A broad definition of manipulation is anyway of trying to get something other than asking directly. The term is used most however, to describe a situation in which someone ends up doing what they do not really want to do, because someone has made the alternatives difficult. There are always situations in which a person has to pick between two unwanted alternatives. With manipulation, though, it is the active efforts of another person that brings the two choices together artificially, and that is what is so unnerving and unfair for the target.
In coercion, force or threats of real harm are used to get someone to do what they do not want to do. In manipulation, usually the target’s beliefs or self-image is used against his self-interest or real desire. Manipulation can work even if the target understands what is happening, because it is still difficult to say no. In this sense, manipulation is not invincible, and alone cannot constitute abuse. Just like other forms of subtle control however, manipulation is useful to understand because no controlling person fails to use it frequently. Anything can be manipulated, especially by someone who knows the target well, but below are some examples based on common situations:
- The manipulator promises vague help or benefit in the future, then asks for something concrete and substantial in the present. [ Most people feel that they should reciprocate and may miss that there is actually no exchange here.]
- The manipulator just goes ahead and does what he knows the target won’t agree to. [This is based on the saying that it is easier to get forgiveness than permission. This puts the burden on the target to do something, and be the ‘heavy’.]
- The manipulator brings up something alarming, as in the news, then asks for something unrelated. [ Alarm causes people to want to take action. If there is no obvious action–say because there is no real threat–a mildly alarmed person will be more amenable to suggestions.]
- The manipulator compliments someone, then asks for something. [This is common enough that most people pick up on it, but it works nonetheless, because most people feel they owe something for a compliment, even, strangely, a compliment they know to be insincere.]
- The manipulator brings up something the other person feels guilty about, then asks for something. [Even if the guilt is unrelated to the manipulator, a target will tend to feel indebted and embarrassed, and give what is asked, because he or she feels they ‘owe.’]
- The manipulator implies that something is needed, but never asks for it. [Most manipulators understand that this is more powerful than actually asking. If they just asked, a discussion or negotiation could ensue in which the target asks for something in return and considers the merits of the request. Not asking short-circuits this possible conversation, while still leaving the target, as is natural with people, wanting to help.]
- The manipulator calls the target selfish. [ Most targets have as a self-image of selflessness, which is an unobtainable idea, so they are very vulnerable to this word, even if there already exists a huge imbalance in the relationship in the manipulator’s favor.]
- The manipulator starts an elaborately planned activity or trip with the target, then asks at the last minute for something that has to be completed to continue. [ The target will not want to endanger what has taken effort to arrange or has been eagerly awaited so they will go along.]
- The manipulator asks for something clearly unreasonable and receives an abrupt no, then asks for something smaller. [Saying no, even justly, creates guilt and a sense of indebtedness in most targets, and so they will often give after a no what they would no give in the first place.]
- The manipulator ‘confides’ an irresponsible behavior to the target. [The target from that point forward, is hampered in addressing any irresponsible behavior within a family or group because that might betray the confidence. Although the information probably would have been discerned anyway, giving it first as ‘a secret’ works as self-conveyed immunity. Some helping professions keep strict confidentiality of course, but that works because they aren’t impacted by the behavior.]
- If the manipulator is in a position to be the one to give to the target what they should get anyway, he or she may still ask the target for something. [ If there is a likelihood or possibility that the manipulator actually will withhold, that is coercion, but commonly the manipulator is just abusing the feeling of reciprocity.]
- The manipulator knows it is easier to get ‘forgiveness’ than permission [The large inconvenience of making the manipulator undo something does not seem justified by the small inconvenience of letting it pass.]
- The manipulator asks for something that they know the target does not want to give in front of other people. [ There is a social norm to not allow conflict to be public, so a “no” is harder in this situation.]
- The manipulator insists that the target promised, and is now morally bound. [First, changing one’s mind is a fundamental human prerogative, with or without new information or more time to reflect. Second, a promise only has a moral aspect to it at all if one obtained something specific for the promise in the first place, which is actually the opposite of this manipulation.]
- The manipulator wears the target down in steps. [First an agreement is negotiated which is suitable to both parties. In this process it has become clear there is something the target won’t agree to. A short time later, the manipulating party contacts the target with a ‘problem’ and asks for a change in the agreement to accommodate the difficulty. Because the target wants to be reasonable, and because good people always have a desire to keep agreements and plans working, and the change seems small, the target agrees. A short time later there is another difficulty reported to the target, and another step is allowed. Eventually, the target ends up agreeing to what they would not have agreed to all at once. Perhaps the manipulator never intended to fulfill the original agreement but wanted to make the target feel committed and let down their guard.]
The antidote to manipulation includes:
- Responding in the context of the entire relationship, not just the moment
- Honoring feelings
- Understanding the difference between on the one hand, words and promises and on the other hand, something substantial and actual
- Understanding that consistency is not a moral imperative
- Having a healthy relationship to one’s self-interest– neither dominating or a doormat. This benefits everyone the most because it prevents dehumanizing distortions in relationships on all sides.
- Knowing that a sincere “no” usually strengthens any relationship worth keeping.
- Sometimes insisting people undo something they had no right to do in the first place.
- Understanding that maintaining a sense of integrity in the long run is far more important than any missed opportunity, inconvenience, or awkwardness in the moment.