14 Signs of Psychological and Emotional Manipulation
How to spot a manipulator.
Posted October 11, 2015 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Manipulative people may let the other person speak first and ask questions in order to assess that person's weaknesses.
- Other signs of manipulation include overwhelming someone with facts or procedures, raising one's voice to get what they want, or playing dumb.
- Sometimes, people who display signs of being manipulative aren't doing it intentionally. Instead, they may simply have bad habits.
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/or 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.
Below is a list of 14 “tricks” manipulative people often use to coerce others into a position of disadvantage, with references from my books How to Successfully Handle Manipulative People and A Practical Guide for Manipulators to Change Towards the Higher Self. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a compilation of subtle as well as strident examples of coercion. Not everyone who acts in the following ways may be deliberately trying to manipulate you. Some people simply have very poor habits. Regardless, it’s important to recognize these behaviors in situations where your rights, interests, and safety are at stake.
1. Home Court Advantage
A manipulative individual may insist on you meeting and interacting in a physical space where he or she can exercise more dominance and control. This can be the manipulator’s office, home, car, or other spaces where he feels ownership and familiarity (and where you lack them).
2. Let You Speak First to Establish Your Baseline and Look for Weaknesses
Many salespeople do this when they prospect you. By asking you general and probing questions, they establish a baseline about your thinking and behavior, from which they can then evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. This type of questioning with hidden agenda can also occur at the workplace or in personal relationships.
3. Manipulation of Facts
Examples: Lying. Excuse-making. Being two-faced. Blaming the victim for causing their own victimization. Deformation of the truth. Strategic disclosure or withholding of key information. Exaggeration. Understatement. One-sided bias of issue.
4. Overwhelm You With Facts and Statistics
Some individuals enjoy “intellectual bullying” by presuming to be the expert and most knowledgeable in certain areas. They take advantage of you by imposing alleged facts, statistics, and other data you may know little about. This can happen in sales and financial situations, in professional discussions and negotiations, as well as in social and relational arguments. By presuming expert power over you, the manipulator hopes to push through her or his agenda more convincingly. Some people use this technique for no other reason than to feel a sense of intellectual superiority.
This certainly does not mean facts and evidence are not important (on the contrary). The point is that there is a significant difference between presenting objective facts for the purpose of problem-solving, versus utilizing biased and/or covert information for the purpose of manipulation.
5. Overwhelm You With Procedures and Red Tape
Certain people use bureaucracy – paperwork, procedures, laws and by-laws, committees, and other roadblocks to maintain their position and power while making your life more difficult. This technique can also be used to delay fact-finding and truth-seeking, hide flaws and weaknesses, and evade scrutiny.
6. Raising Their Voice and Displaying Negative Emotions
Some individuals raise their voice during discussions as a form of aggressive manipulation. The assumption may be that if they project their voice loudly enough, or display negative emotions, you’ll submit to their coercion and give them what they want. The aggressive voice is frequently combined with strong body language such as standing or excited gestures to increase impact.
7. Negative Surprises
Some people use negative surprises to put you off balance and gain a psychological advantage. This can range from lowballing in a negotiation situation, to a sudden profession that she or he will not be able to come through and deliver in some way. Typically, the unexpected negative information comes without warning, so you have little time to prepare and counter their move. The manipulator may ask for additional concessions from you in order to continue working with you.
8. Giving You Little or No Time to Decide
This is a common sales and negotiation tactic, where the manipulator puts pressure on you to make a decision before you’re ready. By applying tension and control onto you, it is hoped that you will “crack” and give in to the aggressor’s demands.
9. Negative Humor Designed to Poke at Your Weaknesses and Disempower You
Some manipulators like to make critical remarks, often disguised as humor or sarcasm, to make you seem inferior and less secure. Examples can include any variety of comments ranging from your appearance to your older model smartphone, to your background and credentials, to the fact that you walked in two minutes late and out of breath. By making you look bad, and getting you to feel bad, the aggressor hopes to impose psychological superiority over you.
10. Consistently Judge and Criticize You to Make You Feel Inadequate
Distinct from the previous behavior where negative humor is used as a cover, here the manipulator outright picks on you. By constantly marginalizing, ridiculing, and dismissing you, she or he keeps you off-balance and maintains her superiority. The aggressor deliberately fosters the impression that there’s always something wrong with you, and that no matter how hard you try, you are inadequate and will never be good enough. Significantly, the manipulator focuses on the negative without providing genuine and constructive solutions or offering meaningful ways to help.
11. The Silent Treatment
By deliberately not responding to your reasonable calls, text messages, emails, or other inquiries, the manipulator presumes power by making you wait and intends to place doubt and uncertainty in your mind. The silent treatment is a head game where silence is used as a form of leverage.
12. Pretend Ignorance
This is the classic “playing dumb” tactic. By pretending she or he doesn’t understand what you want, or what you want her to do, the manipulator/passive-aggressive makes you take on what is her responsibility and gets you to break a sweat. Some children use this tactic in order to delay, stall, and manipulate adults into doing for them what they don’t want to do. Some grown-ups use this tactic as well when they have something to hide or an obligation they wish to avoid.
Examples: Unreasonable blaming. Targeting recipient’s soft spot. Holding another responsible for the manipulator’s happiness and success, or unhappiness and failures.
By targeting the recipient’s emotional weaknesses and vulnerability, the manipulator coerces the recipient into ceding unreasonable requests and demands.
Examples: Exaggerated or imagined personal issues. Exaggerated or imagined health issues. Dependency. Co-dependency. Deliberate frailty to elicit sympathy and favor. Playing weak, powerless, or martyr.
The purpose of manipulative victimhood is often to exploit the recipient’s goodwill, guilty conscience, sense of duty and obligation, or protective and nurturing instinct, in order to extract unreasonable benefits and concessions.
For tips on how to handle manipulative people, and how manipulative individuals can change for the better, see references below.
© 2015 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 Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People — 2nd Edition. PNCC. (2006)