Manipulation is old. It’s been around a very long time. And we’ve been falling for it for just as long. Sometimes it’s obvious, but in my experience, it is more often downplayed. It is understated or disguised. Because placed in the right context, it doesn’t seem like manipulation. It can even seem noble with positive intention.
For example, the manipulator will often get defensive about things they don’t want to deal with but make it seem as if the other person is at fault. The manipulator will defensively demand someone not judge them or assume anything about them, but their conversations might be riddled with judgment or assumptions. Projecting the blame while not accepting responsibility for the same things is a manipulation technique. It takes the focus off themselves and places the other person at fault.
Along the same vein, the manipulator might seem open-minded in many contexts, but if you listen well, you will find some very stringent circles of judgment. It’s as if expansion in one area constricts another area. This is especially obvious as the manipulator shifts focus over time. What was once an area of open-mindedness becomes highly-scrutinized (with the added claim that they know what they’re talking about because they have grown beyond a situation but now have heightened expertise). What was once an area of high scrutiny elevates to a crusade to right the wrongs. Wherever they are in their specific lifestage is where they believe everyone else should be. With more experience comes shifting loyalties. It’s hard to see this dynamic without knowing someone over time, because the manipulator is artful at isolating their passionate claims to small, safe, approving groups. Relationships conveniently shift with changing passions. People get left behind. Or people remaining get lied to and told they don’t understand (or aren’t smart enough to understand).
Another manipulative tactic is to extend an offer to help but with strings attached. If it’s a longstanding relationship, the manipulator will sometimes offer to revisit past hurts and offenses but only within the boundaries of their own rules. For example, “I’m sorry for hurting you” might come with the invitation to discuss those hurts. It sounds compassionate but it can be a tactic to control the flow of the discussion, only dealing with what the person is willing to share. Instead of taking responsibility, reflecting on their wrong and showing humility, the manipulator approaches each topic with explanations that focus on their own motivation instead of the other person’s experience of it. Justification is at the core as the manipulator checks boxes instead of processing the relationship.
Relationships are complex and rarely clear-cut, isolated, separated. We need to be able to ebb and flow through many topics and issues. Manipulators will often calmly step into the middle of communications with side conversations that avoid inviting everyone to the table for accountability. It’s an attempt to control what those on either side hear, experience, believe. But even the manipulator often misses the reality that there is usually at least one side that sees what is happening, and it damages that relationship. In fact, it affects the other relationship as well because of the decay that deceit and control create. Manipulation is destructive.
Another deceptive area of the manipulator is when they appear to be helpful in their area of comfort or expertise more than being willing to help in any area even when it’s humbling. It’s easy to be an expert in a familiar field, but when we are invested in others, we try to help even in other areas. Warning signs of the manipulation are the self-reports of all the good the manipulator was able to do in a situation—the pride of “I helped so and so with…” and “I was able to solve the problem…” It sometimes becomes a bit more haughty. When others stray from the advice, the manipulator becomes defensive and adamant about how things should be handled and points our their own expertise.
If you see any of these qualities in yourself, open the door to change. If you see any of these qualities in others, stay alert. Don’t fall for common manipulation tactics. You might not be able to influence or change the manipulator, but you don’t have to reinforce their habits. You don’t have to play the game. You don’t have to engage.
When you are able to see what is happening and respond in healthy ways, the manipulator will not get the intended results. They might get angry. They might try to make you feel as if you are the problem. They might reframe the conversations and report them to others with selfishness. But that’s consistent with people who manipulate. You get to choose another way.
That’s a good thing.