Tactics that Manipulators Use to Influence and Control

Darlene Lancer LMFT

Hand pulling puppet strings of manipulationDarlene Lancer

We all want to get our needs met, but manipulators use underhanded methods. Manipulation is a way to covertly influence someone with indirect, deceptive, or abusive tactics. Manipulation may seem benign or even friendly or flattering as if the person has your highest concern in mind. In reality, it’s to achieve an ulterior motive.

Sometimes, it’s veiled hostility. It can be abusive when the objective is simply power. You may not realize that you’re being intimidated. If you grew up being manipulated, it’s harder to discern what’s going on, because it feels familiar.

You might have a gut feeling of discomfort or anger, although on the surface the manipulator is using words that are pleasant, ingratiating, or reasonable or that play on your guilt or sympathy. Many people override their instincts and don’t know what to say.

Manipulative Tactics

Favorite weapons of manipulators are guilt, complaining, comparing, lying, denying (including excuses and rationalizations), feigning ignorance, or innocence (the “Who me!?” defense), blame, bribery, undermining, mind games, assumptions, “foot-in-the-door,” reversals, emotional blackmail, evasiveness, forgetting, fake concern, sympathy, apologies, flattery, and gifts and favors.

Manipulators often use guilt by saying directly or through implication, “After all I’ve done or you,” or chronically behaving needy and or helpless. They may compare you negatively to someone else or rally imaginary allies to their cause, stating that, “Everyone,” or “Even your brother thinks XYZ,” or “says XYZ about you.”

Some manipulators deny promises, agreements, or conversations, or start an argument and blame you for something you didn’t do to get sympathy and power. This approach can be used to break a date, promise, or agreement. Addicts routinely deny, lie, and manipulate to protect their addiction.

Parents routinely manipulate with bribery – everything from, “Finish your dinner to get dessert,” to “No video games until your homework is done,” but this isn’t done with aggressive intent, but to encourage children to do the right thing. It’s far different if a narcissistic parent manipulates to belittle or undermine a child.

Manipulators often voice assumptions about your intentions or beliefs and then react to them as if they were true in order to justify their feelings or actions, all the while denying what you said in the conversation. For example, your spouse might falsely accuse you of still having feelings for your ex, and then retaliate with threats or a refusal to attend an event important to you. Another manipulation is to act as if something has been agreed upon or decided when it hasn’t in order to avoid your input or objection.

The “foot-in-the-door” technique is making a small request that you agree to, which is followed by the real request. It’s harder to say no because you’ve already said yes. The reversal turns your words around to mean something you didn’t intend. When you object, manipulators turn the tables on you and act like the injured party. Now it’s about them and their complaints, and now you’re on the defensive. Fake concern is sometimes used to undermine your decisions and confidence in the form of warnings or worry about you. See The Covert Tactics Manipulators Use to Control and Confuse You.

Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail is abusive manipulation that may include the use of rage, intimidation, threats, shame, or guilt. Shaming you instills self-doubt to make you feel insecure. It can in a compliment: “I’m surprised that you of all people you’d stoop to that!” A classic ploy is to frighten you with threats, anger, accusations, or dire warnings, such as, “At your age, you’ll never meet anyone else if you leave,” or “The grass isn’t any greener,” or playing the victim: “I’ll die without you.”

Blackmailers may also frighten you with anger, so you sacrifice your needs and wants. If that doesn’t work, they sometimes suddenly switch to a lighter mood. Now you’re so relieved that you’re willing to agree to whatever is asked. They might bring up something you feel guilty or ashamed about from the past as leverage to threaten or shame you, such as, “I’ll tell the children about you if you don't do what I want.”

Victims of blackmailers with certain personality disorders, such as borderline anti-social or narcissistic personality disorders, are prone to experience a psychological FOG, which stands for Fear, Obligation, and Guilt, an acronym created by Susan Forward. The victim is made to feel afraid to cross the manipulator, feels obligated to comply with his or her request, and feels too guilty not to do so. Shame and guilt can be used directly with put-downs or accusations that you’re “selfish” (the worse vice to many codependents) or that “You only think of yourself,” “You don’t care about me,” or that “You have it so easy.”


Passive-aggressive behavior can also be used to manipulate. When you have trouble saying no, you might agree to things you don’t want to, and then get your way by forgetting, being late, or doing it half-heartedly. Typically, passive-aggression is a way of expressing hostility. Forgetting “on purpose” conveniently avoids what you don’t want to do and gets back at your partner–like forgetting to pick up your spouse’s clothes from the cleaners. Sometimes, this is done unconsciously, but it’s still a way of expressing anger. More hostile is offering desserts to your dieting partner.

How to Handle Manipulators

The first step is to know whom you’re dealing with. Manipulators know your triggers! Study their tactics and learn their favorite weapons. Build your self-esteem and self-respect. This is your best defense! Also, learn to be assertive and set boundaries. Read my ebook or watch a webinar on how to be assertive and set limits. For techniques and scripts for dealing with difficult people, read Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People. Contact me at info@darlenelancer.com to join my mailing list and receive a free report “14 Strategies to Handle Manipulators.”

© DarleneLancer 2014

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Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert author on relationships, narcissism, and codependency. She’s counseled individuals and couples for over 30 years and coaches internationally. Her books include "Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You," "Dating, Loving, and Leaving a Narcissist - Essential Tools for Improving or Leaving Narcissistic and Abusive Relationships," and "Codependency for Dummies," plus seven ebooks, webinars, and other resource materials. Her books are available on Amazon, other online booksellers and her website, www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”

Los Angeles, CA

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