3 Ways to Pick Up on Manipulative Behavior - wikiHow

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3-02-2024, 03:10
Manipulation refers to making attempts at indirectly influencing someone else's behavior or actions. Manipulation itself is not necessarily good or bad: a person can try to manipulate a person to help a worthy cause, or make a person do something illegal. But manipulation is never straightforward, often preying on our weak spots, so it makes it difficult to see manipulative behaviors. The controlling aspects linked to manipulation are sometimes very subtle and may be easily overlooked, buried under feelings of obligation, love, or habit. You can recognize the signs and avoid being a victim.

Watching Their Behavior

  1. Notice if the person always wants you to speak first. Manipulative people want to listen to what you have to say so they can find out your strengths and weaknesses. They will ask you probing questions so that you will talk about your personal opinions and feelings. These questions usually begin with "What," "Why," or "How." Their responses and actions are based on the information you have given them.
    • Always wanting you to speak first should not be considered manipulation on its own. Take into consideration the other things the person does as well.
    • The manipulative person will not reveal much personal information during these conversations but focus on you instead.
    • If this behavior happens in the majority of the conversations you have with them, it may be a sign of manipulation.
    • Although it may feel like genuine interest, keep in mind that there may be a hidden agenda behind all this questioning. If you try to get to know the person, and or they refuse to answer questions or quickly changes the subject, it may be not be genuine interest.
  2. Notice if the person uses charm as a tool to accomplish things. Some people are naturally charming, but a manipulator uses charm to get something. This person may compliment someone before making a request. They may give a small gift or card before asking or say they will do a favor to get the other person to do something.
    • For example, someone may cook a nice dinner and be very sweet before asking the other person for money or help with a project.
    • Be aware that while this sort of behavior is often quite harmless, you are not under any obligation to do something just because someone did something nice for you.
  3. Look out for coercive behavior. Manipulators will persuade people to do something using force or threats. They may yell at a person, criticize a person, or threaten a person to get him to do something. The person might begin by saying, "If you do not do this, I will ___" or "I won't ___, until you ____." A manipulator will use this tactic to not only get a person to do something, but also to get them to stop doing a certain behavior.
  4. Be aware of how the person handles facts. If a person manipulates facts or tries to overwhelm you with facts and information, they could be trying to manipulate you. Facts may be manipulated by lying, withholding information, exaggerating, or making excuses. Someone may also act like an expert on a subject and bombard you with facts and statistics. The person does this to feel more powerful than you.
  5. Notice if a person is always a martyr or victim. This person may do things that you did not ask them to, and then hold it over your head. They want to make you feel indebted to them so they can pressure you into doing things for them. If you ask for their help or try to set a boundary, they will twist it to play the victim or act like they can't give you what you need.
    • If a person talks about having a real-life issue like mental illness, notice when they bring it up. Are they doing this because they want to confide in you? Or does this tend to come up the minute you ask for a favor or say something they don't approve of?
    • Most struggling people will try to improve their lives. A manipulative person is unlikely to do so because they like having a convenient excuse.
    • A manipulator may also complain and say, "I'm so unloved/sick/victimized, etc." in an effort to gain your sympathy and to get you to do things for them.
  6. Consider whether their kindness is conditional. They might be sweet and kind to you if you do a certain task well enough, but all heck breaks loose if you dare do it wrong. This type of manipulator seems to have two faces: one angelic one for when they want you to like them, and one awful one for when they want you to fear them. Everything seems fine until you fail their expectations.
    • You may be walking on eggshells, afraid to make them angry.
  7. Observe patterns of behavior. All people engage in manipulative behavior at times. However, people who are manipulators engage in this behavior on a regular basis. A manipulator has a personal agenda and intentionally tries to exploit another person for power, control, and privileges at the other person's expense. If these behaviors are happening on a regular basis, this person may be a manipulator.
    • When you are being manipulated, your rights or interests are often compromised and are not important to the other person.
    • You may feel caught in a "FOG" of Fear, Obligation, and Guilt.
  8. Understand how different conditions can affect someone's behavior in ways that can be misunderstood. Some people struggle in ways that could be misread as manipulation. However, the person may be doing their best to get along well with you. Check if there's a well-meaning explanation before jumping to a conclusion.
    • People with mental illnesses may experience thought distortions in which they turn things much more negative than they are. This unhealthy and bad, but not necessarily an attempt to manipulate you.
    • Disabled and neurodivergent people may "disappear" without intending anything personal. They may be recovering from a challenge and in need of extra rest. Some, especially those with ADHD, may struggle with answering message.
    • People who struggle with social skills may get accused of manipulation when they're just trying to figure out what to do or how to handle an unmet need. They may not know how to express themselves, leading to confusing behavior.

Examining Your Communication

  1. Notice if you are made to feel inadequate or judged. A common technique is to pick on you and ridicule you to make you feel inadequate. No matter what you do, this person can always find something wrong. Nothing you do will be good enough. Instead of offering any helpful suggestions or constructive criticism, the person only points out the negative things about you.
    • This can also be accomplished through sarcasm or mean jokes. A manipulator may make jokes anything, from your appearance to your skills. These mean "jokes" are jabs at you, and if you ask them to knock it off, they won't care that it bothers you.
    • Some manipulative people alternate between praise and insults to keep you off balance.
  2. Notice if you are getting the silent treatment. A manipulator uses silence to gain control. They may intentionally ignore phone calls, text messages, and emails in order to punish you. This is done to make you feel uncertainty or to punish you because you have "done something wrong". The "silent treatment" is different than just taking some time to cool off and then re-connect; it is used as a way to try to make the other person feel powerless.
    • The silent treatment may be provoked by your actions, but may be unprovoked. If a manipulative person wants to make the other person feel insecure, randomly cutting all communication works well.
    • If you ask the person the reason for the silence, they may deny that anything is wrong or tell you that you are being paranoid or unreasonable.
  3. Recognize a guilt trip. A guilt trip seeks to make you feel responsible for the manipulator's behavior. It also puts you in control of the other person's emotions: happiness, failure, or success, anger, and the like. You will end up feeling obligated to carry out things for his sake even if it is unreasonable.
    • Guilt trips are usually prefaced with statements like, "If you were more understanding, you'd..." or "If you really love me you'd..." or, "I did this for you, why won't you do this for me?" (For something you did not ask for).
    • If you find yourself agreeing to things that you normally would not or things that make you uncomfortable, you may be a victim of manipulation.
  4. Notice if you are always apologizing. A manipulator can flip a situation to make it feel like you have done something wrong. This can be done by blaming you for something that you did not do or making you feel responsible for a situation. For example, if you ask someone why they showed up incredibly late, they might say "You're right. I never do anything right. I don't know why you still talk to me. I don't deserve to have you in my life." The person has now made you feel sympathy for them and changed the nature of the conversation.
    • A manipulator may intentionally misinterpret your words in the worst way, making it feel like you can't fix a situation no matter how hard you try.
  5. Be aware if the person is always comparing you to other people. In an effort to get you to do something, a person may tell you that you do not measure up to other people. They may also tell you that you will look dumb if you do not do it. This is done to make you feel guilty and to pressure you into doing what they have asked you to do.
    • "Anyone else would __," or, "If I asked Mary, she would do it," or, "Everyone else thinks this is okay except you," are all ways to get you to do something by comparison.
  6. Think about their goals. A manipulator wants to avoid responsibility and doesn't want to change. They'll jump through a lot of hoops to maintain control of a situation.
    • Are they willing to work together to solve problems, or do they expect you to do everything each time?
    • Think about how much control they want over things that don't directly affect them. For example, there's a big difference between "turn down your loud music because it's hurting my ears" and "you can never play music, even if it's quiet and you close the door."

Dealing with a Manipulative Person

  1. Know that it's all right to say "no." A person will continue to manipulate you as long as you allow him to. You need to say "no" to protect your well being. Look in the mirror and practice saying, "No, I cannot help you with that," or, "No, that isn't going to work for me." You must stand up for yourself, and you deserve to be treated with respect.
    • You should not feel guilty about saying "no." It is your right to do so.
    • You can politely say no. When a manipulator asks you to do something, try: "I'd love to, but I'm too busy in the upcoming months," or, "Thanks for asking, but no."
  2. Set boundaries. The manipulator who finds everything unfair and falls to pieces, they are attempting to gain your sympathy in order to use it to further their own needs. In this case, the manipulator will rely on a sense of "helplessness" and will seek financial, emotional, or other forms of help from you. Look out for attitudes and comments like, "You are the only one I have," and "I have no one else to talk to," etc. You are not obligated or equipped to meet this person's needs all of the time.
    • If the person says, "I have no one else to talk to," try countering with concrete examples:
      • "Remember yesterday when Grace came over to talk to you all afternoon? And Sally's said she's more than happy to listen over the phone whenever you need a sounding board. I'm happy to talk to you for the next five minutes but after that, I have an appointment I cannot miss."
  3. Avoid blaming yourself. The manipulator will try to make you feel inadequate. Remember that you are being manipulated to feel bad about yourself, and you are not the problem. When you begin to feel bad about yourself, recognize what is happening and put your feelings in check.
    • Ask yourself, "Is the person treating me with respect?" "Does this person have reasonable requests and expectations of me?" "Is this a one-sided relationship?" "Do I feel good about myself in this relationship?"
    • If the answer to these questions is "no," the manipulator is likely the problem in the relationship, not you.
  4. Be assertive. Manipulators often twist and distort facts to make themselves appear more attractive. When responding to a fact distortion, seek clarification. Explain that this is not how you remembered the facts and that you're curious to get a better understanding. Ask the person simple questions about when you both agreed to an issue, how they believed the approach was formed, etc. When you meet on common ground again, take this as the new starting point, not their distorted one. For example:
    • The person says, "You never back me up in those meetings; you're only in it for your own gains and you're always leaving me to the sharks."
    • You respond with, "I believed that you were ready to talk to the investors about your own ideas. If I had thought you were in trouble, I'd have stepped in, but I thought you did a brilliant job by yourself."
  5. Listen to yourself. It is very important to listen to yourself and how you feel about the situation. Do you feel oppressed, pressured, obliged to do things for this person that you'd rather not do? Does his behavior seem to impact you endlessly, so that after one form of assistance, you are expected to grant yet more help and support? Your answers should serve as a true guide to where your relationship with this person is headed next.
  6. Curtail the guilt trip. One of the key things to keep in mind when escaping the guilt trip bind is that the sooner you nip it in the bud, the better. Take a return-to-sender approach with guilt trips and don't let the person's interpretation of your behavior determine the situation. This approach involves taking what the manipulator has said and telling them how they are being disrespectful, inconsiderate, unrealistic, or unkind. Here are some examples of nipping it in the bud:
    • "I sure do care about the hard work you've done for me. I've said as much many times. Now it seems to me that you don't appreciate how much I care."
    • "I do know that you're going through a lot. That doesn't change the fact that I need to go to class. Maybe you could talk to someone else, or go through a few of those mental health resources I sent you."
    • "Yes, I know you're struggling. But I'm not responsible for you. I am not available after 8 pm, and you'll need to call someone else."
  7. Put the focus on the manipulative person and their behavior. Instead of allowing the manipulator to ask you questions and make demands, take control of the situation. When you are asked or being pressured into doing something unreasonable or that makes you uncomfortable, ask the person some probing questions.
    • Ask the person, "Does that seem fair to me?" "Do you really think this is reasonable?" "How will this help/benefit me?" "How do you think this makes me feel?"
    • These questions may cause the manipulator to back down.
  8. Do not make any quick decisions. A manipulator may try to pressure you into making a quick decision or demand a quick response. Instead of giving in, tell the person, "I'll think about it." This will keep you from agreeing to something that you do not really want to do or backing yourself into a corner.
    • If an offer disappears if you take time to think, then it may be because you wouldn't do it if you had time to think. If they're pushing you to make a split-second decision, the best answer is likely a "no thanks."
  9. Build your support network. Focus on your healthier relationships, and spend time with people who make you feel happy and confident. Look to family members, friends, mentors, a partner, and/or friends from the internet. These people can help you stay balanced and happy with yourself. Don't let yourself be isolated!
  10. Stay away from the manipulator. If you find that it is becoming too difficult or harmful for you to interact with a manipulative person, keep your distance from them. It is not your job to change them. If the manipulator is a family member or coworker that you have to be around, try to limit your interactions. Only engage when it is absolutely necessary.
    • Keep in mind that the manipulator may pull out all the stops: giant guilt-trips, trash-talking you to others, playing the victim card, et cetera. That's because they realize they're losing control over you. If you don't give in, then you win.


  • Manipulation can happen in all types of relationships, including romantic, familial, or platonic relationships.
  • Trust your instincts!
  • Look for a pattern in certain behaviors. If you can safely predict how someone will behave in order to achieve certain ends, you are most likely on the right track to picking up on manipulative behaviors.
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