Manipulative people – How to cope with them?

manipulative people
Manipulative people

Some people are just harder to get on with than others. Obvious examples are manipulative people who are highly strung and aggressive. They may need spiritual healing, but what do we need? What is the secret to avoiding unpleasant scenes with manilpulative people who cause us a bit of grief from time to time?

Perception of manipulative people

A clue can be found in the study of social perception. Research psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert, University of Texas at Austin has pointed out: “We may strive to see others as they really are, but all too often the charlatan wins our praise and the altruist our scorn. Juries misjudge defendants, voters misjudge candidates, lovers misjudge each other.”

Social psychologists have researched the way we see others in terms of attribution theory. This is studying how people make inferences about the causes of a person’s actions. One thing they have observed is how our expectations about how other people will behave can distort our interpretations. We may assume that the little old lady who bumps into us at the supermarket is someone with unintended poor balance whereas the tattooed hooded youth might be thought to be trying to pick our pockets. Mistaken perception of manipulative people can thus arise from social stereotypes, such as race, sex and age.

Less well known is discrimination on the basis of our beliefs about human personality. We say “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Yet how many of us expect quiet people also ‘to be shy’, or that colleagues who argue with us ‘are conceited about their own ideas’ or that the critical relative is ‘of course an interfering nosey-parker’? Making these assumptions leads us blithely to continue to reduce our interaction with apparently manipulative people and so we do not really get to know them. But sooner or later this tactic fails and tension and misunderstanding creates a sharp word, an unnecessary argument or even a full-blown row.

Dispositional bias and manipulative people

Many of us suppose that individual personality is something one cannot do much about; and that a person who behaves and speaks in a certain way in one situation, will likely do the same in other contexts, ‘for they cannot alter their real personality’. Psychologists call this ‘dispositional bias’. That we have this bias might become clearer when we reflect carefully.

It seems that an apparently shy worker can be quite chatty with fellow staff when not feeling inhibited by the presence of an intimidating boss. An apparently argumentative neighbor can discuss issues calmly when not confronted by someone who has a dogmatic style of saying things. A seemingly critical and interfering mother-in-law may not act like this at all in the homes of her other grandchildren to whom she is given ready access. We might sum up these examples of apparently manipulative people by saying that as well as having individual traits, a person behaves differently according to various role obligations and social pressures. 

Cultural differences in seeing manipulative people

Interestingly, social psychology is unearthing cultural differences in ‘dispositional bias’. For example research reported by Richard Nisbett and colleagues at the University of Michegan found that Asians such as Hindus in India tend to describe their acquaintances in terms of roles, social identities and occupations, whereas Americans are more likely to speak in terms of personality traits.

Similarly, when describing themselves, another Asian group, the Japanese, also use phrases such as, ‘I am a student at a university,’ or refer to specific contexts, ‘I am one who plays football on Friday nights.’ In contrast, Americans generally are inclined to see themselves in terms of abstract personality e.g. ‘I am curious,’ or ‘I am sincere.’ It sounds like spotting the ideas we carry around in our heads regarding others, is the secret to dealing better with apparently manipulative people. For such ideas lead us to jump to conclusions about others.

Perhaps what counts is not being taken in by how things seem on the surface. Was this what Christ was talking about when he said

Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24)?

Yet some would argue that making a right judgment is being judgmental because it involves assessing someone other than oneself. Didn’t Christ also say

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned” (Luke 6:37)?

Making a correct assessment of manipulative people

Perhaps it is actually both possible and desirable to form a rational judgment; discriminating between different attitudes and interests without at the same time judging the person’s inner character. This is what juries in criminal courts are supposed to do – discriminating on the basis of actual behavior rather than prejudice. Manipulative people may get angry when they feel threatened and become easy to chat to when not.

The spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg encourages us to look for the good in people as a way of finding a heavenly state of mind in ourselves. In other words we can minimize out irritation or indignation and find a more relaxed attitude to those we previously judged negatively by making the effort to finding positive sides to their character.

One example of a positive side to some people who upset us is a state of inner peace that they might possess. Have we ever noticed the contentment in someone enjoying a walk in natural surroundings communing with nature. Perhaps this is the same person with whom we are having difficulties in the work setting. We may well tend to overestimate personal causes of socially undesirable behavior in others but this bias in our assumptions is neither inevitable nor uncontrollable.

Of course some people are members of the awkward mob no matter where they are; not everyone having much of a positive side we can feel good about. But noticing how an irritating person behaves in other situations may be the secret to not jumping to conclusions about their personality. If so, seeing them in a different light, can reduce our ‘dispositional bias’; it can mean we no longer always attribute everyone’s tiresome behavior in our presence to some negative general trait of character. In this way we have some hope of giving ourselves a better chance of getting on better with them.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems