How to Spot and Stop Manipulators
8 tips for keeping them at a distance, or breaking free.
Posted June 1, 2014 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- In psychological manipulation, one person is used for the benefit of another. This is an important distinction from healthy social influence.
- Manipulators can detect a person's weaknesses and will repeatedly ask that person to give themselves up to serve the manipulator's interests.
- Keys to handling manipulators include holding your boundaries, asking probing questions, and learning to say no.
“There are those whose primary ability is to spin wheels of manipulation. It is their second skin and without these spinning wheels, they simply do not know how to function.”
― C. JoyBell C.
Psychological manipulation can be defined as the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control, benefits, and privileges at the victim’s expense.
It is important to distinguish healthy social influence from psychological manipulation. Healthy social influence occurs between most people, and is part of the give and take of constructive relationships. In psychological manipulation, one person is used for the benefit of another. The manipulator deliberately creates an imbalance of power and exploits the victim to serve his or her agenda.
Most manipulative individuals have four common characteristics:
- They know how to detect your weaknesses.
- Once found, they use your weaknesses against you.
- Through their shrewd machinations, they convince you to give up something of yourself in order to serve their self-centered interests.
- In work, social, and family situations, once a manipulator succeeds in taking advantage of you, he or she will likely repeat the violation until you put a stop to the exploitation.
Root causes for chronic manipulation are complex and deep-seated. But whatever drives an individual to be psychologically manipulative, it’s not easy when you’re on the receiving end of such aggression. How can one successfully manage these situations? Here are eight keys to handling manipulative people, with references from my books How to Successfully Handle Manipulative People and A Practical Guide for Manipulators to Change Towards the Higher Self. Not all of the tips below may apply to your particular situation. Simply utilize what works and leave the rest.
1. Know Your Fundamental Human Rights*
The single most important guideline when you’re dealing with a psychologically manipulative person is to know your rights and recognize when they’re being violated. As long as you do not harm others, you have the right to stand up for yourself and defend your rights. On the other hand, if you bring harm to others, you may forfeit these rights. Following are some of our fundamental human rights:
- You have the right to be treated with respect.
- You have the right to express your feelings, opinions, and wants.
- You have the right to set your own priorities.
- You have the right to say “no” without feeling guilty.
- You have the right to get what you pay for.
- You have the right to have opinions different than others.
- You have the right to take care of and protect yourself from being threatened physically, mentally, or emotionally.
- You have the right to create your own happy and healthy life.
These fundamental human rights represent your boundaries.
Of course, our society is full of people who do not respect these rights. Psychological manipulators, in particular, want to deprive you of your rights so they can control and take advantage of you. But you have the power and moral authority to declare that it is you, not the manipulator, who’s in charge of your life.
2. Keep Your Distance
One way to detect a manipulator is to see if a person acts with different faces in front of different people and in different situations. While all of us have a degree of this type of social differentiation, some psychological manipulators tend to habitually dwell in extremes, being highly polite to one individual and completely rude to another—or totally helpless one moment and fiercely aggressive the next. When you observe this type of behavior from an individual on a regular basis, keep a healthy distance, and avoid engaging with the person unless you absolutely have to. As mentioned earlier, reasons for chronic psychological manipulation are complex and deep-seated. It is not your job to change or save them.
3. Avoid Personalization and Self-Blame
Since the manipulator’s agenda is to look for and exploit your weaknesses, it is understandable that you may feel inadequate, or even blame yourself for not satisfying the manipulator. In these situations, it’s important to remember that you are not the problem; you’re simply being manipulated to feel bad about yourself so that you’re more likely to surrender your power and rights. Consider your relationship with the manipulator, and ask the following questions:
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- Am I being treated with genuine respect?
- Are this person’s expectations and demands of me reasonable?
- Is the giving in this relationship primarily one way or two ways?
- Ultimately, do I feel good about myself in this relationship?
Your answers to these questions give you important clues about whether the “problem” in the relationship is with you or the other person.
4. Put the Focus on Them by Asking Probing Questions
Inevitably, psychological manipulators will make requests (or demands) of you. These “offers” often make you go out of your way to meet their needs. When you hear an unreasonable solicitation, it’s sometimes useful to put the focus back on the manipulator by asking a few probing questions, to see if she or he has enough self-awareness to recognize the inequity of their scheme. For example:
- “Does this seem reasonable to you?”
- “Does what you want from me sound fair?”
- “Do I have a say in this?”
- “Are you asking me or telling me?”
- “So, what do I get out of this?”
- “Are you really expecting me to [restate the inequitable request]?"
When you ask such questions, you’re putting up a mirror, so the manipulator can see the true nature of his or her ploy. If the manipulator has a degree of self-awareness, he or she will likely withdraw the demand and back down.
On the other hand, truly pathological manipulators (such as a narcissist) will dismiss your questions and insist on getting their way. If this occurs, apply ideas from the following tips to keep your power, and halt the manipulation.
5. Use Time to Your Advantage
In addition to unreasonable requests, the manipulator will often also expect an answer from you right away, to maximize their pressure and control over you in the situation. (Salespeople call this “closing the deal.") During these moments, instead of responding to the manipulator’s request right away, consider leveraging time to your advantage, and distancing yourself from his or her immediate influence. You can exercise leadership over the situation simply by saying:
“I’ll think about it.”
Consider how powerful these few words are from a customer to a salesperson, or from a romantic prospect to an eager pursuer, or from you to a manipulator. Take the time you need to evaluate the pros and cons of a situation, and consider whether you want to negotiate a more equitable arrangement, or if you’re better off by saying “no,” which leads us to our next point:
6. Know How to Say “No”― Diplomatically but Firmly
To be able to say “no” diplomatically but firmly is to practice the art of communication. Effectively articulated, it allows you to stand your ground while maintaining a workable relationship. Remember that your fundamental human rights include the right to set your own priorities, the right to say “no” without feeling guilty, and the right to choose your own happy and healthy life. In How to Successfully Handle Manipulative People, I review seven different ways you can say “no,” to help lower resistance and keep the peace.
7. Confront Bullies, Safely
A psychological manipulator also becomes a bully when he or she intimidates or harms another person.
The most important thing to keep in mind about bullies is that they pick on those whom they perceive as weaker, so as long as you remain passive and compliant, you make yourself a target. But many bullies are also cowards on the inside. When their targets begin to show backbone and stand up for their rights, the bully will often back down. This is true in schoolyards, as well as in domestic and office environments.
On an empathetic note, studies show that many bullies are victims of violence themselves. This in no way excuses bullying behavior, but may help you consider the bully in a more equanimous light:
- "When people don't like themselves very much, they have to make up for it. The classic bully was actually a victim first.”—Tom Hiddleston
- “Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others.”—Paramhansa Yogananda
- “I realized that bullying never has to do with you. It's the bully who's insecure.” —Shay Mitchell
When confronting bullies, be sure to place yourself in a position where you can safely protect yourself, whether it’s standing tall on your own, having other people present to witness and support, or keeping a paper trail of the bully’s inappropriate behavior. In cases of physical, verbal, or emotional abuse, consult with counseling, legal, law enforcement, or administrative professionals. It’s important to stand up to bullies, and you don’t have to do it alone.
8. Set Consequences
When a psychological manipulator insists on violating your boundaries, and won’t take “no” for an answer, deploy consequence.
The ability to identify and assert consequence(s) is one of the most important skills you can use to "stand down" a difficult person. Effectively articulated, consequence gives pause to the manipulative individual and compels her or him to shift from violation to respect. In How to Successfully Handle Manipulative People, consequence is presented as seven different types of power you can utilize to affect positive change.
© 2014 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.
Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Manipulative People. PNCC. (2014)
Ni, Preston. A Practical Guide for Manipulators to Change Towards the Higher Self. PNCC. (2017)
Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Narcissists. PNCC. (2014)
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“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (UDHR). United Nations General Assembly (1948)