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7 Tips for Dolphins Who Swim With Sharks

Being empathic is a super-power, but it can present challenges in a rough world.

It seems in today’s world, being “nice” can be hazardous to one’s health. The assumption that others will be ethical players often leads to disappointment. Yet being mistrustful all the time, jaded and cynical, is a recipe for unhappiness, even if it does seem like the safer position to take. The baseline level of frustration many of us live with day-to-day can have a corrosive effect, slowly degrading our sense of humanity over time, little-by-little.

This challenge of modern life is accentuated in crowded urban centers where there is little consequence to being unkind because it is easy to blow people off. Corporate culture further adds to the sense of dehumanization. Customer service purports to care, but binding service plans with impossible-to-read fine print mean we are more often captive audiences. Trying to get restitution from customer service reps requires massive investments of time and energy. Relationships seem to have become fundamentally more transactional, even as the quality of long-term relationships in business is highlighted by leadership and management gurus.

Creating one’s own community is more essential than ever, developing sustainable relationships with people whose values are aligned with one’s own, and with whom mutual trust and reliability have been nurtured over time. Having that inner circle is essential for maintaining a safe base where it is possible to let down our guard, enabling us to relax and enjoy authenticity.

At other times, it’s important for people who value compassion, who want to be ethical, and who tend to be more “sensitive” to have tools for dangerous, murky waters. Here are seven tips for dolphins swimming with sharks:

1. Know your limits. Sensitive people tend to be more likely to seek genuine reciprocity, increasing their vulnerability to those who leverage the psychological tendency to reciprocate for personal gain. There is a real difference from genuine give-and-take, and the manipulative techniques often used by people with a Machiavellian sales mentality. Be on guard to avoid over-giving by knowing exactly where you are and aren’t willing to go before entering into a discussion.

2. Learn the art of persuasion. Arm yourself with knowledge about how manipulators operate, not to feed cynicism, but to recognize common techniques and develop countermeasures. The book Influence by Robert Cialdini is an excellent reference, for example, as are the more tongue-in-cheek The 48 Laws of Power and The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene. There are any number of videos online that spell out how people attempt to get their way via psychological manipulation. Build your knowledge base, but beware of becoming too suspicious as that can drive negative emotional reactions.

3. Communicate clearly. Put it in writing; get it in writing. Use email liberally. Verbal agreements on a “handshake” don’t mean much nowadays, unfortunately. Put your requirements concisely in writing up front, and if there is a conversation during which important agreements were made, memorialize them in a summary email right afterward. If there is an important document, such as a contract, read it carefully and make sure you understand what it means. Get help if necessary.

4. Know what you need and want. This is especially true for “people pleasers” who tend to want to avoid conflict, and feel "bad" when “making other people angry” or disappointing others. Unfortunately, while this is generally a laudable and prosocial trait, manipulators sniff it out from miles away, preying on guilt and shame to get others to back off on what they need and want.

It is crucial to be deliberately aware of our own emotional responses in the heat of the moment, naming what we are experiencing (e.g., I’m afraid of disappointing them), taking as much time as needed to decide rather than succumbing to seemingly friendly pressure (e.g., I’m trying to help you because I can only offer this special deal for a limited time), and being willing to walk away with the understanding that there are other opportunities.

Being firm and gentle with oneself is equally important if fears of missed opportunity or the reward of seeming to get a great deal are in play. Delayed gratification is your ally.

5. Don’t immediately take “There’s nothing we can do” for an answer. It’s important to respect boundaries, maintaining a professional demeanor, but realize that in transactional situations the other party is often instructed to say there are no options as a front-line deterrent. When it comes to consent, no definitely means no.

However, in negotiations, understanding that there are usually additional options, and that initial denial is a generic strategy to put off the less persistent, empowers us to keep gently insisting on additional options. More often than not, there is more (sometimes much more) that can be done if you get to the right people, in the right ways. It may help to move up the chain of command until you get to someone with decision-making authority. It also helps to know when to cut your losses, avoiding Pyrrhic victories.

6. Don’t take it personally. Easier said than done, but a good skill to have—even when things are blatantly unfair. Because it feels personal, and even if it is personal (sometimes it is), becoming emotionally dysregulated interferes with making rational decisions. More empathic people also tend to be more vulnerable, and it’s important to protect oneself while also consciously prioritizing one’s needs. If it starts to feel personal, it’s important to have a plan in place to manage those reactions, and the situation, effectively.

7. Don’t let anger use you. Use anger but don't succumb to it. Anger often comes from injury. Hostility rarely helps because it shifts the tone of the whole interaction away from shared problem-solving. However, using anger to drive constructive, more friendly assertiveness can be useful, cultivating cooperation through relationship-building.

Notice when you are angry and name it to yourself. Sharing emotions directly with the other party is more nuanced, and sharing anger—especially unchecked anger—easily backfires as it comes across as accusation. Sharing underlying feelings of sadness and need, on the other hand, can make it easier for the other party to want to help.

Learning how to operate in an at-times unsympathetic, unforgiving world is a challenge for many people. This is especially true if adverse developmental experiences have left one vulnerable to unsavory actors, with hard-to-glimpse blind spots of one's own. However, with a little bit of awareness and a dollop of persistence, it is possible to navigate choppy seas effectively while maintaining a safe harbor. Cognitive flexibility, and more specifically cognitive empathy, serves you well here—hold on to essential dolphin nature, but learn to think like a shark when necessary.

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