Manipulators are cunning and clever. They often have a good understanding of human psychology, allowing them to coerce you into doing what they want through any means necessary. To be on guard against this, you must first understand the traits of a manipulator.
Being tricked by a manipulator can be significantly harmful to you, so you need to learn how to spot a manipulator and defend yourself against them. Here’s how experts reveal 5 key traits of manipulators and how to stop them.
Five Primary Traits of a Manipulator
Do you feel someone is trying to pull one over on you? Here are five of the most common traits of a manipulator.
1. They Make Unreasonable Requests Or Offers, Presented As Reasonable Ones
Manipulators often try to use the people around them as “tools” to achieve their goals. They might make all sorts of offers to you that are just ways of them disguising their true motive. Their requests will usually be very unreasonable on paper but will be presented so that they sound completely valid.
Some manipulators might be very transparent and obvious when they do this, as they lack the self-awareness necessary to realize that they’re asking for the ridiculous. But the manipulators you have to worry about are aware that what they’re asking for is too much. They might even make their desires sound so reasonable that you’d feel bad for declining. This is a common trick among manipulators – they seek to get something positive in return for deceiving those around them.
Regardless of the traits of the manipulator you’re dealing with, author, professional private coach, and communications expert, Preston Ni, M. S. B. A., recommends turning the focus back to them using probing questions. It can make the manipulator in question suddenly very aware of the disproportion of their requests.
- Do I have any say in this?
- Do you think that sounds reasonable?
- Does this seem fair to you?
- Are you really expecting me to do (ridiculous request)?
- Are you asking or telling me?
- What exactly do I get out of this?
These types of questions force a manipulator to look at themselves in a metaphorical mirror to realize how disproportionate these requests are. It’s enough for most of them to back down.
2. They Present Exaggerated Scenarios That Make You Question Yourself
Exaggeration can be used liberally by any manipulator to get the reaction they want. They exaggerate their experiences or the wrongs that others have done to them. They exaggerate their levels of need for something and exaggerate how “unreasonable” you’d be if you reject them.
Therapist Sharie Stines, whose field of work specializes in toxic relationships and abuse, says that this is called “gaslighting.” It’s a form of manipulation that seeks to make you question your thoughts, reality, or memory, all at once. In short, it can make you feel like you’re going crazy.
Before you begin to question yourself, put on some positive thinking, and pause. Contextualize what’s happening and ask yourself if it’s really what they say it is. According to Ni, the best way to reject such exaggeration is by asking for evidence or proof. If that’s too direct an approach for you, you can stick to the facts instead, constantly redirecting to reality.
Here are some other dos and don’ts:
- Do be clear about the situation at hand, especially if you’re explaining how a manipulator is hurting you to them.
- Don’t bother over-explaining to a manipulator who is hell-bent on misunderstanding you or playing the victim.
- Do provide examples of the manipulator’s behavior towards you.
- Don’t feel the need to demand answers from a manipulator for reasonings behind their
- Do stick to your main point; don’t let yourself be swayed by moving the goalposts, says American Board of Professional Psychology certified psychologist Loren Soeiro, Ph.D.
- Don’t make further excuses for a manipulator who can’t deliver on your basic respect and boundaries.
- Do expect these kinds of discussions to be draining and tiring, so don’t feel obligated to perform them.
3. They Make You Feel Guilty
Manipulators love to make other people feel guilty because it appeals to the natural empathy and kindness that most of the population share. Stines refers to these kinds of manipulators as “the victim” – they act hurt and pretend to be severely affected by you and things around them, even when they’re usually the cause of the problems they act hurt by.
When you don’t agree to help a “victim”-type manipulator, they’ll usually play up their act even further, causing you to feel guilty. You will then experience a sense of obligation that almost compels you to “help” them – but stop right there! You need to understand better what a manipulator is looking for in you to target you this way.
- They recognize that you feel inadequate and try to make you feel like you’d be more adequate if you helped them.
- Often, they try to avoid taking any blame by shifting it onto you so that you help them out of the situation they created
- They know you’re a people-pleaser and will feel guilty if you don’t satisfy them, so they ask you for unreasonable things while preying on the “Yes man” in you.
Of course, you can also feel obligated to help people who aren’t manipulators but are genuinely in need. How can you differentiate between them? Instead of surrendering to these feelings, Ni recommends taking a little moment of self-reflection before making a decision.
- Is what is being asked of me reasonable?
- Do I feel positive about my relationship with this person?
- Is this person treating me with genuine respect?
- Are the expectations being placed on me achievable?
- Is my relationship with this person equal parts give and take, or am I always doing the giving?
Manipulators are notoriously charming, and this charm fuels most of their tactics, according to studies. You might think you’re giving them a kind shot at being nice and kind by opening the door a little for them to state their case before deciding if it’s reasonable. Unfortunately, with the charm they have, just that little gap in the “door” is all a manipulator needs.
Doctoral researcher Jay Olson, whose area of study focuses on manipulation, states that one of the most common manipulation tactics used by manipulators is the “foot-in-the-door” method. Essentially, it involves beginning with a request that sounds extremely reasonable, then slowly and gradually escalates in a way you don’t notice. And even if you do notice, you might be in too deep to say no!
Some examples of this are:
- “Could I let something off my chest?” can escalate into a discussion about how hard they’ve been working and how tired they are, which can turn into “Could you take over my shift on Saturday?”
- “Do you have the time?” can escalate into a conversation about how they’re late, which ultimately results in “Can I borrow 10 bucks for a taxi?”
- “Could I have a piece of that candy?” can escalate into a complaint about how they haven’t eaten all day, which then leads to “I’d really like to have an hour to go and eat a proper meal right now.”
- “Is it okay if I leave five minutes before the end of the meeting?” can escalate into a conversation about their responsibilities for the week, which finally ends in “Could you look after my dog for the next couple of days?”
But this tactic also works in reverse, and a smart manipulator will know if this will work better on you. Instead of starting small, they start ridiculously large, making a request you’re sure to be shocked by and refuse. Then, they work their way down into a smaller request that sounds totally fine after the big one. Ultimately, you don’t notice that the smaller request still isn’t reasonable.
You can call this the “door-in-the-face” method, but it’s ultimately the same concept. One of the key traits of a manipulator is the ability to get you listening to trick you into doing what they want.
Here are some examples of this:
- Requesting a huge sum of money to borrow, then dialing it back to a smaller amount.
- Asking for you to handle a huge amount of their chores, reducing it to just two or three.
- Requesting a very long extension on a deadline, then reducing it to one that sounds less extreme.
How do you stop this? Put on your positive thinking and say “No.” As a human being, you have the right to say “no” when something is asked of you. Be polite but firm in your statement, and don’t allow the manipulator to get any word to counteract your refusal. The “no” is a hard “no,,” and it can’t be negotiated.
5. They Act Like An Expert
Manipulators have to sound like they know what they’re talking about to get the results that they want. Unfortunately for them, most of them don’t, so they have to convince you to look at them in a positive light.
They may achieve this by:
- Talking up their experience and referencing your lack of it, even if that condescension isn’t rooted in the fact
- Drawing arbitrary connections between things you know they’ve done and the knowledge they claim to have, even though those connections don’t necessarily really exist
- Speaking in lengthy monologues that don’t allow you to get any word in, avoiding having to answer any questions that might reveal their lack of expertise
- Masking details and being general to disguise any shaky logic or half-truths
- Engaging in intellectual bullying, according to Ni, where they act like you’re less intelligent because you don’t see the truth in what they say
- Slowing down to condescend to you that you need things dumbed down for you
- Dismissing questions by saying that it’s too complicated to explain to someone who doesn’t have the general background that they have
To counteract this, focus on the facts. As they speak, link their words to what you know is true in your head, and you’ll see the discrepancy fairly quickly. Don’t be afraid to say you’re going to ask for a second opinion, or bring others in to listen, too.
It’s not fun to be on the receiving end of manipulation. But by learning to spot a manipulator and stop their behavior from taking over you, you won’t have to fall victim to their schemes again.