Spotting Manipulation Before It’s Too Late

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Dealing with manipulative people can be a lot like getting whiplash: you only know the nature of what’s really transpired long after the damage has already been done.

Manipulators count on the good nature of the folks they exploit. They count on the fact that you’ll take them at their word and give them the benefit of the doubt. That’s largely how they manage to take advantage of you — using your own conscientiousness against you. Manipulative people also tend to rely on a few tried and true tactics to pull the wool over your eyes, and once you get good at recognizing these tactics, it’s harder for them to bamboozle you.

Come this September, my breakthrough book on manipulative people In Sheep’s Clothing will have been in print in one form or another for 20 years, a landmark for a book of its kind. Unbelievably, it has also continued to be a bestseller and is now published in over 10 foreign languages. I’d like to think that has largely to do with the no-nonsense approach I tried to take in unmasking not only the true character of manipulators but also the tactics they most often use to take advantage of others. The character disturbed individuals I’d encountered in my therapy practice over the years and their victims taught me a lot. I first had to do away with biases I’d brought with me from my professional training. Once I cast off old notions about what makes people do the things they do and began taking a more objective look at what was going on, my eyes were opened as to what manipulators are really like and how they operate. Manipulators are particularly skilled in not just getting the better of you but also knowing how to still look good while doing it. I refer to this as the art of “impression management.” Once you know the things to look for, it’s easier to see things for what they are.

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It’s been a while since I wrote a series of articles on common manipulation tactics and because it takes some time to familiarize yourself with the kinds of distorted thinking and tactical maneuvers manipulators use to advance their hidden agendas, I’ll outline a few basic rules that should prove helpful in spotting someone’s attempt to manipulate before they actually get the better of you:

Beware of nice sounding words.
Manipulators are the consummate seducers. They know what you want to hear and are more than happy to say whatever it takes to get you under their influence. It’s a sad commentary on present day culture, but you simply can’t take anyone’s sweet words at face value. You always have to ask yourself: “Okay, they’re really pouring it on here, so what is it they really want?” When you have a reasonable idea what they’re after, you have to make a completely objective assessment of whether or not it’s in your best interest to go along. You have to make a sort of “What’s in it for them?” and “What’s in it for me?” assessment when someone’s trying to sway you and the make the decision that keeps your own best interests at heart.
Be conscious of answers that sound like answers but really aren’t.
Manipulators are particularly adept at dodging questions and sidestepping issues. When you confront them on something they might well give you an answer that on the surface seems like an explanation, until you pause and reflect on it a bit. Manipulators are great at giving only partial answers, half-truths, and also at omitting crucial details. Take both a little time and a step back to really listen not just to the words someone is saying but for the clues in those words that might suggest they’re engaged in a bit of fast talk or double-talk. Heightening your awareness to these attempts to snow you can save you mounds of trouble down the road.
Remember that actions speak louder than words.
One of the most important “tools of empowerment” I advance in all my books is to avoid speculating on people’s intentions and judge only their actions. Don’t be swayed by what someone promises they’ll do, and don’t speculate about the motives that might underlie something they’ve done. Rather, judge actions alone and the character of the person you’re dealing with on the basis of their behavioral track record. We know solidly from research that the very best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Talk, as they say, is cheap. A person’s behavioral history tells the real story of who they are as a person.
Beware of the many ways to “deflect” responsibility.
When they sense they’re being cornered, manipulators always try to shift the blame (through tactics I describe in In Sheep’s Clothing like scapegoating, rationalizing, externalizing, etc.). Some manipulators are even so brazen as to start off saying something like “I take full responsibility” just before launching into a slick litany of excuses that shift the blame onto others and circumstances beyond their control. If you buy into any of these excuses, you’re likely on your way to being successfully manipulated.

I’ve heard from thousands of individuals over the years who say that in hindsight they can see clearly how someone managed to manipulate them. By the time they gained awareness they’d generally lost a lot and suffered a great deal. The trick to avoiding victimization is to spot the signs early that someone has an angle to pursue and that you’re the target of that effort. To do so, you really have to be well grounded in the various character types and how to recognize not only them but also the telltale behaviors and tactics each tends to use to get the better of you. That’s why I wrote my books and many of the articles on this site. The key to saving yourself a lot of heartache is not to reflect upon what’s happened after a manipulator or other disturbed character has had their way with you, but rather to spot their fancy footwork from the get go and stop them in their tracks.

For more on these topics, see the article series I mentioned, as well as:

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 on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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