In Praise of Manipulation

When we hear the word “manipulative,” it is usually a pejorative word used in a context like “that person is manipulative, I don’t want to help them” or “stop being so manipulative!”  People misunderstand that the real problem is not that a person is manipulative, but rather that the person in question is terrible at being manipulative.

This seems counterintuitive, so let me explain.  First, let’s define our term.  The dictionary will tell you that to manipulate people is to influence them to do what you want them to do with indifference to how it affects them.  That doesn’t sound good, but the reality is that when most people are being “manipulative,” they are often not motivated by indifference but rather are trying to get their needs met and are unskilled in doing so in a socially appropriate way.  

Now, stop reading this for a second and think about what are your top five personality qualities, the things about who you are that you are most proud of. Done?  Is “good at manipulation” one of those top qualities?  I’m guessing the answer is no.  We are taught that to be manipulative is bad, and indeed the strict definition is not positive.  What qualities did you come up with?  You are…kind? trustworthy? generous? forgiving?  I would argue that to be any of these things is to be skilled at a kind of socially appropriate manipulation.  When I meet a client in my office for the first time, we usually exchange pleasantries, we smile at each other, say “hello,” maybe shake hands, and these behaviors are all small ways of attempting to influence each other.  From my end, these are ways of trying to show my client that I am friendly, respectful, and that I want them to like me. That’s good for business!  From the client’s end, they want to appear friendly and respectful so that I will want to help them with whatever their problem is.  We are each trying to influence and “manipulate” each other to meet our respective needs, but we don’t think of it in those terms, instead we just think, “I’m being friendly.”  And the other person doesn’t feel influenced or manipulated because, as socially skilled people, we both know how to influence other people with enough subtlety and respect for the other person’s feelings so that they don’t feel used or abused.  

When people are not good at being manipulative, their attempts to meet their needs often come across as selfish, inconsiderate, even hurtful.  This is most often true for children, teenagers, immature adults, and adults who have chronic mental health problems.  Take for example a teenager who ignores everyone in the family but isn’t shy about asking for spending money for the weekend.  This causes the parents to feel manipulated by the teenager, and their impulse is to say “no” to the demand.  The teenager’s need is not the problem, wanting spending money is perfectly appropriate, but it is the way in which the teenager tries to get that need met that is inappropriate.  We want to be shown respect and gratitude before being asked to sacrifice something, like money, because it makes us feel like our sacrifice is recognized and appreciated.  If the teenager in question would interact with the rest of the family, that shows respect and caring, which makes it okay to then ask for money.  The basic rule of healthy socialization is: “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”  When people want their own back scratched but don’t want to scratch our own back, it feels manipulative and we don’t want to help anymore.  Consequently, the other person doesn’t get a back scratch, or the teenager doesn’t get the spending money, or whatever, and the person’s needs go unmet.  This is why I say being manipulative is really a misnomer: unskilled manipulation often leads to the person being unable to get his or her needs met, so the attempt to manipulate is totally ineffective, and, thus, not very manipulative.  What do we call effective manipulation?  We call it: good social skills!

So, in the future, when you are dealing with a person and they are acting in a way that you feel is “manipulative” and that makes you feel like not wanting to help them, try to have a little compassion for that person.  Most likely, whatever the person wants is not the problem, it is the way they are going about trying to get it.  He or she is trying to be to influence, to manipulate, but failing miserably.  If appropriate, you may want to try to point this out to them, and explain to them why you are saying “no” and, most importantly, offer an example of what they could do so that you would say “yes.”  This is a way of teaching good social skills, or, in other words, how to be an effective manipulator.