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Are You Manipulative?

by Kim Ades October 19, 2015

1. To manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner: to manipulate people’s feelings.
2. To handle, manage, or use, especially with skill, in some process of treatment or performance: to manipulate a large tractor.
3. To adapt or change (accounts, figures, etc.) to suit one’s purpose or advantage.

The first and third definitions of “manipulation” sound evil, devious, and underhanded. When thinking about myself, I would not categorize myself as manipulative. I am a good person. I do good deeds for others. I only want what’s best. My intentions are pure, and I would not jeopardize my relationships by being manipulative.

But I am manipulative nearly every day – without even consciously intending it – and so are you.

Let me give you some examples of manipulation that surround me on a day to day basis…

-The sign I have above my sink that reads, “Thank you for doing your dishes, I appreciate it!”

-The hint that my husband dropped on his mother that there might be a better home for her massive dining room table some day (“do you know how many kids we have – and how many friends they have?”).

-The dinner that my CEO client invited a new prospect to attend in order to make a good impression.

Those examples are purely self-serving. Being manipulative is our way of attempting to make the world work the way we’d like it to. That said, it’s a tactic we use to make life more fluid and peaceful, and one we often believe is not meant to hurt anyone.

In many cases, we manipulate because we believe it’s in the best interests of those around us. Here are some examples of manipulation for “noble” reasons…

-In an attempt to get her child motivated to finish her work she says, “if you finish your homework quickly, we can play a board game.”

-In an attempt to make sure that his aging grandmother feels valuable he says, “Nana, you make the best apple pie. Make one for me and I will come by tomorrow and have tea with you.”

-In an attempt to increase the productivity of her team, she creates a contest offering a free iPod to whoever builds the most widgets during the week.

While all of these examples sound fairly benign, and even perhaps positive, their intention is to elicit a certain type of behavior or characteristic from someone else. What’s wrong with that you may ask?

Let’s look at the above examples a little more carefully…

When a parent feels the need to motivate a child to do his homework, what does that parent see in their child?

When a grandson tries to make his grandmother feel good by strategically coordinating a pie date, what does he think about her ability to live an engaging and fulfilling life on her own terms?

Lastly, when an entrepreneur fabricates a competition to motivate employees to work more effectively, what is the premise that he or she is making about their intrinsic motivation, and what kind of culture are they building?

The problem with manipulation is not that it’s an evil, underhanded practice, but rather that it places the burden of a peaceful, easy and flowing life on other people’s behavior.

And of course, when people don’t play out their parts exactly how we’ve imagined them in the movies of our mind, we often allow ourselves to become disappointed, disgruntled, despondent, angry and frustrated.

We cannot control other people, not even through manipulation. But we can control our thoughts about them. Instead of trying to change those around us with subtle cues and noble manipulative tactics, why not be direct and tell them what we actually want? And when we witness the behaviors we desire, why not acknowledge them?

By focusing on people’s strengths, we begin to witness more of their strengths, and they will naturally grow as a result.

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