How to Resist People Who Manipulate Nicely
Manipulation by people who appear helpful and concerned.
Posted May 12, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- People who manipulate nicely don’t threaten. Instead, they employ coercive techniques to persuade us to do their bidding.
- Manipulative people blur boundaries, encourage guilt, and overlay their version of reality on others.
- We can resist manipulation by asserting our human rights, maintaining our boundaries, and not answering unreasonable questions.
Manipulation shows itself in different ways, ranging from flattery to bullying. This post focuses on people who manipulate nicely. They do not directly threaten, but they do coerce by questioning one’s character, ignoring boundaries, encouraging guilt, and overlaying their own version of reality on others.
People who strive for healthy relationships respect boundaries, take time to listen, and engage in caring and supportive behaviors. Manipulative people ignore boundaries, feign concern, and engage in unhealthy strategies to influence others to do their bidding. Such people show devoted self-absorption and a lack of respect for another person’s full humanity.1
Most manipulative people do not only manipulate. They often have appealing traits, making their efforts even more effective and difficult to detect and act on. But when they are manipulating, interactions are always from their perspective, and we find ourselves answering unwelcome questions and carrying out unwanted requests.
What to Look For in Manipulative Interactions
People who manipulate nicely provide their versions of reality as the only version. They project certainty where there is ambiguity or conflict, using phrases that begin with “Surely you must see that,” “Obviously, we are,” or “Certainly this means something.” They speak for others, defining “we” and “us” solely from their perspective, assuming their thoughts are our thoughts, without consulting us.
Coercing Through Questions
Most of us believe we should answer direct questions. It is our default response. Of course, some questions are helpful.
Mentors use open-ended inquiries to encourage insight, helping us see different perspectives on matters important to us.
Manipulative people use questions to draw us into what concerns them, demanding that we direct our attention away from our own lives and toward theirs.
Simplifying Our Human Complexity
Skilled manipulators alternate between deification and vilification. When we say or do what they want, they dispense praise. When we cross them, they label us as disappointing and hurtful. Both stances simplify and dehumanize. We are neither gods nor devils.
They may use flattery or gifts or feigned gratefulness to influence us to do things we are uncomfortable doing and would not do on our own.
When we refuse to do their bidding, they become insulting about our lack of generosity and self-sacrifice, accusing us of not being there for them. In the process, they do not consider our own rights, needs, and desires.
People who manipulate blur personal boundaries, often failing to acknowledge that we even have boundaries. We are simply extensions of their needs.
They typically skip steps toward personal intimacy, revealing too much too soon, and then lean on the principle of reciprocity. “I told you, now you tell me.”
They may pretend to respect our privacy but only to identify our boundaries so that they can move around them.
Often, manipulative people demand immediate responses, even if we’re not prepared to respond. To satisfy these demands, they use the “foot-in-the-door” technique, making small requests that we agree to, and then following with increasingly larger demands. With these larger demands, saying no is more difficult because there is already a yes.
If we criticize, manipulative people will try to induce guilt for this criticism. They will state directly or imply, “After all, we’ve done for each other.” They may even scold us for disagreeing with their interpretations.
Drawing on Victimhood
Nice manipulators count on our concern for their well-being to exploit our goodwill, thereby gaining concessions that we would not ordinarily make. They thrive on a pain-off, suggesting their problems are worse than ours—or proposing a false equivalence.
They combine praise with their self-assessed difficulties. “I can’t do this without you.” “You’re essential to this project.”
Breaking the Manipulation Cycle
Asserting Our Fundamental Human Rights
The single most important guideline when encountering psychologically manipulative people is to state our human rights when we see them violated.
We have the right to be treated with respect, to set our own priorities, to say “no,” to express our thoughts and feelings, to take care of ourselves emotionally, and to live our lives as we see fit, without intrusion.
One goal of manipulation is to exploit our vulnerabilities—and our virtues. It’s possible we may feel inadequate for not satisfying the other person, but we are not the problem. We’re being influenced to feel inadequate, so that we forfeit our human rights.
Being Appropriately Contrary
If the manipulating person says, “it doesn’t hurt to ask,” point out that with some questions, it does hurt to ask. It hurts us, and it hurts them.
If they say they won’t take “no” for an answer, we can give them “no” as an answer. Saying no diplomatically and firmly asserts our perspective while maintaining respect for the manipulating person. We can choose to explain our reasons for not complying, but we are not obligated to.
When manipulative people test our limits, they are trying to detect how far we are willing to shift our position. When this happens, we need to stay firm and true to what we know is right for us.
When being manipulated, we should minimize our responses—getting angry and arguing backfires because we engage when we don’t want to. If possible, we should maintain our distance and avoid interacting unless we absolutely have to. We are not saviors. It is not our job to solve their problems. (That's the job of their therapist.)
Taking Time—and Distance
If the person expects an answer right away, we can use time to our advantage. We can create our own deadlines. If necessary, we can take a break. Simply saying, “I’ll think about it,” creates space to formulate a workable response.
If the manipulating person persists in violating our boundaries and rights and won’t take "no" for an answer, we can set consequences. Not out of spite, but to maintain our integrity. Ideally, consequences will encourage respect.
Although people who manipulate are intrusive and dehumanizing, it is necessary to recognize their humanity, even as they do not acknowledge ours.
We all want our social needs met, but that means taking into account the realities of the social environment. People who manipulate ignore these realities and define their own, using predictable, persistent strategies to influence us to do their bidding. The manipulation may seem friendly or caring, as if the person genuinely has our concerns in mind. But if it feels wrong, we need to step back and ask the following questions.
Am I being treated with fundamental respect? Is a different reality being projected on my life without my consent? Are this person’s questions and demands reasonable? Do I feel good about myself in this relationship?
We are fully human beings, not marionettes. If we feel like a marionette, we need to cut the strings.
Note 1. Buss, D. M., Gomes, M., Higgins, D. S., & Lauterbach, K. (1987). Tactics of manipulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(6), 1219–1229. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1999