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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How to Spot Manipulation

Have you ever been manipulated by someone? If you have, you know how awful it feels. You feel betrayed. You lose trust in the person. And you are fearful of continuing to be around the person because you’re worried he or she might try to manipulate you again.

For better or worse, I’ve met more manipulative people than I care to count. I’ve been hurt by some of them. People I love have been hurt by some of them. And some of them haven’t been able to manipulate me because I’ve learned how to recognize and defend against them.

Whether we like it or not, we interact with manipulative people on a daily basis. I’ve written this article to make you more aware of manipulation, how to spot it, and how to avoid both manipulating others and being manipulated.

What Is Manipulation?

Manipulation can mean lots of different things, so I need to start by providing a definition of manipulation. To manipulate someone means to gain control over that person’s behaviors. This may sound a bit extreme since most of us aren’t dealing with situations where another person is physically forcing us to do something against our will. This definition is simply the purest form of manipulation.

But that doesn’t diminish the existence of milder forms of manipulation which most of us have experienced or may be experiencing right now. These milder forms of manipulation occur when another person gains the power to limit our options so that we will willingly choose the option the manipulative person wants us to choose.

At first, manipulation may sound a lot like influence, but manipulation is not the same as influence. A person who is being manipulated chooses certain behaviors due to the threatened consequences from the manipulative person for choosing different behaviors. On the other hand, a person who is being influenced chooses certain behaviors without any threatened consequences from the influencing person for choosing different behaviors.

Lastly, in our culture, it is commonly understood that a person is only manipulative if the primary intent behind gaining control of another person’s behaviors is to benefit the manipulative person.[1] To gain control of another person with the intent of benefiting the manipulated person, then, would not be considered manipulative. But I define manipulation as any control we exercise over another person’s behaviors, regardless of the intended beneficiary.

Hopefully this gives you a picture of the way I'm defining manipulation throughout this article.

How Does Manipulation Work?

Two chief principles are at work in manipulation. The first is that all of us have needs. I have needs. You have needs. And every single other person on this planet has needs. Maybe you need words of affirmation. Maybe you need attention. Maybe you need respect. Maybe you need an intimate relationship with another person. Whatever your needs are, you feel empty without these needs being met.

The other principle in play is power. Intrinsically, we all have an equal amount of power, meaning that no one has the power to cause another person to exercise certain behaviors.[2] The type of manipulation we usually encounter occurs when another person–such as a coworker, vendor, or spouse–who has an equivalent amount of power to us attempts to gain power over of us in an effort to control our behaviors, even in mild ways.

The combination of these two principles creates the most common form of manipulation I’ve both experienced and observed: Someone offers to meet your need(s) in exchange for your submission to his will. Once this person has power over you, he may request you to do things you may not want to do, but you feel obligated to do them because you’re terrified of your needs not getting met in return.

Is Manipulation Obvious?

The quick answer to this question is: No, manipulation is rarely easy to spot. If it was obvious, I wouldn’t be writing about it. One of the reasons why manipulation is so hard to spot is because it is often very subtle. If I were to walk up to you and tell you I’d meet your needs in exchange for you giving me control of your life, you probably wouldn’t make that trade. The only people dumb enough to do that were the Israelites when they demanded that God give them a king.[3] Because manipulation is often subtle rather than overt, it’s hard to spot it unless you know what to look for.

Although much of the information I’ve read about manipulation appears to claim that we can observe manipulation through another person’s outward behaviors, I don’t see how even the most thorough analysis of another person’s outward behaviors, by itself, can determine whether another person is trying to manipulate us. For example, a person may meet your needs because he is trying to gain control over you, but he may also meet your needs because he loves you.[4] Either case could be possible. The first case is obviously manipulation while the second is far from manipulation.

How Can We Spot Manipulation?

Manipulation takes place with a variety of creative techniques. So unfortunately, there’s not a single test you can run to determine whether another person is trying to manipulate you. But if you suspect someone is trying to manipulate you, here are a few questions you can ask yourself:

  • Does the person threaten to withhold meeting your needs?
  • Does the person give you complex, passionate explanations for why he can’t meet your “unreasonable” requests?
  • Does the person make critical remarks to you which make you feel inadequate and inferior (Sometimes these remarks can be disguised as jokes or sarcasm)?
  • Does the person display sudden emotional mood swings?
  • Does the person blame you for his problems?
  • Does the person withhold important decision-making information until asked for it?
  • Does the person give you little or no time to make important decisions?
  • Does the person give you the silent treatment?
  • Does the person make you feel guilty for not meeting his needs?[5]

Although the person you’re thinking of may not use all of these techniques, if he uses one or more of them on you, then it’s likely he’s attempting to manipulate you to some degree.

What to Do If You Think You’re Being Manipulated

When I first recognized that someone was manipulating me, I decided to cope with it by getting as far away from that person as I could. Although avoiding manipulative people may be a viable solution in your particular situation, I wouldn’t encourage you to adopt this approach as your primary way of coping with manipulation since you can’t run away from your certain people in your life like your coworkers, family, and your spouse. Here are a few of my suggestions for steps you can take if you think you might be a victim of manipulation:

Become more self-aware of your needs. The first step we can take is to become more aware of our own needs. What needs do we have that are so strong we’d do anything to get them met? Once we have our list, we can either find a way to get our needs met without becoming someone’s slave or learn to be okay going without them getting met. Personally, I try to allow God to meet my needs rather than depending upon a host of people to meet them. If we fail to recognize our propensity to sell our souls in order to get some of our needs met, we will certainly become victims of manipulation.

Become more self-aware of your tendency to manipulate other people. Although I’ve spent this article trying to help us spot manipulation in other people, it’s important to also spot the manipulation in ourselves. Whether we want to believe it or not, all of us, to one degree or another, have tried and/or are currently trying to manipulate people around us. I don’t think manipulation is a mental disorder, but I do think we need to work through it since it’s not in alignment with the character of God and it’s destructive to the people around us.

Become more aware of the people around you. It’s much easier to spot manipulation when we’re not the ones being manipulated. Observe the way the people you interact with interact with other people. Do you observe them doing some of the things I mentioned above to other people? If you observe someone trying to manipulate other people, I would encourage you to keep some emotional distance from that person. You could end up being like the frog that was put in a pot of tepid water which was slowly brought to a boil, killing the frog as he was boiled alive. If someone you know has demonstrated an unrepentant tendency to try to manipulate other people, sooner or later, he’s probably also going to try to manipulate you.

Become more willing to say No. Although we can’t avoid interacting with manipulative people, we can choose how we interact with them. Another person only has control over you if you give him control over you. If you find that a certain person has a tendency to try to manipulate you, then avoid giving him the opportunity to meet your needs, even if that means your needs go unmet. That’s not to say we can’t ever look to other people to meet our needs, but we’ll lessen the risk of being manipulated if we avoid trying to get our needs met by people who have a tendency to use need-meeting as an opportunity to manipulate us.

[1] Preston Ni, “14 Signs of Psychological and Emotional Manipulation,” Psychology Today, October 11, 2015,
[2] Within the hierarchal institutions we have established such as our governments and corporations, the higher up in the hierarchy a person is, the more power he has over the people under him. People who have been given power in these institutions can manipulate the people under them, but typically this isn’t the type of manipulation we deal with on a daily basis.
[3] See 1 Samuel 8.
[4] In my article “Unselfishness vs. Love – Part 2” which I posted on June 7, 2017, I quoted John Piper as saying that “Love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others” from John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, rev. ed. (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2011), location 1973, kindle. Therefore, both love and manipulation can be motives for us to meet the needs of others.
[5] Many of these questions were inspired by Ni, “14 Signs of…,” Psychology Today.

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