Recently, I published a series of articles on the personal, social, and political implications of the Bible’s Ten Commandments. The article on the eighth commandment—the prohibition against theft—included a small section on “manipulation” as a form of heart theft. This portion of the article triggered a number of inquiries, which has prompted me to follow up with a new series of articles exploring the way personal, journalistic, and political manipulation are forms of heart theft. This article is the first in the series, addressing interpersonal manipulation as the first one.
The notion of manipulation carries with it the idea of one person trying to control another person, and infringing on that person’s autonomy while doing so. The person doing the manipulating may be doing so consciously in a cold and calculated manner, or may be doing so unconsciously because that it is the form of interpersonal persuasion he or she grew accustomed to as a child or adult. Either type of manipulation is a form of heart theft in which the manipulator tries to change the conditions of the encounter in order to engineer a change in the other person that the person is not aware of, would not agree with, or does not desire.
Having described personal manipulation in a general manner, we will now provide 12 examples of interpersonal manipulation. Not every manipulator uses each of these tricks, but all manipulators use at least some of them. Once we can identify manipulation in action, we are better enabled to set boundaries in our lives so that manipulators cannot so easily exploit our hearts and minds to achieve their desired outcome. Manipulators:
- Study the persons they wish to manipulate. While there are some universal ways in which any person can be manipulated, the offender often exploits their chosen target in ways specific to that person’s personality. Thus, manipulation is information-based.
- Lure persons into their physical space. Often the manipulator seeks to control their target—without their target knowing he or she is being exploited—by wielding physical influence over them. For example, manipulators might use their soft skin, appealing voice, or pretty eyes to exploit. Or, conversely, they might use their intimidating presence to exploit.
- Act the victim. Manipulators often exaggerate their problems in order to gain sympathy and trust, while also asserting that their target’s problems are insignificant compared to their own.
- Use “guilt bait.” Manipulators hone in on any emotional weakness in the target, leveraging it to gain control and/or concession.
- Prey upon insecurities. Manipulators study their target to gain knowledge about that person’s vulnerability and fears. They might poke fun at the target’s appearance, character traits, financial condition, work habits, or lifestyle. They aim to make the target crumble emotionally.
- Cast judgment constantly. If the target doesn’t do what the manipulator wants, the manipulator endeavors to make the target feel like they are a bad person. Manipulators constantly attack, even if doing so subtly, and try to keep the target off-balance to maintain superiority. They keep the target on the defensive and make them think something is wrong with them and that no matter how hard they try, they will never be good enough.
- Play dumb. When the manipulator has said or done something that is wrong, he or she will say to the target, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset” or “I don’t understand what you want me to do.” Similarly, if the target has done something the manipulator doesn’t like—even if the target’s action was actually right—the manipulator will brand the action as bad or foolish, saying something like, “I just don’t understand why you did that.”
- Plan negative surprises. In order to gain psychological advantage, the manipulator likes to throw the target off balance with negative surprises. They want to create a situation in which the target cannot succeed. For example, they might ask the target to make a concession of some type but, once having gained the concession, immediately demand several more concessions that hadn’t previously been mentioned. Or, they start out the encounter in a pleasant manner to get the victim to relax, and then suddenly surprise the target with accusations or negative assertions.
- Exert undue pressure. Manipulative people want answers immediately. They apply pressure on the target to make a decision before they are ready by creating a false sense of urgency. Their goal is to make the target to crack and give in to their demands.
- Cry. Manipulators know that information is power or currency and they often exploit the target through emotional displays designed to throw the him or her off-balance.
- Shift the conversation. When the manipulator has done or said something wrong, he or she doesn’t admit to being wrong, but instead shifts the conversation away from his or her own misdeeds. The manipulator is inconsiderate of the target’s general well-being. The manipulator would rather ignore you than apologize. The manipulator will rarely ever initiate a genuine apology.
- Get ugly. When all else fails, manipulators will bully, threaten public humiliation, mock, dismiss the target’s concerns, and engage in unethical and illegal behaviors to get what they want.
With specific examples of manipulation having been laid out, it is also helpful to discuss how to effectively counter a manipulative person:
- If possible, separate yourself completely from the manipulator (e.g. in terms of both physical space and electronic interaction). If needed, write a timeline of the major issues and then go over that list with a trusted friend, mentor, or counselor. An outside person can help the victim see through the lies and manipulations and to see reality for what it actually is.
- If it is not possible to separate yourself from the manipulator—because the offender is, for example, your boss or family member—determine to set and enforce personal boundaries, address the manipulator’s behavior, and otherwise limit communication as much as possible.
- Be prepared for backlash. When the manipulator recoils and retaliates (usually verbally), the target should try not to get angry or defensive but should seek to lower the temperature by saying honestly, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
At their worst, manipulators wish to systematically diminish, and finally destroy, the inner life of their target. For persons who are unused to being manipulated or who are naturally soft-hearted, the diminishment and destruction caused by manioulation can take place quickly and with devastating emotional, physical, and spiritual consequence. So, let’s be wise to the human condition and treat the manipulator better than he or she is treating us, while avoiding being duped, diminished, and finally destroyed.
Finally, we should note that there is a “manipulator”—either dormant or active—within each of us. Thus, we should be on guard so that we do not fall prey to its seduction. Scripture refers to manipulation as “heart theft” (Gen. 31:20; 31:26) and is thus a violation of the eighth commandment. By God’s grace, we can resist the temptation and deal openly and honestly rather than covertly and dishonestly. In so doing, we respect other people’s hearts as their own rather than treating those person’s hearts as if they are our own.