What's the Best Way to Deal with Sneaky People?

Is there a sneaky person in your life? Here's one way to manage them.

Posted Nov 16, 2014

We’ve all done it – sneaked out of the house when we were teens, sneaked a cigarette when we said we had stopped smoking, sneaked a second (or third, or fourth) cookie when we said we were on a diet…But these behaviors don’t have to mean that we’re sneaky people.

Children and even teens, for example, are sometimes labeled sneaky when what they are doing is actually developmentally appropriate. They may be trying to figure out how much control they actually have over their own lives, or checking out the acceptable boundaries of behavior. Or trying to get away with doing something they think is reasonable, but the adults in their lives have forbidden for some reason the kid just doesn’t understand. Sometimes they don’t even realize what they’re doing, and far more often they don’t get what’s wrong with the behavior.

But that’s not always how it feels to the people around them. When we call someone sneaky, it’s generally because we think they are trying to get away with doing something they know they shouldn’t be doing.

And of course it’s worse with older teens and adults. When adults try to get out of a difficult situation by lying, manipulating, or even just slightly tweaking the truth, we don’t even question their motivation. We just—sometimes only after being fooled one too many times – take it for granted that they can’t be trusted.  And eventually we may put them in the folder of “sneaky people” in our lives.

But it’s fine when that person is someone you can excise from your contact list, whose existence doesn’t impact on you on a daily basis. But what do you do about the sneaky family member or colleague or maybe even roommate or boyfriend or girlfriend who you simply can’t get rid of?  

Unfortunately, most of us have someone like this in our lives. Someone who acts one way and secretly feels another; who lies or misleads you; who is manipulative, or passive-aggressive. Maybe it’s your “friend” who hugs you and tells you you’re the best, and then badmouths you behind your back. Or it might be a sibling who puts you down in the most subtle ways possible, and then insists that you are the one who always starts fights. Or a parent or grandparent who constantly tries to guilt-trip you into doing something you don’t want to do.

What’s the best way to handle this kind of person?

  • First, recognize that you can’t deal with a sneak head-on. If you’ve been coping with this problem for a while, you know that direct confrontation doesn’t work. In fact, the more you try to call them on their problematic behavior, the sneakier they get.

Let’s say you’re at your parents’ house. Your brother and his family are there too. Your teenaged daughter and your niece, who have been best friends since birth, say that they’d like to go to the mall the next day after school to look for outfits for an upcoming event. Your brother says that he’ll be happy to take them. Your daughter, who knows that her uncle is totally unreliable, says, “Will you really do it?” He says of course, but she turns to you with anxiety. “It’s important, Mom. If we don’t go tomorrow, we won’t have another chance.” You turn to your brother and say, “You’re really going to do this, right? Otherwise I can see if I can get someone to drive the soccer carpool and I’ll take them.”

Your brother, who has failed to keep more promises than you can count, becomes enraged. “Fine. Fine. You don’t trust me, you make other arrangements. I was just trying to be nice.” And he storms out of the room. Everyone looks angrily at you.

“Oh Mom. You just had to ruin it, didn’t you,” says your daughter.

Wait. How did you get to be the bad guy here? Again.

That’s what happens when you confront someone like this. Somehow, someway, the tables will get turned and you will be blamed. (Remember when you and that brother were kids? When he would pull your hair, you would hit him, and you’d get in trouble? It’s really underhanded – that’s why we call them sneaky.

  • Second, remember that it has happened before, and accept that it will happen again. Many devious people are really good at convincing us that they will not do it again. Don’t believe them. You don’t have to say that you don’t trust them (see step number one); but no matter how honestly contrite they might seem, if they’ve done this kind of thing three or four (or five?) times before, the likelihood is that they’ll do it again. Even if they don’t want to. Even if they don’t mean to.
  • And that takes us to the third point: In many cases, this isn’t about someone being a bad person or a conscious liar. It’s usually more about someone who is afraid of being seen as bad, who is too weak to stand up to the powerful people in her or his life (that’s why children are often sneaky – they generally don’t have the same kind of power that their parents and other adults in their lives have), and finally, someone who believes that they will not get what they want or need from others if they ask for it directly. So they go after it indirectly.

So, what can you do? You know by now that it doesn’t help to show them the error of their ways, or to preach about right and wrong. But what can help is to openly problem solve with them, around them, and about them.

istock_0000075284
Source: istock_0000075284

To go back to the example of a brother who first promises to take your daughter and your niece to the mall. You almost got there when you offered to swap carpools with someone so that you could do it. But by questioning his reliability, you criticized him, which – even if it’s a completely accurate criticism – is one of the things that sneaky people are often trying to avoid. So a better approach is simply to problem-solve out loud, with him and your daughter present. For example, you could say, “Gee that’s wonderful that you’re going to do that. And that really saves me from having to change my son’s soccer carpool yet again. But listen. Just in case something comes up, let’s have a backup plan.” And then, when he says, “Nothing’s going to come up,” you can respond, “Well, I can’t imagine that anything will, but I’ve learned that it’s better to be prepared in these situations.” If all goes well, your daughter and niece will chime in with some other possibilities. And if it doesn’t go well, later you can tell your daughter that you’re going to change the soccer carpool just in case, and if her uncle doesn’t show up, she should call you and you’ll pick her up as soon as possible (or you won’t change the carpool, but she and her cousin can wait for you at school and you’ll come by to pick them up as soon as you get the boys dropped off).

  • And finally, if this whole idea of problem solving around a sneaky person makes you livid, try to remember that their approach probably gets them into more trouble than they let you see. It might look like trouble slips off their backs like rain on a duck (or burnt food on Teflon?), but that’s not the whole truth. And in fact, if you can actually stay out of the fray, and if you don’t become the angry, critical and demanding side of the equation, it’s just possible that they might even let you see some of the problems. And maybe ask for your help solving them.

As always, I’d like to know what you think. Have you found yourself in this kind of predicament? Have other solutions worked for you?

Copyright @F.Diane Barth, lcsw 2014

Teaser image source: Istock _0000016470002