Never Let ‘Em See You Sweat

Manipulators attempt to get us to react, take “snapshots” of the reactions, and then use those pictures to indict us. We can help minimize the likelihood of reacting in two ways:

  • Plan Your Response. Reactions are impulsive; responses are intentional. To plan responses, we need to know what role is being required of us. If our manipulator is a master, we’ll need to plan ways to avoid subservience. If the person is a messiah, we’ll need to avoid the obligatory role of gratitude. If he is a martyr, we’ll need to find ways to avoid being guilted into rescuing behaviors. It’s usually best to refuse our roles quietly rather than confrontationally. If we say, “I know what you’re up to and I’m not going to allow you to dominate me,” that statement alone makes us drama participants. Better to refuse quietly, disallowing him the gratification of observing a reaction. If we don’t react, the manipulator will likely think his emotional remote control is broken and try to fix it by pushing the buttons harder. In the short term, he may become a worse version of himself if he thinks his strategy is failing. If we don’t remember this, we’ll find ourselves thinking, “This isn’t helping; it’s hurting.” Actually, more vigorous button pushing on his part shows that the plan is succeeding.
  • Display No Reaction. This is what we need to do with manipulators who push our buttons, hoping desperately for a reaction that can be used against us. It’s not that we won’t have reactions but that we choose not to display them. We need to restrain externally what we feel internally. This idea has been expressed through phrases like, “Never let ‘em see you sweat” or “The best response is no response” or “Don’t feed into it.” Poker players learn to wear “poker faces” for this very reason. The phrase, “Kill em with kindness” applies here because displaying kindness versus agitation disallows the drama enticement. Displaying no reaction keeps us out of the drama. And that’s not being passive; it’s being powerful.

Don’t Poke the Hornet’s Nest

Another way to resist the drama is to avoid pushing the manipulator’s buttons. If we follow our natural inclinations and react by pushing those buttons, we stay in the drama.  The idea of not pushing buttons is expressed through statements like:

  • Leave well enough alone
  • Let sleeping dogs lie
  • Don’t stir the pot
  • Don’t poke a hornet’s nest

There are two common thoughts that occur to reasonable people arguing with manipulators. One is, “How can he possibly believe that nonsense? If I could just get him to understand the sensibleness of my position, we could resolve this problem.” There, we’re attempting to establish reason, but remember, he’s not interested in reason, only in rightness. The other common thought is, “I’ll teach him a lesson and make him see the error of his ways.” There, we’re attempting to establish justice. But he won’t see those errors because he admits no wrongness. Expecting either reason or justice “pokes the hornet’s nest” and keeps us caught up in the drama.

  • Don’t Expect Reasonableness. The common temptation when arguing with a manipulator is to make our case more vigorously, hoping that he’ll eventually get it. What we discover, however, that it no matter what we say or how well we say it, he won’t get it. He’ll not listen to, understand, or validate our position. If we react by arguing harder, we’re right back in the drama. We lose, simply by becoming engaged in the conversational tug of war. So, remember this rule of thumb: To solve conflict problems with reasonable people, we should talk more. To solve conflict problems with manipulators, we should talk less and act more. They “win” by keeping us frustratingly embroiled in the verbal battle.
  • Don’t Expect Justice. Attempting to establish justice puts us into the thick of the drama. It’s very tempting to say, “I’ll teach him a lesson and he won’t do that anymore.” The problem is that manipulators learn no lessons because learning lessons requires the use of muscles they’ve allowed to atrophy. Trying to get them to admit wrongness won’t work and, if we display frustration, we’ve become drama participants. Trying to establish justice, to force a manipulator to acknowledge personal wrongness against his will, has a button pushing effect and provides a way for him to keep us wrapped up in the drama.

Don’t Let Your Buttons Get Pushed

Manipulators push our buttons hoping for a reaction. We should expect attacks and then learn from our mistakes.

  • Expect Attacks. The manipulator may push our buttons in predictably obvious ways or ambush us in unpredictably subtle ways, such as:
    • Exploitation of Weaknesses. Sniffing them out and attacking us there.
    • Taking his negatives and projecting them on to us.
    • Presuming upon our good graces.
    • Role Shifts. If the manipulator can’t entice us into playing the required part, he may shift roles in hopes that, when the drama ends, he’ll be back in his preferred role (Lester, 2003). Here are some different forms of role shifting:
      • If the master role is preferred. A master needs us to submit. If we don’t, he may shift into the messiah role, one rescuing a person in need. He gives us something, but the gift has “strings attached.” At that point, the giver is no longer a helper but a controller, the assistance being accompanied by an obligation to submit.
      • If the martyr role is preferred. Martyrs are either saved by messiahs or persecuted by masters, the roles we must play for the martyr role to succeed. If we don’t, she may become a master and strike at us, hoping that we will strike back. If we do strike back, she can once again assume the role of a martyr who suffers at the hands of others—“I can’t believe you would treat me that way.”
      • If the messiah role is preferred. A messiah is a sacrificial giver and needs us to be grateful recipients. If we aren’t, she may slip into the martyr role, saying things like, “After all I’ve done for you, this is the kind of treatment I get. Thanks a lot.” If it works, we’ll allow her to resume the messiah role just to escape the guilt trip discomfort.
  • Learn From Our Mistakes. Pickpockets can pick our pockets because we’re not expecting our pockets to get picked. Remember, manipulators are good at enticements, but reasonable people are not naturally good at resisting enticements and get easily caught off guard. We will make mistakes and slip-ups are probably inevitable. But it’s important to learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them. As the saying goes, “Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me.” Beating ourselves up about it doesn’t help but safeguarding ourselves against further enticements does.

Attempting to Reason with the Unreasonable

Manipulators are unreasonable people. They can’t be reasoned with because they are un-reason-able. Lacking reasoning abilities, they have neither the ability nor willingness to work through relational problems. Consequently, they resort to manipulation (drama) to make relationships “work”.

But here’s the thing. Despite what we know about them, most normal people are prone to engage manipulators on the level of reason in hopes that they will—at long last—see the error of their ways and change. But this won’t and can’t work because they lack the very equipment needed for reasoning to succeed. Here are some common reason-based appeals often made to manipulators:

  • “Let’s sit down together and talk this out.” This fails because it requires humility: I could be wrong, you could be right, let’s talk.
  • “I’ll let him know that I see what he’s up to.” This fails because it requires awareness: I see where I’m wrong.
  • “If I treat him well, he’ll treat me well.” This fails because it requires responsibility: It bothers me when I’m wrong.
  • “I’ll set him straight and tell him I won’t take it anymore.” This fails because it requires empathy: It bothers me when I hurt you.
  • “I’ll confront him and let him know he’s got to get help.” This fails because it requires reliability: When I’m wrong, I’ll change.

Here’s what we’re up against when we try to reason with manipulators. They automatically assume that we’re the ones in the wrong, they fail to see their contributions to the conflict, they claim no responsibility for any part of the problem, they’re not bothered by the impact of their words and actions on us, and they change nothing because nothing about them needs changing. Is it any wonder that manipulators make us sick, drive us crazy, and wear us out?

How Manipulators Exploit Naïveté

Normally functioning people like to think that most people function normally—and many do. But manipulators don’t. Lacking the necessary reasoning abilities to problem-solve, they relate by enticing others into their obligatory drama roles. One form of enticement is to exploit the target’s naïve relational expectations. Some of these stem from culturally-imbedded maxims that work just fine with normal people but not with manipulators. When we fail make the distinction, we become vulnerable to the manipulator’s exploitation.

  • “Give people the benefit of the doubt”— Giving someone the benefit of the doubt is a good thing—as long as that person deserves such benefit. But the manipulator doesn’t deserve it due to his proven track record of exploitation. In fact, he deserves the opposite: Don’t give him the benefit of the doubt unless he’s establishes a new and different track record. Giving it to him when he doesn’t deserve it opens a door through which he’ll step to perform his exploitive activities.
  • “Don’t think badly of people”— We’ve all heard this statement or it’s positive variation: “You should think the best of people.” It’s often the case that manipulators have stellar positives alongside glaring negatives and it’s that mix of conflicting traits that makes them so difficult to understand. Staying aware of people’s negatives is not synonymous with thinking badly of them and failure to keep those negatives in view can increase a person’s vulnerability.
  • “Treat people like you want to be treated”— The danger here is a one-size-fit-all application of the biblical Golden Rule concept. But even the Bible warns against manipulators, sometimes referred to as “fools” or “wolves in sheep’s clothing”.
  • “Try to find the good in everyone”— Again, manipulators aren’t usually devoid of good qualities and if we’re looking for positive aspects, they may not be that hard to find. But we must help clients remember not to allow a manipulator’s positives to cancel out their important-to-stay-aware-of negatives.