How to Recognize Controlling People

Often, it comes down to what they want to control, not how they do it.

Posted Jan 03, 2016

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Imagine you could recognize controlling people before you even interacted with them. Being able pick the controlling person out of a line-up would be a neat skill to have. It could mean that you’d be able to avoid interacting with controlling people if that’s what you wanted to do. Wouldn’t it be neat to be able to minimize the extent to which controlling people could manipulate you or boss you around?

Well, here’s the secret ... We are all controlling people. Every living person is controlling. People have to be controlling people if they want to go on living. The very act of staying alive on a day-to-day basis is a process of control.

If a driver can't control the speed and position of a car while it is motoring down the freeway, the occupants inside will expire. Bodies that can’t control their temperature or the concentrations of things like oxygen and glucose in their blood will quickly perish. Control is the process that enables people to: walk upright on busy city sidewalks; plough fields; kill people; board cruise ships; bully colleagues; fly kites; wave goodbye; lose weight; hunt moose; kiss passionately; build model airplanes; reach for the stars; drop bombs; shine shoes; order coffee; pass exams; and read bedtime stories.

Our most inspirational leaders and our most villainous tyrants had at least one thing in common—they were all controlling people:

  • Winston Churchill was a controlling person. 
  • Mother Teresa was a controlling person. 
  • Napoleon Bonaparte was a controlling person. 
  • Joan of Arc was a controlling person. 
  • Adolf Hitler was a controlling person. 
  • Margot Fonteyn was a controlling person. 
  • Geronimo was a controlling person. 
  • Attila the Hun was a controlling person. 
  • Elvis Presley was a controlling person. 
  • Mahatma Gandhi was a controlling person. 
  • Pol Pot was a controlling person. 
  • Abraham Lincoln was a controlling person. 
  • Nelson Mandela was a controlling person. 
  • Florence Nightingale was a controlling person.
  • Einstein was a controlling person.

So it’s trivially simple to pick the controlling person out of a line-up. It’s all of them. And it’s impossible to avoid interacting with controlling people unless you plan on living a completely solitary life.

Control is the process of making things right for yourself and keeping them that way. A routinely functioning person is a concatenation of systems that keep body temperature right, posture right, appearance right, relationships right, health right, emotions right, schedules right, confidence right, and so on. When problems occur in a person’s routine functioning, they are problems of control.

When we think of controlling people as abusers, micromanagers, thugs, or just plain bossy, it is not the fact that they control that makes them so unpleasant to deal with. Everyone controls and since interacting with most people can be highly satisfying, it can’t be control that is the problem. The real issue with people we would rather avoid spending time with is not that they control but what they control: People who are not great fun to be with tend to spend their time trying to control other people.

Controlling other people leads to problems because the other people are also controlling. When someone else steers, guides, directs, or manipulates them, it can interfere with that person's own controlling proclivities. Even well-intentioned suggestions are likely to meet rebuff more often than welcome. No one has the necessary information about the goings-on of another person’s mind such that they can determine what is appropriate to do from the other person’s perspective in any given situation. Perhaps the only satisfactory way to provide advice is to take a “buffet approach” by presenting a range of different options that the recipient can consider in their own time from their own frame of mind. 

Controlling the milkiness of your coffee or the scariness of the movie you watch is very different from controlling the friends your child spends time with, how considerate your supervisor is, or how devoted your partner is. Whenever we interact with other controlling people, we run the risk of interfering with the controlling that they are doing.

“Let them be” might be a great slogan for building more harmonious social relationships. Being with others in ways that let them be and also allow us to get on with our own being is, perhaps, the most urgent quest of our time.

In this brief article I have only skimmed the surface of recognizing our controlling nature and living successfully together as controlling people. If you’re interested in these ideas, you’ll find lots more detail in the new book, Controlling People: The paradoxical nature of being human, which I’ve written with my friend and colleague Rick Marken. You can find it on