It doesn’t matter where you work, how many people are in your family, who your friends are, or what your own personality is like, chances are you’ve encountered manipulative people in your lifetime.
Make no mistake, most of us are guilty of manipulation even if it was a passing event, but there are some people who are routinely manipulative, as if it were the main aspect of their personality.
So how do you deal with manipulative people, and what makes these individuals behave in such an abrasive manner?
Saludify turned to the experts for help on this one, speaking with Dr. Jefferson Fish, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at St. John’s University, New York City, author of The Myth of Race and Psychology Today blog, Looking in the Cultural Mirror; Dr. Alan Cavaiola, Professor in the Department of Psychological Counseling at Monmouth University; and Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., Professor, School of Social University of Maryland and author of Buddy System: Understanding male friendships and co-author of Two Plus Two: Couples and their couple friendships.
Are manipulative people aware of their manipulation?
First, to learn how to deal with manipulative people you must understand a little bit about how a manipulative person thinks.
According to the experts, many people lack insight into their behavior. These are individuals who react more on instinct and probably began manipulating at young age to avoid consequences of their behavior or to avoid abuse by others.
Others, however, are well aware of their manipulative ploys and see them as a means of getting their needs met. For this group of individuals, the “ends justifies the means”, therefore, if they can get one over on someone, they can then rationalize that this other person was at fault.
Cavaiola indicates this would be true certainly of narcissists and sociopaths who view manipulation or cunning others as a means of boosting their own ego, often as a means of overcompensating for feelings of inferiority.
“People aren’t always consistent,” Fish explained to Saludify. “Often they are manipulative in one kind of situation and not in another. And some kinds of manipulativeness–for example, guilt ploys–are more common in some cultures than others. Also, degree of awareness varies from person to person and from situation to situation. For some people manipulativeness is more of an interpersonal style, while others only use it on occasion to achieve some end.”
Similarly, manipulation exists even between friends, as Greif noted people who are friends with each other accept a level of manipulation – they buy into it when they accept someone as a friend. He explains it is part of the cycle of friendship behavior where there are always equity issues.
When you are engaged with a relationship with someone, some manipulation is conscious and some is unconscious. Friends do wheedle things out of each other and both parties are usually aware of what is going on and can lovingly accept that in each other.
Some people are not even aware they are being manipulated. As charming as they usually are, manipulators usually become your “friends and saviors” and make you feel you owe them something. Through this manipulation, they can get you to do whatever they want – from taking over their responsibilities, to allying with them against someone they don’t like.
This is typical of people who always tell you how much they do for you, or how much they have your interests at heart, while in reality they are just going after their own agenda and using you to get something they want.
Where do manipulative people learn their behavior?
“Manipulative behavior can be both a learned skilled and a natural adaptation,” explained Cavaiola. “Take for example, an individual who learns to manipulate from a parent or older sibling. The message is clear, ‘if you want your needs met, you go to any lengths to do so.’ Therefore, manipulation, pathological lying and cunning others becomes a tool to getting what one wants.”
However, there are manipulative people who are instinctively manipulative. Cavaiola indicated he’s often seen pathological liars and those who are adept at cunning others yet who come from honest, hard-working, loving families.
Usually though, psychologists often look for an interaction between instinct or nature and environment or nurture in making these types of determinations.
“Manipulation is the other side of getting what you want,” added Greif. “If it is transparent, it may not be a bad thing in a relationship if both are aware of what is going on. When it is covert is when it is problematic; when it is used against someone is when it is problematic. We learn how to deal with people from our families and our environment. We watch how others get their way and decide on a cost-benefit analysis if this is the way to proceed.”
So how do you deal with manipulative people?
First – become aware you are being manipulated. Examine your relationships. Is there someone who is constantly pushing their agenda and trying to get you to side with them? Is there someone who always highlights how much they have done for you and how safe you are if you remain on their side? Perhaps someone who always badmouths others but swears they are only trusting you because you are so special? Are you maybe doing things for other people you are not entirely comfortable with? Are you nervous if you sever the relationship with someone, it might cause you to lose on something or hurt you in any way?
Dealing with manipulative people is difficult regardless if they are aware of their actions or not. The key, according to the experts, is to set personal boundaries for yourself and make a commitment not to stray from those guidelines.
“There is no one formula that covers all situations and individuals, but here is a general suggestion. Take a deep breath, ignore the manipulation, and respond politely but firmly to the substance of what they are saying,” Fish told Saludify.
Cavaiola added that some people have good instincts and intuition about the motives of others and can readily discern when they’re about to be played or conned by manipulative people.
Here the best advice is to trust those gut instincts and then assertively set boundaries with the master manipulator.
Once you set a boundary (e.g. “NO, I’m not loaning you any money!” or “No, I will not harm this other person you have an issue with.” ) then it’s a matter of sticking to your guns and not caving in (e.g. “No means NO”).
“There are people however who tend to give others the benefit of the doubt and those are people who manipulative people love because they’re easy marks,” he said.
“So in this instance, it’s okay to develop a healthy sense of skepticism. Like the old adage, ‘if something (or someone) seems too good to be true’ then it’s important to listen to those intuitions.
“But remember, manipulators are often very charming and great at convincing others of their genuineness and honesty. Some of the more pathological manipulators are really adept at finding the weakness of their ‘mark’ and will exploit that weakness.”
For those who have been manipulated it’s important not to blame yourself. Look at all the people who were taken in by master manipulators like Bernie Madolf or Ken Lay.
Another important tip from Greif is to make the covert overt.
If you see someone being manipulative and they are secretive about it, make your reaction transparent.
Say to the person, “Hey, I am not sure what is going on here. Tell me more about what you want or state it clearly.” That also role models for them more appropriate behavior.
It is important to remember that you cannot change a manipulative person’s behavior; only he or she can do that for themselves.
The only person you can control is yourself and your reactions to manipulation.
If you find yourself in a situation where you think someone is taking an unfair or manipulative approach, it is okay to disengage from the moment and take some time to reflect on what is really going on. One way manipulators gain the upper hand is by forcing someone into a quick decision.