, or any number of other essentially meaningless terms.

Manipulators' speech is frequently laced with phrases such as these:

"You should. . ."  "You ought to . . ."  "If I were you, I'd . . ." "It's for the best," "I only want what's best for you," "You'll thank me for this later," "What will people say?" "What will people think?"

They use these and many other phrases which imply we will suffer a censure or penalty of some kind if we don't meet the "obligation" they've chosen for us.

What element do all these techniques have in common? The manipulator offers us nothing we value in exchange for doing what he or she asks.

THE "BENEFITS" OF MANIPULATION

Since manipulators often seem to get what they want, it appears as though manipulation works for them and against those being manipulated. But in fact, no one involved in manipulative transactions gains any real benefit. Appearances to the contrary, manipulation is a game played only by victims. Whether we manipulate or are manipulated, we lose. And interestingly, no matter which end of the manipulative spectrum we're on, we experience the same negative feelings, although not for the same reasons:

Powerlessness: Manipulators, because they feel powerless, try to create power for themselves by persuading others to do things for them. If we are manipulated we feel powerless, too, because we have allowed the manipulator to dictate our course of action.

Inadequacy: Manipulators believe they lack certain characteristics and skills possessed by most others, so they try to gain access to these qualities by "using" those they believe have them. If we are manipulated we feel inadequate, too, because we think if only we were smarter or quicker, we could have escaped or outwitted the manipulator.

Victimization: Manipulators feel victimized because they believe life has dealt unfairly with them and given them far less than they deserve. Those of us on the receiving end of their manipulation also feel victimized, because we feel we must do as the manipulator asks, even though we don't want to.

Anger and Frustration: Manipulators often feel irritated and thwarted because those whom they try to manipulate either fail to do what they ask or do it differently than they wish. Those whom they manipulate experience the same feelings as they resentfully do what the manipulator wants them to do.

As you can see, when manipulation takes place no one wins. If we allow ourselves to be manipulated, we sacrifice our right to self-determination, our self-esteem, our time, money, or energy and, often, our principles. Letting others control us, however briefly, makes us undervalue and compromise ourselves.

If we manipulate others, we are diminished by our maneuvering. We surrender our self-respect, resourcefulness, and self-reliance when we try to use others to achieve our goals. Worse still, if we are successful, we remain childish, emotionally immature, and dependent throughout life.

AVOIDING MANIPULATION

So what are we to do? Unless we have knowingly obligated ourselves, when we're asked to do something that a) we don't want to do, b) isn't our obligation, and c) isn't a genuine need, we can refuse with a clear conscience. We don't have to feel guilty. We don't have to get caught up in elaborate excuses or contrived explanations. When manipulators ask for our help, we just have to say, "No".

This will no doubt shock those who are accustomed to our acquiescence, and it will be difficult for us at first if we are in the habit of giving in to unreasonable people. But saying, "No", is an acquired ability, and we will discover that the more we use it, the more proficient we become.

It's fine to exchange favors with people, of course, and it is commendable to voluntarily help others who are literally unable to help themselves. But when people try to create a feeling of obligation in us or try to persuade us to do something we dislike just to please them, beware: no matter how much they emphasize that doing what they want will benefit us, it's rarely our welfare with which they're concerned.

Important Ideas to Consider

* My time and energy are as valuable as those of anyone else.

* My "not wanting to" is at least as important as the other person's "wanting me to".

* I definitely do not have to do everything I am asked to do.

* I don't have to provide an excuse for not wanting to do something.

* Only people who want to manipulate me insist that I should.

* If I don't say "No", my silence can be taken as a "Yes".

* Cooperation is a good alternative to manipulation.

* It is easier to avoid being manipulated if I am not a manipulator myself.

* My wants, needs, and happiness are as important as anyone's.

* I have the right to say "No" to doing things I dislike or find objectionable or inconvenient.

* I am not stubborn or mean just because I don't want to do what others ask.

Questions to Ask Yourself

* Do I often feel I've been taken advantage of?

* Do I attempt to manipulate others? If I do, what are my reasons?

* Do I think I would be able to avoid a lot of unpleasant tasks if I were smarter?

* Can people usually talk me into doing things I don't want to do? If they can, why do I let them?

* If I allow people to manipulate me, what manipulative approach seems to work best with me? What can I do to change this?

* Do I feel guilty when I don't do what people ask of me?

* Do I frequently feel uncomfortable, resentful, and angry? Do I feel that way more around some people than around others?

An Experiment

When people attempt to manipulate you, tell them exactly how you feel about the matter in a positive, but firm manner. To prepare yourself for doing this, practice saying the phrases "No, thanks", "Thanks, I'd rather not", "Sorry, but I've made other plans", "No, I don't want to", "Because I don't want to", and "I don't have to give you a reason", until you can say them with sincerity and conviction. Your skill will improve quickly with experience.


Wising Up: How To Stop Making Such A Mess of Your Life by Jerry Minchinton. This article is excerpted from the book:

Wising Up: How To Stop Making Such A Mess of Your Life
by Jerry Minchinton.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Arnford House, Vanzant, MO, USA. ©1999.

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About The Author

Jerry Minchinton

Jerry Minchinton has read extensively about self-esteem, motivation, and Eastern philosophies and religions. He combines the insight he's gained from these studies with practical business experience to shed light on some age-old problems of human behavior. He is the author of Maximum Self-Esteem: The Handbook For Reclaiming Your Sense of Self-Worth, and 52 Things You Can Do To Raise Your Self-Esteem. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


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