To avoid being thrown for a loop by a cluster of manipulation tactics, sometimes you have to listen out for the kinds of manipulation tactics someone might be using, rather than listening to the details of what they’re saying.
Perhaps you’ve had this experience: you purchase a new program for your computer or an “app” for your smartphone that you really want to have, but it also comes “bundled” with a bunch of junk you don’t want and you don’t completely realize what’s happened until after the fact. Or perhaps you got a new credit card in the mail touting no annual fee and a host of “free” services that you paid little attention to at the time and which seemed like pretty decent perks. But then, because you didn’t think to cancel these services after the “trial period” ended, your no fees card ended up costing you far more money than you ever intended to spend. These kinds of things happen all the time these days and they can leave you feeling more than a little manipulated as well as more than a little angry and frustrated. It’s bad enough when you get manipulated by sweet sounding offers that come in a bundle. It can be even worse when a skilled manipulator “bundles” several tactics together to get the better of you.
As I point out in one of my books (see the end of this article), the tactics manipulators like to use the most are effective because they throw you emotionally on the defensive while simultaneous obscuring clear evidence of their aggressive, exploitative intent. And because no one thinks all that clearly when they’re anxious, emotionally riled, or in a defensive posture, most often you don’t even realize you’ve been had until long after the damage has already been done. So when a manipulator deftly combines tactics, it can really throw you for a loop.
Several years ago I was interviewing a person referred by another therapist who had come to believe the case was impossible. The person, whom I’ll call “Sam” was a most interesting sort. (As always, certain aspects and details of this story have been altered to ensure anonymity.) He appeared to have just enough “neurosis” and charm to make him both likable and possibly quite workable in therapy. He was also extremely skilled in the “art” of what many call “impression management”. In fact, he was so good at it that he didn’t even have to think about it. It was second nature to him and his use of tactics was both smooth and “automatic.” He could throw so many at you at once that if you weren’t really careful, you were bound to be misled.
Now, I literally “wrote the book” on manipulators and their tactics. So I really should have known better. But I made some big mistakes in my initial dealings with Sam. For one thing, against all the advice I’ve given folks, I actually listened to him. Now this might seem an odd statement for a therapist to make, especially in light of the fact that above and beyond all else, we’re supposed to be the “good listeners.” But there’s a much different skill required when you’re dealing with disturbed characters, especially manipulative types: you have to listen more for the kinds of things they say — i.e., be alert to the kind of tactics they’re likely employing — as opposed to blindly listening to the things they say, lest you inadvertently buy in to their manipulative agenda.
I asked Sam what I thought to be a fairly innocuous question about what drew him to the woman (who we’ll call “Mary”) with whom he’d recently become involved. Without fully realizing at the moment all that he was doing and why, Sam unleashed a barrage of tactics, which I’ve commented on below in parentheses:
Mary had been dropping hints for some time that she was interested in me (diverting attention from himself and his intentions and focusing attention externally), but I wasn’t fully over what happened to me with Laura (playing the wounded party), so I was hesitant to get involved. I certainly didn’t want her to think I was after her money (Mary had come into a rather large inheritance) so I played it cool on purpose (feigning conscientiousness). But she kept after me so much, I thought I might just give things a chance. Perhaps I worry too much. A lot of my friends say I worry too much about things. Do you think I worry too much? Is that like an illness or something? I think it could be, especially if you do it all the time (digressing from the topic and casting himself as an overly anxious, “neurotic” type). Do you think I might need medicine for that?
What would become clear much later is why Sam went through all the trouble to cast himself and his situation the way he did. He had actually learned of Mary’s financial status through a friend at work, and having blown hundreds of thousands of dollars on many wild and failed “get rich schemes,” he pulled out all the stops to endear himself to Mary. He was in the process of taking her to the cleaners when I met him, which is why it was so important for him to cast the impression he did. Sam is a predator. He was going out of his way to cast himself as anything but. I might have been clued in to his true identity a lot earlier if I’d paid attention to the feeling in my gut when he was firing off all his tactics. If I’d listened for the tactics instead of to the dribble he was spewing, I would have caught on to him much sooner.
It’s very rare that manipulators use their tactics in isolation. They most often combine at least two or three together. Some tactics go naturally together, such as denial of personal culpability and blaming others, casting oneself as a victim and vilifying the true victim, etc. Sometimes they package a “cluster bomb” of sorts of multiple tactics to really disarm you. When for some reason your gut starts to churn as you’re listening to their “spiel” you really need to take a step back and pay close attention to the dirty little details in their “bundled” offerings.
For more on these topics, see my Series on Manipulation Tactics and my books and articles:
- “Beware the Covert-Aggressive Personality”
- “Psychopathy and the Art of Impression Management”
- “Impression Management and Arrogance: The Prideful Thinking of the Disordered Character”
- In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?)
- Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?)
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by