Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to a
Controlling/Manipulative Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/manipulate.htm

Updated  04-30-2013

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your  primary needs met well enough, and both people feel heard and respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone you believe is addicted to something. It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.


      How would you define "manipulation" to an average young teen? Remember the last time you felt manipulated or controlled by someone? How did you feel - resentful? Irritated? Torn? Anxious? Disrespected? Angry? Combative? Submissive? Numb? How did you respond?

      Let's say that "manipulation" occurs when a person tries to get someone to do something that the second person is reluctant to do. The direct (respectful) way to d this is to request "Will you do _____ for me?" That leaves the other person free to say "No," or "Not now."

      Several factors determine how manipulation feels to you:

  • do you feel genuinely respected by the other person?

  • is s/he open and direct, aggressive and self-focused, or seem dishonest and insincere?

  • does s/he use guilt, desire, rank, or fear to induce you to act?

  • does the requested or implied thing reduce your security and/or self respect (violate your integrity)?

  • does s/he ask you to keep something secret from others?

  • does s/he genuinely listen to your response, or discount or ignore it?

  • do you trust the other person's motives and behaviors?

  • are you apt to lose something of value if you say or imply "No."?

  • is s/he rigid, or open to compromise and problem-solving?

  • is she asking you to enable him or her (avoid something unpleasant)?

  • does s/he deny any of these factors or try to justify them?

  • does something else make you uncomfortable about the person and/or their behavior?

  • is your true Self responding to the other person, or ''someone else.''  

      The mix of factors like these will determine how you feel about the person and their manipulative behavior. Most people are not self-aware enough to reflect and identify all these factors.

Bottom line - when you  decide someone is trying to manipulate (con, deceive, or control) you, you'll feel somewhere between OK and very uncomfortable. When you're "significantly uncomfortable," is there a best way to respond? See what you think...

Response Options 

      Each of these may take a few seconds, and will become automatic with practice...

  • breathe well, and mentally acknowledge that you're feeling manipulated or controlled. Avoid blameful thoughts like "You're trying to manipulate me."

  • mentally review these general options until they become automatic;

  • consider that other person doesn't know how to approach you honestly because of some fear that you're not responsible for

  • check your attitude about the other person. If you feel mutual respect and compassion, go ahead. If not, suspect a false self is controlling you, and lower your expectations;

  • mentally remind yourself of your personal rights as a dignified, worthy person, and these wise guidelines.  

  • breathe well, and become aware of your thoughts and specific feelings;

  • decide what outcome you seek from your response - to inform, to vent, to set a boundary, or something else;

  • choose one or more of these responses as appropriate:

    • respectful empathic listening: "So you feel / think / want / ___________." Remind yourself this is not agreeing!

    • a respectful two-part ''I'' message. "When you (factually describe their behavior), I feel ______________." Expect "resistance" (like excuses, protests, denials, blame, etc) and acknowledge it calmly with a hearing check. Then restate your assertion with steady eye contact. Repeat this sequence as needed.

    • a question, like "What do you need from me right now?" Use empathic listening to affirm (not agree with) the response.

    • a factual observation, like "Seems like you need me to _______________." If you get an affirmation, you can (a) say nothing or (b) respond - agree, refuse, problem-solve, vent, question, etc. If you get "No, I need _____." use empathic listening, and decide what you need now.

    • ask permission - "(Name), are you open to some personal feedback?" Most people will say "OK" out of curiosity or politeness.

    • a confrontation, like "(Name), feel like you're trying to get me to __________, and you're not able to be honest and direct about owning that. When you choose not to be direct, I lose respect for / interest in / patience with you." Expect "resistance/s, and respond with calm hearing checks as needed.

  • Avoid getting into a lose-lose "I'm right! <> No, I'M right!" spiral with the other person. Keep your true Self in charge, and use calm, respectful hearing checks and assertions instead. 

  • If your response fills your need/s, affirm yourself. If it doesn't, review your shared process, and decide what to do differently the next time. 

      Stay aware that many manipulative (wounded) people are unaware of their covert need to control others, and will probably deny that. Other people are aware of trying to deceive or control you, and will vigorously deny it because doing so is socially shameful.

      Can you think of a manipulative adult or child in your life now? if so, recall how you usually respond to them. Then mentally role-play responses like those above, and imagine (a) how they'd react, and (b) how you'd feel.

      Finally - ask yourself and maybe trusted others if you ever seem manipulative or controlling. If so, that's probably due to a well-intentioned false self controlling you. See Lesson 1 for options!


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common social behaviors. This article offers options for responding effectively to a significantly-manipulative (controlling) person. The options are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a genuine mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights; and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

Also see response options to dishonest or phony, distrusted,and disrespectful people

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      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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