If you’ve clicked on this article, chances are you’re questioning someone’s manipulative behavior. Maybe it’s your own. Do manipulators always know when they are manipulating? Is it possible someone is playing you without fully realizing it?
In these cases, it’s a matter of degree and frequency.
There are plenty of manipulative people in this world who like to play dumb but are anything but. If you’ve been tangled up in a toxic relationship like this, chances are they know exactly what they are doing. (Sorry)
But what about more subtle forms of manipulation that we’re all guilty of? Do people always know they’re being manipulative? That’s where things get more complicated. So let’s explore that!
Can a person be manipulative without knowing it?
Absolutely! You don’t need to be a master manipulator to be guilty of manipulation.
In fact, most of us have learned behavior that can be classified as manipulative.
It’s part of human nature to want things our way and to try to get what we want. When we are manipulative, it can be very harmful to our relationships.
It’s essential, however, to distinguish between these more subtle manipulation tactics and more conscious efforts people make to get what they want from others.
Learned Behavior and Manipulation
Sometimes we learn behavior growing up that is manipulative without fully realizing it.
Did you grow up in a household where you were encouraged to speak directly about your feelings? Or did you feel pressure to swallow your true feelings? Maybe it was the opposite, and you grew up in a yelling house.
The common thread is that many of us did not learn healthy communication styles in our homes. Instead, we learned unhealthy ways of dealing with hurt feelings and unmet needs.
An example is using passive aggression to get our way.
If you learned from your father to mumble around the house about how nobody ever helps as a way of guilting family members into action, you’ve learned a manipulation tactic.
Let’s examine another common example.
Children use emotional manipulation all the time. Have you ever come across a child who wants something? They will try a range of tactics like sweet-talking, crying, begging, or making promises (I promise I will eat all my vegetables this week!).
As we become adults, it is our responsibility to unlearn these behaviors so that we can communicate in more direct, healthy ways.
You don’t have to be horrible to be manipulative.
Everyone has the capacity for manipulation and has probably engaged in manipulative behavior at some point.
Even though these more subtle manipulative tactics might work in the short term, they invariably backfire. This is because they involve deception and manipulation rather than open and honest communication.
When you use these tactics, people will eventually catch on, and they will resent you for it.
By calling out the behavior, my goal is to help you notice patterns in your own conduct that could be considered manipulative. This way, you can choose healthier ways to deal with tricky situations.
7 Ways You Are Being Manipulative (Without Realizing It)
1. You use suggestions to get what you want.
Sometimes we avoid communicating our needs with people by giving them false choices. Instead of asking what they want or being honest about what we want, we use suggestions to make it seem like we’re considering their needs. In reality, we aren’t.
Here’s an example. Let’s say I invite a friend to have dinner on Thursday. When Thursday rolls around, I am tired. Instead of communicating that, I might suggest a quick, convenient place for me to expedite the dinner.
I might even hype it up like I picked the place for this dinner because I think my friend will really like it. Of course, that’s not why I chose it, but I’ll say this to cover my tracks and make my friend feel like I am excited about the dinner when I am not.
2. You make someone feel indebted to you.
This is a standard manipulative tactic used in all sorts of relationships.
For example, you might do someone a favor and then expect them to do one for you in return. Or, you might buy someone a gift and then make them feel guilty if they don’t reciprocate.
Related Post: 8 Traits of Manipulative People Who Pretend To Be Nice
3. You say you’ll do everything yourself.
Suppose you’re constantly taking on more than you can handle. In that case, you may be doing it to cast yourself as a martyr to make others feel guilty.
Rather than play the martyr role, be honest with others.
If you want people to help you do something, ask them, even if you think they should’ve volunteered to help without having to ask.
If you notice someone in your own life who plays the victim, this video will be helpful:
4. You make promises you can’t (or won’t) keep.
If you make promises to people in exchange for something you want them to do for you but don’t follow through on your promises, you are being manipulative.
For example, let’s say you promise to go to a friend’s work happy hour function if they attend an exhibition with you at the museum. They uphold their end of the deal, but you bail on the work function.
This makes people feel betrayed and like they can’t trust you. If this is how you operate, they’d be right!
A better option would be to ask someone to go with you to a function, and if they don’t want to go, leave it at that. Don’t try to manipulate people into going by promising things you can’t or won’t do.
5. You give people the silent treatment.
Stonewalling is a form of manipulation, too. Whether you mean to or not, using silence as a way to hurt someone who is hurting you is not the right approach.
Let’s be clear, the silent treatment involves suddenly going dark on someone who is trying to engage with you.
You’re not obligated to talk to someone hurtful towards you. But the emotionally mature way to handle it is to tell them, “Hey, I don’t like how this makes me feel. I need some space.”
Or, if you opt for the silent treatment because you don’t know how to articulate your feelings (because you feel overwhelmed or emotionally exhausted), it’s okay to say that!
Try to communicate the issue. “Hey, this is a lot for me right now. I need a break, so let’s talk about this tomorrow.”
Here’s a thoughtful video on why the silent treatment is so harmful:
6. You always blow things out of proportion.
Intentionally using inflated language to express what you are going through to others is a form of manipulation.
If you’re out sick from work and a coworker calls to check on you, do you make your illness sound worse than it is to elicit a stronger sympathetic response? That is manipulation.
It’s a lot like the story of the boy who cried wolf. If you catastrophize everything, the people in your inner orbit will not believe you if something genuinely terrible happens.
7. You tell white lies and exaggerate.
If you have a habit of exaggerating the truth or telling little, white lies, that is a form of manipulation.
It is an exaggeration to tell someone you have to help your mom move all day when you’re really just picking up a bicycle for her and taking it to her house.
Why do we do it? Generally, we want to elicit more sympathy from others or get out of something we don’t want to do.
What to do if you are being unintentionally manipulative
If you read through this list and found yourself saying, “Yes, I’m guilty of that,” you are not alone.
We are all guilty of unintentional manipulation from time to time. But now that you recognize some common ways people are manipulative without realizing it, what should you do?
First, acknowledge your own bad behavior. Then, make a conscious effort to avoid that behavior in the future. If you catch yourself engaging in manipulative behavior, force yourself to take a healthier, more direct approach, no matter how subtle.
Tell your friend, partner, or loved one what you need at that moment instead of playing familiar games.
If you are too tired to go out, say that! If you want help with something, just ask for help. Do not make promises to try to sweeten the deal if you don’t plan to keep them.
On the flip side, don’t be afraid to call people out! If you recognize this behavior in others, encourage an open conversation.
By choosing healthier communication styles, you’ll find that the quality of your relationships improves dramatically. Plus, you’ll feel better about being straightforward with people.
Did we miss any subtle manipulation tactics? Let us know in the comments below!