The Drama Review (January 26, 2018)

Dear drama-watchers,

Have you ever thought about the fact that much of our folk wisdom was originally derived through someone’s hard-earned experience? Take the Jim Croce song, “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” for example. Apparently, Jim was a guy you really shouldn’t mess with. But to make that point, he compares the stupidity of Jim-messing to the lack of wisdom involved in tugging on Superman’s cape, spitting into the wind, or pulling the mask off the old Lone Ranger.

Hundreds of years ago apparently, somebody somewhere spit into the wind and afterwards concluded, “Drats, I really shouldn’t have done that. Note to self: spit downwind next time.” He then posted the meme, “Don’t spit into the wind,” on Facebook and the rest is history. It’s now part of our folk wisdom to check wind direction prior to expectorating.

“Don’t poke the hornet’s nest” is another such wisdom tidbit. Some poor soul did that once and now we know. But the phrase also tells us something about dealing with human hornets—drama people, that is. Poking the “nest” can get us stung.

Here’s something I wrote for my seminar entitled, “Inside the Manipulator’s Mind.”


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 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 reason 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.


I poked a hornet’s nest once–even though I knew better. It’s a long story which I won’t bore you with but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version. A “friend” of mine misinterpreted what another friend said in a meeting. I was there and heard it all for myself. But instead of talking to her directly and clearing it up, which he could’ve easily done, he chose instead to write a letter to 40 of his closest friends in which he falsely accused her and impugned her motives. That was out of line and I felt it needed to be addressed.

So, I wrote him a private letter in which I respectfully through a flag on his foul. He’d made assumptions without making inquiry and then broadcasted his erroneous conclusions to others. I really didn’t expect it to do any good but it just needed to be done.

Guess how that went over. As soon as he walked in from the mailbox, he called me. He yelled at me, demeaned my character, called me names, insulted my intelligence, and generally gave me a piece of his mind he couldn’t afford to lose. But that’s what I expected him to do and his response didn’t take me by surprise. If I’d known then what I know now, I would’ve still written the letter.

But here’s where I got stung. I wasted 30 minutes on the phone trying to reason with him. And the more I tried, the more I failed, and the more frustrated I became. A few weeks later, I was driving down the interstate and realized that every muscle in my body was tensed up. When I paused to reflect as to why, I realized I’d been replaying that irritating conversation over and over in my head. My actual previous conversation was now a virtual present conversation and was affecting me as though he were arguing with me from the passenger seat.

I’m always reminded of Thomas Paine who famously said, “Attempting to reason with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”

Makes me wonder if Thomas Paine knew my “friend.”

10 replies
  1. David Cropp
    David Cropp says:

    Thank you, great advice. I see this so much with the mostly female victims of Domestic. Violence who I work with. They become so frustrated at their abuser’s behavior, “How can he do that,” or “I don’t understand him,” or “How can I communicate better.” They internalize the abuser’s manipulation as something they’re doing wrong. I would like to use some of your examples during my sessions, thanks!

  2. Peggy MacGregor
    Peggy MacGregor says:

    Dear Dr. Godwin,
    I have been following your comments with interest. I want to one of your workshops in Philadelphia 3 or 4 years ago because I myself was dealing with a person like this and found the information very helpful. I bought your book also but have loaned it to someone, and I can’t remember who. I also recognized at the time that you are a sincerely religious person, as am I. I also realize that you are addressing our present political situation and am wondering how so many people continue to be fooled by such a person as you describe. Could you comment on this? Thanks

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      I appreciate your comments, Peggy. I like Mark Twain’s comment: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled.”

  3. Adele
    Adele says:

    My husband told me some person working in Washington used to use a term when he could not reason with or even discuss a political issue with a person he had to work with.
    On my last encounter with a manipulator, I decided I no longer wanted to be involved. I am taking, to use his term,
    a “ lateral arabesque”. I am going to dance on out and move around it. Not as good to put into a song as “Don’t spit in the wind or mess with Jim.” But you get the picture.
    Thanks, Alan.

  4. Sue Godoell
    Sue Godoell says:

    The email you sent out today, “The Drama Review” stated that if you had known then what you know now you still would have sent that man the letter. I am very curious about what you would have done differently however. Perhaps it would be to have handled the phone conversation differently, or? Thank you!

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thanks, Sue. Yes, I would’ve spent less time trying to reason when it was apparent that he had no interest in doing so. I wish I could’ve come to that conclusion sooner. Live and learn.

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