Psychological manipulation is any action that’s designed to help someone accomplish their own agenda through deceptive or otherwise shady tactics. It usually involves creating a power imbalance within the relationship or interaction — and isn’t all that uncommon.
“Most of us have to deal with it on a regular basis, from untrustworthy relationships to commercial advertising and political rhetoric,” said Preston Ni, communication coach, professor of communication studies at Foothill College, and author of "How to Successfully Handle Manipulative People.”
The pervasiveness of manipulation can make it difficult to distinguish from persuasion. But there is a key difference, Ni said. “Healthy social influence occurs between most people, and is part of the give-and-take of constructive relationships. In psychological manipulation, one person is used for the benefit of another.”
To help you figure out if you’re being manipulated, here are four signs it’s happening to you (and ways to stop it):
Exaggeration is a common trick used by manipulators, Ni explained in a post in Psychology Today. If you aren’t comfortable with a direct approach, you can counteract this attempt at manipulation by focusing on the facts, as well as asking for more information and sources, he wrote.
Some manipulators resort to scare tactics to get others to go along with their plan, Ni told Business Insider. This could involve anything from saying things that play into a fear of rejection or monetary losses to threats of bodily harm or backlash if the other person goes against their wishes.
This can create a heightened sense of danger, so it may make sense to use less direct methods to de-escalate the situation, like finding a way to end the conversation or, if possible, moving to a more public location.
Though this is less subtle than other manipulation tactics, Ni said it’s not uncommon for a manipulator to attempt to establish control over the situation by constantly reminding others of their own importance and power. This helps them seem more dominant while putting the other person at a disadvantage. It can help to respond by asserting your own importance, thereby levelling the playing field.
When people know their argument is based on shaky logic, half-truths, or lies, they may try to position themselves as an expert and mask the details so you don’t have the time context to recognise their deception. It’s a form of “intellectual bullying” that Ni wrote about in an article for Psychology Today.
One subtle way around this is asking the person if he or she can backtrack and slow things down so that you understand their argument more fully or have time to digest what just happened.
If you suspect that you’re being manipulated, Ni recommended asking yourself a few questions: "What may be the real motive of this person or message?” "Who benefits from this?” and “Who gets taken advantage of?" Negative or uncertain answers could mean you’re dealing with a manipulator. The next step, however, is up to you.
“Most people have the power to reduce or stop the machinations of a manipulator in specific situations,” Ni said. “Awareness, well-considered responses, and utilising assertive communication skills when necessary are keys to avoid becoming victimised.”
You can stop manipulation by directly calling it out, saying “no,” and reasserting your power. However, that kind of assertiveness can come with negative repercussions, so it’s important to make sure it’s the right move for you before responding.
If you don’t feel comfortable addressing manipulative behavior head on, talk to someone you know and trust, and if necessary, contact the appropriate authorities to help you figure out how to proceed.