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A New Take on Manipulation

Can you manipulate someone for their own good?

Key points

  • An attempt to strategically influence a situation doesn't have to be labeled manipulative if it's not done for personal gain.
  • A positive manipulation could also be known as a "contrivance."
  • Virtually every major school of therapy has included a surprising variety of indirect techniques that might be designated paradoxical.
VetaZi on Shutterstock
Source: VetaZi on Shutterstock

There may be times when you’re strongly motivated to assist someone who genuinely needs your help. Yet, for whatever reasons, they turn down all your straightforward attempts. Might it then be okay to “manipulate” them into compliance? That is, for their own good? In fact, if your motives could hardly be described as self-interested, is it even accurate to designate your tactics—however surreptitious, crafty—as manipulative at all?

Ethically speaking, these questions are unavoidable—and crucial. When in my therapy practice I sometimes suggest to clients how they might subtly “maneuver” a resistant or highly-defended child, parent, friend, or professional associate to accept their well-meaning advice or help, I frequently get a negative reaction. Made uneasy by the guile of my suggestion, they respond: “But wouldn’t that be manipulation?” And my reply is that their interest in positively influencing the other person clearly seems heartfelt and sincere. If such a “strategic” approach isn’t intended for personal gain—doesn’t in any way exploit the situation to their advantage—must they really regard it as manipulative (and so reject it out of hand)? In these instances, it seems obvious that their acting kindly, generously, or graciously will net them little more than the satisfaction of feeling good about themselves, quite independent of the “expedient contrivance” they may have chosen to facilitate the change desired by the other.

The English lexicon might well profit from adding a new word for characterizing such behavior. One that, at first blush, might sound dishonest or exploitive. But which, ultimately, would have nothing but positive connotations, precisely because the actor’s underlying intent was irrefutably benign. That is, the new word would start with the notion of trickery. But would then amend these negative connotations by emphasizing that such communicative indirection depicted an eleventh-hour, last-ditch, attempt to neutralize the self-defeating tendencies of the help-resistant individual. And the word I’d choose as the closest synonym for such “positive manipulation” would probably be contrivance. This kind of manipulation is a “construction,” “formulation,” or “plan” strategically designed to turn antagonism into cooperation, resistance into resolution.

We all know that sometimes getting through to another can be frustratingly difficult. I’m reminded of the expression: “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” In this case, the “measure” is expressly crafted to minimize, say, the other’s excessive rigidity, need to act autonomously, tendency not to trust others, and so forth. You’ve already tried, straightforwardly, to convince them of what you thought would best help them. But if all your rational explanations have fallen on deaf ears, then it’s only appropriate that (before you give up trying to reach them altogether), you employ communication tactics ranging from the indirect to the downright devious. Remember, your motive isn’t to bend them to your will—only to bypass their stubborn, illogical defenses. Here’s a hypothetical instance of how such “favorable” manipulation might work:

Say, you’ve heard from the corporate rumor mill that a friend and professional colleague of yours is at serious risk of being fired. Several months ago, his wife left him for another man, and he’s yet to come to grips with the abandonment: by turns, afflicted with deep depression and grief, and with feelings of seething anger and resentment. As might be expected, his work performance has deteriorated considerably. Your being aware of how mentally and emotionally unbalanced he’s become, you’ve already pleaded with him to get into therapy, or at least be put on an anti-depressant. But prideful, embittered, and hopeless—and in denial of the seriousness of his situation—he’s stubbornly declined both options.

In desperation, the idea comes to you to speak about your beloved son’s terrible car accident many years ago: how he ended up in a coma and how it was months before he was finally out of danger. But what you focus on most is how your meeting with a therapist back then, as well as being put on anti-depressants, was invaluable in helping you soldier through this prolonged crisis without completely unraveling.

Shaken and taken aback by your apparently heartfelt tale of woe, your friend is so moved—and convinced!—that he tells you that he can begin to see how he, too, might benefit from counseling. You’re even able (right on the spot!) to get him to put in a call to his doctor’s office to be evaluated for psychiatric medication. But, in fact, your narrative was an “inspired fabrication”: Your son was never in a coma and you’ve never been in therapy—or, for that matter, on anti-depressants. Intuitively, however, it struck you that improvising such a calamitous scenario might be exactly what would help him overcome his former refusal to seek professional assistance.

Manipulative? Deceptive? Scheming? Downright dishonest? Well, all of the above. Yet your idea is also clever, creative—and just maybe the single best strategy to get your friend to reevaluate his recalcitrance. So it can hardly be denigrated as simply unprincipled, or immoral. Inasmuch as you perceive your friend as being on a collision course, you’re behaving in a way that might best be described as caring and compassionate. Sure, your tactics are devious. Still, your underlying motives are undoubtedly ethical—and highly pragmatic as well.

With a little reflection, I think you, too, could probably come up with a broad range of instances in which purposefully, and imaginatively, deviating from a more traditional approach to promoting another’s welfare could substantially increase your odds of “reaching” them and helping them achieve a beneficial outcome. And even though you may not be very familiar with such indirect ways of minimizing another’s resistance to behavioral change, I trust that what I’ve been describing makes some sense to you.

In 1986, I published a book entitled Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy: A Comprehensive Overview and Guidebook, which demonstrated how virtually every major school of therapy included a surprising variety of indirect, noncommonsensical techniques that might be designated paradoxical. Back then, some therapists hesitated to employ such unorthodox methods for fear they might be misunderstood as manipulative. But I came to believe (as I continue to now) that if such devices can assist clients in achieving therapeutic goals, then, if anything, it would be almost unethical not to employ them—particularly when nothing else has succeeded in bringing about the desired change.

Negative, or reverse, psychology works in a similar fashion: typically, to minimize a child’s resistance by newly allowing it—maybe even demanding it—while simultaneously providing "favorable" reasons for the dysfunctional behavior that (given the child’s oppositional thinking) renders their noncompliance no longer tenable, which, finally, represents the essence of much of what is termed “therapeutic paradox.”

My next post discusses the most ingenious therapeutic paradox I ever devised, which I believed was virtually guaranteed to work—but which, alas, the client declined to fully implement because it just felt “too manipulative”(!).

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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