Mary is upset with her husband, Joe, because he shared some personal family information with another couple at a social gathering. Joe can tell Mary is upset because she won't look at him or talk to him through the following day, even when he asks what is wrong.
Bob has heart problems. When his family doesn't go along with his preferences when making family decisions, he says they must not love him very much. After all, he may not be around long.
These are just two of many types of manipulation, a set of behaviors in which a person:
Dishonestly tries to get others to do or believe something that they might not have chosen freely to do or believe.
Tries to make others feel guilty or responsible for his or her own personal problems or decisions.
Exerts power and control over others in a determined effort to get his or her way in almost every situation.
Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between manipulation and persuasion. However the difference is in the intent and the truthfulness of the process. Persuasion is more transparent and has the goal of influencing people to take responsibility for their own choices and to choose wisely. Manipulation is influencing others to be responsible for the manipulator's choices and happiness in a fog of half truths or outright lies.
Below are a few manipulative behaviors and tips for dealing with them.
The silent treatment. This is illustrated in the example of Mary and Joe. The goal is to find out how long it will take for Joe to crack. It looks like punishment, but is also a way to control Joe's emotions. Taking a "time out" in an emotional situation doesn't always signify manipulation, but if the silence lasts longer than it would take to simply find clarity or calmness, it is probably manipulative. How to respond: Simply ask the person to let you know when they feel like talking and then get busy with something else. Remain calm and cheerful if possible.
Martyrdom/Guilt. This type of manipulation is used in the case of Bob. He is sending his family on a guilt trip to get what he wants. Statements that accomplish this goal often start with "If you loved me ..." or "Any decent person would ..." How to respond: The best way to respond is not to respond. You may be tempted, but don't take the bait. No rational discussion is likely to come from any response. Later, if it feels right, you may want to use an "I" statement. ("I feel angry when you accuse me of not loving you if I don't agree with you, because it feels unfair and manipulative. I need you to stop.")
Buttering you up. A manipulator may shower you with compliments, feeling it will be harder to say no to him or her regarding something he or she wants. How to respond: Return the compliment or express thankfulness for the compliment before you say no to the request.
No-win questions. An example is the attorney who asks a defendant, "Were you drunk when you beat your wife?" Another example is, "Do you want to work on Saturday or Sunday?" (You're supposed to have both days off.) You are being asked a question, but the manipulator has backed you into a corner. How to respond: Say that you need a little time to think about it and take that time to formulate an honest response. It is easy to be taken by surprise by such questions and give an immediate response that you may regret later.
Personal opinion disguised as general opinion. An example is, "Someone told me that you are not very easy to work with." This allows the manipulator to put the responsibility for his or her own opinion on others. How to respond: Ask who that someone is. Then ask the manipulator directly for his or her opinion.
Lying. This is not just an occasional white lie, but a pattern of deception used to manipulate and control. How to respond: Avoid asking the liar any questions or entering into any agreements, especially legal ones. If you must interact with the compulsive liar, confirm and document the specifics of those interactions.
All of us have used manipulation at some time and often are not fully aware of the behavior or its negative effects. Those who manipulate do so to have power and control over others, but the dishonesty creates stress as the "con" becomes evident to people. It is hard to trust yourself or others in the complex maze of ongoing manipulation. Relationships are fractured as others become resentful and distance themselves for self-preservation. It is not necessary to place judgment on manipulators as much as it is important to understand, recognize and address manipulative behaviors.
Miriam Keith is consumer support coordinator of the Washington County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Board. Mental Health Matters appears on the Opinion page on the first Saturday of each month.