Dealing with a manipulator

Unfortunately, a manipulator may not have your best interests at heart. Photo by Ashley Jurius on Unsplash

If you have a relationship with a manipulative person (as colleague, friend, relative or partner), you will know that it’s a trial.  You don’t feel free to focus on your life, because the manipulator will always be finding ways to make you see things, and do things, their way.

Just to clarify, manipulation goes beyond mere influencing.  A person can be influential in your life without manipulating.  Influence is the general ability to affect your life.  Manipulation is the ability to do so selfishly, and often without your knowledge or consent.

The word ‘manipulate’ comes from a root word meaning ‘handful’.  In the 19th century, it came to mean ‘skilful handling’.  More recently,it has come to refer to the way some people exercise control over others selfishly.

Manipulation is essentially an attempt to control events, and get a selfish outcome, without seeming to be controlling or selfish.  Rather than being openly demanding, the manipulator uses hidden methods, appearing to be less influential than they are.  The important thing is that the manipulator doesn’t want anyone to notice what they are doing.

Key tactics include:

  1. Hiding behind power.  At work, a manipulator will often ally themselves with the boss, secretly feeding them information.  Because the boss is the leader, helping the boss can always be given a positive interpretation.
  1. Silence.  Silence is the easiest passive-aggressive behaviour.  Because silence has so many possible interpretations, it is the perfect disguise for anger, which can remain hidden, but be equally destructive.
  1. Blaming and gaslighting.  A manipulator doesn’t want any responsibility to fall at their door.  If possible, they will be very vocal about other people’s failings, while being silent about their own.
  1. Denial and lying.  Lying is a very basic form of distortion.  It works because people take a lot on trust.  The manipulator calculates what will not be checked up on, and lies about that.
  1. Trauma bonding.  Where bad behaviour cannot be hidden, a manipulator can glue others to them through emotional blackmail.  They will create the feeling that walking away from them will be catastrophic.
  1. Withholding affection.  Instead of being friendly, the manipulator offers little, citing any excuse that works (tiredness, hormones, other problems).  Occasionally the manipulator will use momentary affection to get something they want, or to minimally support the relationship.  They will then return to non-affection.

From these tactics come six tell-tale behaviours of the manipulator:

  1. Alliance with power
  2. Uneasy silences
  3. Criticising others
  4. Lying or failing to explain
  5. Emotional blackmail
  6. Withholding affection

And from these come six tell-tale feelings you may have as a friend, colleague or partner:

  1. You may sense that you are not respected as a person.  But you will notice how they suddenly shift into respect mode for others whom they want to influence.
  2. You may feel uncomfortable in conversation, and sense that nothing you say will be welcomed.
  3. You may feel you are treading on eggshells, waiting to hear the next thing you have done wrong.
  4. You may feel sad at an apparent empty hole where honest communication should be.
  5. You may feel afraid at the consequences of not focusing on their needs.
  6. You may feel lonely and neglected most of the time.

This is particularly hard for those who rely on being respected, welcomed, safe, openly chatted with, free and cherished.


In our society, we operate by reasonably low standards of care.  Humans are only really required to turn up and function.  They are not expected to be hugely emotionally intelligent.

There is no legal requirement to respect and welcome others, to make them feel safe, to chat with them openly, to let them act freely, and to cherish them.  These are regarded as a bonus.

This means that if someone wants to weaponize the withholding of respect, welcome, etc., then they can.

Furthermore, it is easy to hide manipulation.  Few people have the time or skill to prove, and then counteract, what is happening.


The main thing to do, if you feel you are experiencing a manipulator, is to find another source of:

  • Respect
  • Welcome
  • Safety
  • Open chat
  • Free action
  • Being cherished

You need to make sure you are well supplied with these things on a daily basis.  Then you are in a position to handle the manipulator without being manipulated yourself.


If you still need to deal with the manipulator, then you need to find a way of neutralising the six tactics listed above.  Here are some suggestions.  Have fun trying them.

  1. Stay in touch with power yourself.  You may not feel the need to suck up to the boss.  But having a personal relationship with influential people can be protective, as it stops manipulative people spreading false rumours.
  1. Ask questions.  Just because they are silent, it doesn’t mean you can’t invite them to share.  If they decline, well, you tried, and you can then share with someone else instead, instead of talking in a one-sided encounter.
  1. Openly disagree with  the blaming.  If the manipulator tries to pin the blame where it doesn’t belong, don’t be afraid to share your own understanding.  They may not like it, but you have a right to your view too.
  1. Check in more frequently.  If you suspect the manipulator is hiding truths from you, then ask more varied questions, more frequently.  You are not there to protect liars from scrutiny.
  1. Impose consequences.   Don’t be afraid to hold the manipulator to account for what they have done in the past.  Since selfishness is driving the behaviour, selfishness will only realise not to do it again if the consequences are clear.
  1. If you want to, show affection anyway.  Don’t be afraid to demonstrate your affection if you want to.  If the manipulator wants to withhold theirs, that needn’t affect what you offer.