How can you tell if you're being manipulative?
May 19, 2016 11:24 AM   Subscribe

How can you tell if you're being manipulative?

I've been reading a lot about personality disorders and manipulation lately. Something that strikes me is how people who are abusive can say things or use language that seems very reasonable, but they twist and use it in a way that is manipulative and often abusive. A lot of the language they use sounds very much like language that I might use, because I've worked on learning about and using healthy communication over the years. So it kind of makes me worry that I might be inadvertently being manipulative and I'm wondering where the line is between healthy behavior and manipulative/abusive behavior. I don't think I'm manipulative, but of course abusive people will often say the same thing (and genuinely believe it).

There are tons of articles out there on how to spot emotional abuse and manipulation, but I think I'm pretty good at knowing it when I see it (and steering well clear of people who use it). I'm just not sure how to look for it in myself so that I can self-correct if need be. If I'm having a serious/sensitive discussion with someone, I am really cognizant of doing things like trying to check in with the other person to see how they feel about what I might be saying and encouraging them express disagreement if they feel it. I also encourage them (when possible or appropriate) to not take my word for anything, but to also independently verify/check things.

I am probably overthinking this, but it's been on my mind a lot as I've watched several people I care about be hurt by an abusive person and feel strongly that I don't want to practice the same behavior without realizing it. I've also had to learn how to practice healthy behavior/communication over my life, so I don't think I necessarily have a natural feel for these things.
posted by triggerfinger to Human Relations (24 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Overworked high-level cliche answer: if you even wonder if you're being manipulative sometimes, you probably aren't, at least not at an inappropriate level. Truly manipulative people are rarely that self-aware.

Possibly better, more reflective answer: I wonder this sometimes as I manage people and have some perceived authority over them. My moral compass question is always "how would I feel if the roles were reversed?" This probably seems like the Golden Rule restated - it pretty much is.

This doesn't mean "just do what others want," because that's not always in their best interest, and could lead to you being vulnerable to manipulative people yourself.

You're already doing the main "objective" thing you can do to guard against this, which is to encourage people to disagree with you if needed and to fact-check what you say.
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:33 AM on May 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I can be pretty manipulative. I'm good at arguing and I don't play fair. I'll appeal to emotion in pretty brazen, shameless ways, bring back stuff the other person said in previous conversations and use it to support my own argument, give an extremely simplified and loaded version of the problem to a third party to gain allies to my side, etc.

Now, 95% of the time, I only use these powers in the dumbest of arguments, like today at lunch, when one of my coworkers was trying to insist that he wasn't a hipster. And then maybe 3% of the time it's when I'm disagreeing with someone who's being a real idiot and dick about something, and then I definitely don't care if I make them feel bad.

But every once in a while I'll find myself having some conversation about something semi important with someone I like, and I can hear and feel myself getting intentionally more poke-the-bear about it, which is pretty bad. In those situations I try to stop myself and think, am I having this conversation because I want to be heard, or am I having this conversation because I want to win? If it's because I want to win, then I need to walk away. If it's because I want to be heard, I need to stop what I'm doing and say those words to the other person.

But that's really what it comes down to, for me. I only get manipulative when I want to win, and in a trusting, supportive relationship you want to maintain, winning shouldn't be the end goal. Checking in with myself periodically keeps it in line.

It sounds to me like you're doing a good job of this.
posted by phunniemee at 11:43 AM on May 19, 2016 [47 favorites]

Best answer: I think one approach is to think one step into the future. When you ask someone a question at a sensitive time, or make a statement that expects some kind of response from them, project some of their possible answers. Are there multiple (basically rational/defensible) responses that may affect your choices and decisions, but will not change your opinion of them as a person? You're probably asking in good faith. Is there only one "right" answer that will satisfy you? You may be manipulating them.
posted by babelfish at 11:54 AM on May 19, 2016 [16 favorites]

Are you saying something because it's true and the other person needs this information? Or are you saying it to get the reaction you want from this person? Do you see this person as a computer you can program with your input? Or are you trying to exchange information until you reach a consensus?
posted by bleep at 12:00 PM on May 19, 2016 [7 favorites]

Manipulation has a pretty negative connotation, but I think it's just persuasion taken to its extreme. Persuasion is trying to get somebody to behave in the way you want. This is not a bad thing in most contexts - it makes up a large part of our social interactions. We try to change each other's beliefs and practices all the time.

What makes it negative is trying to get somebody to behave in the way you want without regard for their own needs or wants. If you find yourself steamrolling other people's needs or desires to get what you want, you're being manipulative. You can do this in a million ways, but I think the core is the lack of care for others.
posted by zug at 12:01 PM on May 19, 2016 [16 favorites]

I would like to second what zug said about manipulation not necessarily being a bad thing. Consider effective managers and parents in general. Both use manipulation to be effective at their job while maintaining benevolence for their charges.

Following the golden rule is enough to assuage my conscious when I question myself in this fashion (which is often, like it seems with you)
posted by deadwater at 12:24 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

You aren't being manipulative if you maintain your empathy and sense of connectedness with other people. You are when you are focused on your own wants and getting them to fall in line.

You sound conscientious about being attentive and empathetic. I wouldn't worry.
posted by bearwife at 12:58 PM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

You're not being manipulative if you say "did you eat yet?" because you want to know if the person has eaten yet. You are being manipulative if you say "did you eat yet?" because the other person passes that great Chinese place on the way home and you're craving lo mein.
posted by headnsouth at 1:42 PM on May 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Answer these three questions before talking:

1. Does this need to be said?
2. Does this need to be said by me?
3. Does this need to be said, by me, right now?

If you can get past those three, you are probably not being manipulative, unless you are brilliant at rationalisations.
posted by saucysault at 2:37 PM on May 19, 2016 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I recognized myself being manipulative a few months back when a I texted a buddy something like, "I really miss you. I wish I could see you more often," (being all "boo-hoo, poor me" instead of being direct). Once I realized that, I immediately apologized and then did a re-do with, "Hey, when can we meet up and do something together?" Trying to make someone feel guilty or something else is manipulative. Playing on or attempting to play on someone's emotions to get what you want is so ingrained into our culture (think advertising and marketing) that we may not always recognize when we do it ourselves. It's a form of manipulation that you might get rewarded for, in business, but it's a pretty crappy thing for one individual to do another.

(Here's what is not a form of manipulation on my part: Beginning to cry while discussing an emotionally challenging situation. A couple of exes used to accuse me of using tears to manipulate them. There may well be people who do that, but I'm not one of them. I can't control my tears and happen to cry easily. If somebody chooses to feel like I'm attempting to manipulate them cause I have feelings, well, that's their problem.)

In short, I don't have a good answer to your question. It's a good question. Hope others weigh in.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:39 PM on May 19, 2016 [17 favorites]

I am a manipulative little fucker and the check I have for myself is "Are you trying to limit the other person's choices?" And that's not universally a bad thing, but what I consciously want to do is a) communicate clearly and b) set the boundaries I need to set for myself. If I want x to happen, I need to communicate that x is what I want, and that I can't do y and z, but I'm not limiting the discussion to only x or not-x, I'm totally open to hearing about a, b, and c. And this often involves some conscious backing off *after* I've communicated my needs, because I am pretty good at making what I want sound like the only reasonable option - but if I do that, I'm not listening to what the other person wants. Far too often that's rather a Pyrrhic victory when it comes to keeping a given relationship healthy.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:24 PM on May 19, 2016 [8 favorites]

It might be helpful to ask yourself "am I okay with [other person] making any decision/taking any action they want?"

There are some good reasons for the answer to be "no" but the answer gives you something to think about.

When I'm worried about being manipulative I try to state frankly how I'm feeling and what I want.
posted by bunderful at 3:39 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are you trying to make the other people do what you want, rather than what they want?
posted by J. Wilson at 3:42 PM on May 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've had a tendency to be manipulative, though I like to think I've curbed it over time. Sometimes being manipulative is a sign of immaturity and underdeveloped (instead of absent) senses of empathy and self-awareness. Sometimes it's a useful or even necessary tool, like if you're in a Guess Culture-heavy environment or a Game of Thrones episode.

The main question I ask myself is "am I trying to get something I want without asking for it?" It could be a tangible thing, or it could be reassurance, or it could be getting out of something you don't want to do.

Other questions possibly worth asking are:

- Am I pretending I'm something I'm not (stronger, smarter, higher status, or weaker, naive, forgetful, helpless) in order to intimidate or gain sympathy?
- Am I waiting for the other person to offer me something?
- Am I trying to be the most upset person in the room? If someone's disappointed or angry with me, do my emotions overshadow theirs?
- Or: am I trying to be the least emotional person in the room? Am I acting like emotion is a sign of weakness?
- Have I already decided that I'm right, regardless of the evidence?
- Am I ignoring what they want? Am I distracting them from their feelings or dismissing them altogether?
- And finally: what exactly do I want right now? Is it something I can request directly, get myself, or do without?
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:45 PM on May 19, 2016 [29 favorites]

Manipulation is about finessing people into doing your bidding instead of being straight up about what you want. As noted above, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, they call that diplomacy.

I spent a lot of years wrestling with this. There is no way to participate socially without influencing the outcome somehow. I spent a lot of time trying to scrub certain things from my habits and now I am not sure it makes any difference whatsoever. People are gonna people.

But, to me, manipulation boils down to all those indirect ways our subconscious tries to run things, often in ways that are contrary to our conscious aims. I try to make sure my conscious and subconscious are on the same page.

So, I look out for cases where the subtext of my words has a different agenda from the overt statement. When those two things diverge, my subconscious probably has its own agenda and it is time for me to spend some quality time with my belly button having a come to Jesus moment over "so, whassup with that?"
posted by Michele in California at 6:03 PM on May 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think a better question is, are you being unkind?
posted by Sebmojo at 6:26 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

if the person you're talking to tries to get out of the conversation or gets angry for what appears like no reason, then you're probably being clueless or manipulative. Can you drop something once the conversation has started? Manipulative people cannot let something drop unless they feel they've "won"
posted by Smibbo at 8:01 PM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Don't ask a question when you're actually trying to make a statement ("Aren't you cold?" vs. "I'm cold"), and don't make a statement when you're actually trying to ask a question ("I'm cold" vs. "Could you please close the window?").

Don't expect other people to read your mind. Be explicit about what you need or want.

Allow others to say "No."

Pay attention to the feedback you get from others. If most co-workers, friends, and partners have commented on things like your honesty, compassion, and kindness, then one or two outliers calling you "manipulative" is likely due to their trying to manipulate you.
posted by lazuli at 6:34 AM on May 20, 2016 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think I'm manipulative, but of course abusive people will often say the same thing (and genuinely believe it).

Also, I'm not sure this is true. Abusive people generally believe they're entitled to say anything to get their way, which is not the same as believing they're not being manipulative. They may balk at the word "manipulative," but they're generally fully aware that they're playing dirty; they just think they're entitled to do so because their needs and rights are more important than the other person's.

A helpful distinction I read in Why Does He Do That? is that abusers focus almost exclusively on their own rights and on other people's responsibilities, rather than taking any responsibility or acknowledging that other people have rights. Non-abusive non-manipulative people generally try to balance their own rights, their own responsibilities, the other person's rights, and the other person's responsibilities. (Focusing exclusively on one's own responsibilities and on the other person's rights would lead to martyrdom, which is a passive form of manipulation, so avoid that, too!)
posted by lazuli at 6:45 AM on May 20, 2016 [9 favorites]

OK I think it'd be fair to say that if I am with someone who has a wish/goal/stance that opposes mine, and I am having to pause at all, or actually feel my gears turning to come up with a response to a rebuttal or refusal, and/or I use more than one argument, or repeat an argument more than once, that is probably a persuasive effort. Presenting a view or suggestion once should be enough for the other person to decide if they agree or not, and their position should then be accepted.

(*Unless* I've been spectacularly ineffective in presenting the argument. Although I think having the thought, "If only I say this better, they'll agree" might also be an indicator of being in the midst of a persuasive attempt. Especially if there's some feeling of urgency along with that thought. Unless you have reason to believe your own communication skills are more than a little imperfect, disambiguate from that if that's the case)
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:28 AM on May 20, 2016

Oh dear. I didn't realize it was manipulative to tell people I missed them and wished I could see them more often. If someone says that to me, I feel like they care about me and regret that we can't see each other more frequently, so I think of it as a nice thing to say to someone.

I don't understand what is manipulative about asking if someone has eaten yet before asking if they can pick up something for dinner.

I don't understand asking oneself the "Does this need to be said?" questions before talking. It seems like most of the conversation between people is stuff that doesn't actually need to be said at all. It seems like it would be a very lonely world if everyone said only what needed to be said.

I guess I don't have an answer to the question, but perhaps it's helpful to hear the perspective of someone with some confusion over this.
posted by yohko at 11:05 AM on May 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I have definitely crossed the line into being manipulative at times. I always believe that I'm doing it for the forces of good but sometimes I realize either during the conversation or in retrospect that I've overstepped.

Usually the signs that I have overstepped the boundary into being manipulative are that I can tell from the other person's reaction that they feel irritated with me for pushing them on something they don't want to agree to or do, or they do agree to or do what I want but then act resentful about it.

Of course, there can be other reasons why people you're having discussions with might get irritable or resentful at you, but if it's a Big Discussion that I formulated a strategy about my approach to, thought at length about how I would phrase things in order to obtain my desired end result, and took other steps to try to make sure I would be successful in (i.e. aligned with allies, chose a vulnerable setting or timing for the discussion, maybe thought about ways to incentivize/motivate/guilt trip the other person).... well, then I probably was at the least being pretty pushy. As phunniemee put it, I do this when I really want to win.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:14 PM on May 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. These are all fantastic answers and you've all helped to clarify my thinking around this in a way that I was having a hard time doing myself.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:41 PM on May 21, 2016

Just wanted to say thanks as well. These answers helped me with a problem I'm having.

I think I can tell if I feel a sort of desperation, like I need something to happen. Or if I pause and gauge someone's reaction and it's not responsive and affirming.
posted by ramenopres at 7:05 PM on May 24, 2016

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