Identifying Manipulative Communication in the Workplace

Manipulative communication in the workplace decreases work efficiency, increases job dissatisfaction, contributes to a hostile environment and lowers morale. Most people are challenged to identify manipulative tactics and even when they spot them, they do not feel competent in responding effectively.

Spotting the manipulator can be difficult. They can be everywhere that humans are found. The manipulator can be anyone! They are difficult to identify because they are so well camouflaged and have no outwardly identifiable physical markings.

Manipulators are not restricted to certain locales, climates, social environments, or work settings. They prey on other humans. As a result, you may find them in any place that other humans frequent. You won’t have to “find” one; they will find you and, before you even realize it you will be engaged in a charismatic conversation!  In fact, they only way you can be manipulated is through communication.

To identify the manipulator, you must be a keen observer of behaviors and a critically active listener. You must understand the manipulator’s mindset to interpret your observations and know what you are listening for. Here are some key indicators:

They think in terms of win and lose. If someone is winning, they are losing, and they keep score of everything. Win/win does not exist for them. You will notice this in a random conversation where they bring up something from the past that seems minor or odd.

They show a need for controlling others and situations. They are the puppet master controlling everyone’s emotions and actions. It may be part of a strategy to achieve a goal, or it may just be for the sake of feeling more intelligent and powerful than others. Think about the cat playing with a mouse that it never kills so that the fun won’t stop.

They have an insatiable need for adoration and attention. Typically, they are charismatic and adept at attracting people.  They are usually glancing around to see who is looking at them instead of making genuine eye contact with someone.

They are deeply insecure. They try extremely hard to hide their insecurity. They may cover it with arrogance, confidence, and bravado, or they could use shyness and helplessness – all means are at their disposal. This insecurity will leak out randomly, so you must pay close attention. You could be having a wonderful conversation, and they slip in a question or comment revealing their insecure nature. If you dig deeper, it will go nowhere. They will change the subject if they think they revealed too much. Thus, the “insatiable need” to control.

They will NEVER allow themselves to show vulnerability. This is difficult to figure out because when another human shows vulnerability, an average person’s instinct is to show sensitivity. In contrast, to a manipulator, displaying vulnerability is a sign of weakness. On the other hand, they will feign vulnerability as a manipulative tactic. Of course, you will want to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who appears vulnerable, and you should.

They show feigned empathy to others. They are incapable of truly feeling empathy. If they did feel it, they wouldn’t be able to manipulate. Watch for consistency.  You may have a relative dying of cancer, and the manipulator may tear up (not real tears, though), hug you, and offer to help. One week later, your relative may come up in conversation, and they don’t even notice or acknowledge it.  Showing empathy in the moment is a common tactic used to cause others to see them as good and compassionate.

They ask a lot of questions. One identifiable behavior of a manipulator is that they traditionally ask many questions if they are going into an unknown situation.  Of course, that’s normal for most people, so you have to pay attention to the types of questions; the manipulator needs to strategize to control. Some of their questions will seem odd, nuanced, or detailed.

Now that we have reviewed the manipulator’s mindset, you may realize that this mindset’s manifestation comes through infinite types of conversations, behaviors, and circumstances. Are you to go through life suspicious and paranoid? No!

While you are learning, you will likely start thinking many people are manipulators who are not. In other words, they may be persuasive to get something to go their way – as we all do – but are not necessarily seeking to control another’s emotions, beliefs, or actions. The definition of manipulation is “the tactics used by adults on other adults for the sake of self-gain at the other’s expense.”

Over time by paying attention, you will become proficient at identifying manipulators. The manipulator will sense that you see through them and avoid you as they prefer easy targets.

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