Inside the Minds of Controlling People

The terrain is more familiar than you think.

Posted Mar 30, 2016

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Have you ever wondered what makes controlling people tick? Some people seem to spend their waking hours bossing other people around. The bossing can range from direct and explicit imperatives—“I want that report on my desk by 2:30”—to subtle but annoyingly incessant suggestions—“Put more salt on your steak, it’ll taste great,” or “Take the first turn up here on the left, it’s a quicker way to get there,” and “Are you sure you want that second helping?” Sometimes, if you object to their orders or interminable prods, it can seem like you’re the one being unreasonable.

So what actually separates a bully from a best friend?

It turns out that bullies and besties are more alike than they are different.

They both want things and they both do whatever they need to do to get what they want. But this ongoing process of making the outside world match internal ideas is the same for us all. While the way that people go about their business may be identical, the business that they spend their time pursuing can be very different:

  • The agenda for bullies and bossy people tends to involve seeing other people acting in particular ways. They focus on specifics and they focus on other people’s behavior. They have a particular view of how things should happen and they do whatever they need to do to make sure events unfold in what they have determined is the right way.
  • Friends and others whom we wouldn’t normally think of as controlling also have particular views about the ways in which things should happen. The difference is that their particular views are typically not views about how other people should behave. They might have views about how they themselves should behave or they might have ideas about the outcome that is to be achieved but be much less focused on how that outcome will be secured.

And perhaps that is the difference. While both the bully and the bestie care about outcomes, the bully has definite and fixed ideas about how the outcome will be achieved whereas the bestie keeps the ultimate outcome firmly in sight but recognizes that there are many different ways to get to the same point.

So, what’s inside the minds of controlling people? Lots and lots of goals. We can also think of goals as ideas, expectations, outcomes, standards, wants, and “shoulds." The goals of bullies, dictators, and overbearing acquaintances tend to be about the “right way” for other people to think or act or speak or dress or be.

These differences can be illustrated with the example of classroom teachers: A teacher we would think of as controlling is one who wants to see students act in particular ways. They like to see students sitting a particular way and looking a particular way and producing a particular amount of work. They might think, for example, that there is a “right” hairstyle that students should adopt or a “right” height at which school socks should be maintained.

Teachers who don’t seem to be so controlling, however, are more relaxed about students’ posture while they are writing and the particular attire of students while they are at school. These teachers are interested in the educational outcomes that can be attained but not so pedantically interested in lesser details.

In the final analysis, those who boss other people around and those who don’t are probably seeking the same ultimate aim. The difference is that autocrats make their own jobs harder. By pedantically specifying how other people should behave, they are likely to irritate those people—working against the very outcomes they are interested in achieving.

Even the people we typically think of as non-controlling are still very much controllers—in the sense of wanting to realize a particular outcome—but they are more relaxed about the way in which the result is achieved. They seem to intuitively appreciate that if they talk about the final destination then they won’t simultaneously need to specify all the actions required to get there.

Ultimately, then, we are all control freaks. The difference is that there are some control freaks we would like to avoid and some control freaks we would like to get to know better. It turns out that it is not control itself but rather the things that people choose to control that can either forge or fragment social bonds.