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Avoiding Manipulation

by Jerry Minchinton

We can define manipulation as "getting people to do what you want without giving them something they value in return".

How does manipulation work? When someone says to you, "If you don't help me clean my house I'm going to be mad at you," that person is attempting to manipulate you. He is not offering you anything except to withhold a display of bad temper, which he could do in any case. But if the same friend says, "If you'll help me clean my house, I'll take you to the baseball game this afternoon," and your friend knows you love baseball, that is not attempted manipulation because you are being offered something you value in exchange for your efforts.

Or if we tell someone, "I'll be very disappointed if you don't come to my party," we're trying to manipulate her by indicating she will be responsible for the state of our emotions, a highly dubious "privilege" at best. On the other hand, suppose we say, "If you come to my party, I'll introduce you to the famous producer you want to meet." If the person we're talking with is an aspiring actress and the famous producer actually is coming to the party, then we are non-manipulatively offering her something she desires in exchange for what we're requesting.


Why do people seek to manipulate us? For reasons ranging from the meanest to the most benevolent:

  • They derive emotional satisfaction from others' negative reactions.

Some people, because they are so dissatisfied with themselves and their lives, try to create problems for us so we will feel bad, too. If they are able to make us unhappy or uncomfortable they can focus on our pain instead of their own and momentarily feel better.

  • Manipulating others gives them a feeling of power.

People who consider themselves weak and believe they lack power sometimes try to manufacture it by persuading people to do as they wish. When they are successful, they experience a temporary feeling of domination. Unfortunately for them and those with whom they associate, the sensation dissipates quickly, and they must continually reinforce it.

  • They believe they aren't important enough.

Some individuals believe they are so unimportant that others are unlikely to give them what they want simply for the asking. To make up for their lack of bargaining chips, they try to convince us we should feel guilty or ashamed if we do not do as they ask, thinking (often correctly) that our desire to avoid those painful feelings will be so great that we'll do what they want.

  • They believe certain tasks are beneath them.

Some profoundly misguided people tend to regard us more as servants than as equals. Because of the lowly status they've assigned us, they expect us to do tasks they're averse to doing themselves, whether because of their ignorance, reluctance, laziness, or an unwillingness to clean up after themselves.

  • They don't know how to do or get what they want.

Some people believe themselves incapable of achieving their goals directly, as mature adults do, so they feel they have no choice but to manipulate us so we will achieve their goals for them.

  • They are sure their manipulation will benefit those manipulated.

This idea is embraced by fanatics of every kind, who have deluded themselves into believing they know what's best or right for practically everyone. Since they are certain they are gifted with a special insight, they feel gratified if they can manipulate "less knowledgeable" people like us into taking the path they've chosen.

In fact, most would-be manipulators are not genuinely bad; they are just weak, self-centered, insensitive, inconsiderate, and misguided. They think of those they seek to manipulate as members of a lower order of creature, a less important form of life, whose needs and desires are also less important. To manipulators, other people are less "real" than they are, somewhat like a clever puppy or a beast of burden, which is to say, a nice enough creature, but one without a real existence of its own.


Manipulative techniques vary, but in general, manipulators try to get our emotions to work against us. They do this by saying or doing something they hope will induce in us guilt, shame, anger, fear, or some other uncomfortable emotion. They may imply, for instance, that our failure to do as they wish will bring about a major disaster. They may describe in minute detail the various kinds of unpleasantness that will occur if we neglect to take the action they suggest. They may insist certain things are our duty or responsibility, or they may appeal to us on the basis of morality, ethics, or anything else they think might persuade us to agree with them. Some will pull out every emotional stop and tell us of the horrible pain they'll experience if we "let them down". We may be told we'll feel better about ourselves, that we'll make the manipulator extremely happy, that he or she will love us forever, or any number of other essentially meaningless terms.

Manipulators' speech is frequently laced with phrases such as these:

"You should. . ."  "You ought to . . ."  "If I were you, I'd . . ." "It's for the best," "I only want what's best for you," "You'll thank me for this later," "What will people say?" "What will people think?"

They use these and many other phrases which imply we will suffer a censure or penalty of some kind if we don't meet the "obligation" they've chosen for us.

What element do all these techniques have in common? The manipulator offers us nothing we value in exchange for doing what he or she asks.

Continued on the next page:
* The "Benefits" of Manipulation;
* Avoiding Manipulation;
* Important Ideas to Consider;
* Questions to Ask Yourself;
* An Experiment

This article is excerpted from Wising Up: How To Stop Making Such A Mess of Your Life, 1999, by Jerry Minchinton. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Arnford House, Vanzant, MO, USA.

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About The Author

Jerry Minchinton has read extensively about self-esteem, motivation, and Eastern philosophies and religions. He combines the insight he's gained from these studies with practical business experience to shed light on some age-old problems of human behavior. He is the author of Maximum Self-Esteem: The Handbook For Reclaiming Your Sense of Self-Worth, and 52 Things You Can Do To Raise Your Self-Esteem. He can be reached at [email protected].

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