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Very practical as well as insightful
on 27 September 2010
This book does what it says on the cover, although perhaps `...seriously manipulative people' might have been more appropriate. Many of the examples are of people who have manipulative characteristics so ingrained in them that they are almost psychotic, many of them falling foul of the law as a result and being almost un-rehabilitatable during detention in prison. But the underlying analysis seems to me to hold good for quite a lot of people in today's society.
At the root of the book is a questioning of the classic Freudian analysis of the human personality as driven a great deal by guilt and shame. Clearly this has been true of large parts of humanity over large parts of its existence, including many people alive today. Traditional upbringing that believes if you spare the rod you will spoil the child does clearly give rise to people whose earliest years are characterised by the experience of being told `no' and being punished when they don't take heed of this. This typically gives rise to individuals who are `neurotic' in orientation - that is, they are predominantly concerned about whether what they are doing is right and/or whether other people will approve of what they do. In some individuals this becomes overpowering, and they become unduly anxious and even unable to act with any confidence in society. The resulting stress tends to lead them to seek help, and so counsellors and psychiatrists are often working with people on their neuroses, and this becomes the common framework of the helping professions. That framework has become part of the way all of us try to deal with ourselves and with others, through the publication of popular literature which explains counselling theory to the general public.
In this classic scenario, many of us have felt burdened by guilt and shame and as `little people' growing into adulthood we needed ways of coping with the unmanageable weight of it. So unconsciously we went into `denial' - we started saying that we were not guilty and did not feel ashamed. We were OK people and we were proud of it. We were not going to be told `no' all the time; we were going to do the things we wanted to do, and do them our way. What is so wrong about them? We are valuable individuals, worthy of respect and just as likely to be right as everyone else. So we put on a strong `front', and we call it being `grown up', and we feel OK about ourselves. Most of the time, at least. Because the truth is that the guilt and shame feelings are still there, and when life gets stressful they tend to well up again.
So when people around us are unduly assertive, apparently self-confident enough to be trying to push us around, even manipulate our behaviour, we are encouraged to respond with understanding. Underneath this strong, assertive, even aggressive exterior is a little boy/girl just trying to keep their end up. In fact the stronger the outer shell, probably the more damaged and unhappy the little person inside is. If we really want to `get through' to them, the best way is to show them unconditional acceptance, genuine positive regard, assurance that they are indeed an OK person underneath; and then as opportunity arises help them to understand that their behaviour is no longer necessary, that no-one is judging them, that they are a good person inside, and (most importantly) that through such self-understanding they can begin to take the mask off and be seen and accepted for who they really are inside. It's a win-win situation: they become a more integrated and happy person, and we are no longer terrorised by their behaviour!
The trouble is, it doesn't always work. Some manipulative people seem impervious to this approach. George Simon thinks he knows why. It's because underneath they do not conform to the classic Freudian `neurotic' personality. They are not unconsciously compensating for an inner sense of guilt and shame. They feel positive about themselves, they feel the world should revolve around them, and they have discovered ways of making sure it does - ways that work with a large proportion of the population precisely because these other people are neurotic and therefore susceptible to their manipulative tactics. Most of these tactics are `nice' ones; they are not overtly aggressive because overt aggression invites the other person to fight back. They are `covert aggressive'; they try to impose their own will on others (aggressive) in ways that `hook' the neuroses of others without them noticing it (covert).
When you are the victim of this, typically you will feel manipulated, knowing you are doing what is being asked of you while also feeling in your guts that this isn't OK really, but feeling powerless to do anything else. None of the normal ways of negotiating things seem to make any difference to the situation.
What you have to get your head around is that this manipulative person is not like you. You cannot appeal to their conscience because (being unduly un-neurotic) the operation of their conscience is rather weak. If you fight back, they will always fight you to the bitter end because their conviction about the world revolving around them is not a brittle `front' to cover up inner feelings of inadequacy (which might eventually crack if they allow it to) - it is how they feel about themselves deep down. This is what their little person was told while they were growing up: that they were an OK person, that everything they did was permissible even if it stressed everyone else around them including their parents, that misdemeanours did not really matter because they were not consistently addressed and punished, that generally it is amazing what you can get away with. They will not warm to the acquisition of greater self-understanding, because they are inside what they are on the outside - indeed they feel good about that because at least they are not hypocritical like all these neurotic people, one thing on the inside and another on the outside.
The important thing with such manipulative people is to see them for what they are. They are out to get whatever they can because `they are worth it'. Some people describe them as `evil' but really they are just being consistent. They don't `feel' in the same way as most other people in our society, especially those who are older and were brought up in a different way.
There are various classic tactics that covert aggressive people use that are particularly effective in relation to more passive and neurotic personality types. These are so effective that it is important to identify them quickly when they happen to you, and to respond to them in ways that address the aggression rather than hook our neuroses. These tactics are:
* Minimising: making a molehill out of a mountain, questioning whether what they did was so bad, it was `just' this or `only' that.
* Lying: or at least not telling the whole truth or distorting the truth in their favour, always giving a slanted view of reality, without any compunction.
* Denial: not the classic unconscious denial of neurotic people, but a conscious decision to question any accusation. Who me? How can you be so sure?
* Selective attention: keeping the attention on the issues and arguments that support their preferred outcome, stone-walling you when you try to press other issues.
* Rationalisation: seizing on any argument that supports their behaviour, without any attempt at balance.
* Diversion: raising issues that will divert attention away from the central point or from their behaviour, switching topic.
* Evasion: going into long rambling discussions and arguments, often very vague. Wording themselves carefully so that the key point is always avoided.
* Covert intimidation: countering accusations with such passion and intensity that it puts you on the back foot, sometimes including veiled threats or implied consequences.
* Guilt-tripping: suggesting that perhaps you don't really care about them, or are being selfish in your opposition of them, or are hurting them in ways you don't realise.
* Shaming: implying that you are not such a good person, trading on your fears and self-doubt, presenting their behaviour as standing for something really important, and therefore you as someone who is below them and should defer to them.
* Playing the victim: indicating that they are themselves suffering in all this, and really you should be trying to relieve their distress rather than adding to it.
* Vilifying you: saying that really you are the aggressor and they are the victim, and all they are doing is defending themselves against your attacks.
* Playing the servant role: they cloak their self-serving behaviour in the guise of service to a great and noble cause, especially God, while really seeking dominance over others.
* Seduction: usually expressed in flattery or being very supportive of us in order to get us to put our defences down, particularly effective with people with low self-confidence.
* Projecting blame: finding ways to shift blame onto others, finding scapegoats, anyone and anything, including you.
* Feigning innocence: what was done was really not intentional, perhaps not really done at all, how could you think this of them? Trying to get you to question your judgement.
* Feigning ignorance/confusion: playing dumb, looking puzzled or quizzical, it's all getting so confusing, you're making it all so complicated...
* Brandishing anger: not a tactic of first choice, but when you really get in the way of them getting what they want, they will raise the emotional temperature, just enough to get us to back off and start being passive again.
The primary tactic for us in dealing with such manipulative people is to be more aware of ourselves and what is happening inside us. Five things are worth working on:
* Naïveté: some of us can't bring ourselves to believe this person is as cunning, devious and ruthless as our guts tell us he/she is. It's time to grow up and grow wiser.
* Over-conscientiousness: are you too ready to see everyone else's point of view, and too willing to blame yourself? You make yourself an easy target.
* Low self-confidence: you are unsure of your right to pursue your own wants and needs, or unsure of your ability to engage well in inter-personal conflict.
* Over-intellectualisation: you try so hard to understand behaviour that you end up excusing it, and you lose sight of the fact that this person just wants to get their own way. The truth is, you need to fight them!
* Emotional dependency: you are attracted to `strong' people but you fear standing up to them in case you are abandoned by them or they reject you.
And in terms of practical tactics, there are also a number of things you can do:
* Accept no excuses: don't buy into any rationalisation of wrong or harmful behaviour. They are just trying to resist submission to the principle of civil conduct.
* Judge actions, not intentions: you won't know exactly why someone has done something, and it's irrelevant anyway. Focus on what was actually done. If it wasn't OK, it wasn't OK.
* Set personal limits: decide what level of behaviour you will put up with, based in part on your own need to take care of yourself, and at that point disengage or take counter-action.
* Make direct requests: use `I' statements and be clear about what you want in the situation. This gives less room for tactics like distortion, evasion etc.
* Accept only direct responses: insist on clear, direct answers, and if you don't get one, ask again - patiently!
* Stay in the here and now: change only takes place in the present. Avoid diversions into past issues and events, and also speculations about the future. Stay focused.
* Keep the weight of responsibility on the aggressor: if they are in the wrong, the burden of change lies with them, not with you.
* Avoid sarcasm, hostility and put-downs: otherwise you give them opportunity to become the victim, or to shift the focus and the blame onto you. Confront without maligning or denigrating.
* Avoid making threats: just take action when necessary, especially to secure your own needs. They are much better in a `threat' game than you are, so don't start one.
* Take action quickly: don't let the aggressive behaviour go on long before you confront it, otherwise it becomes an unstoppable train. Indicate early that you are up for this fight.
* Speak for yourself: don't quote other people's opinions of the person as this merely shows your insecurity; deal with the person one-to-one. And don't plead their effects on other people if really the issue is their effect on you.
* Make reasonable agreements: the person is determined to achieve a win-lose scenario, and absolutely abhors a lose-win scenario. You must not allow them the former, but equally it is counter-productive to attempt the latter. Don't aim for outcomes in which you win and they lose. Propose as many win-win scenarios as you can. The next best scenario is actually a lose-lose one.
* Be prepared for consequences: if they feel defeated, they will try anything to get the upper hand again. Take appropriate prior action to protect yourself. Think what they might do and try to be one step ahead.
* Be honest with yourself: know and `own' your own agendas, in particular your own needs for approval and affirmation, as these leave you very open to manipulation.
In dealing with highly manipulative people, fight them, but fight them fairly.