Have you noticed how some people control others without doing or saying anything?
These emotional dictators wield emotion like a sword and then step back from the consequences.
I am not talking here about low-level sulkiness; we all get moody from time to time.
A partner or colleague upsets us and rather than either sorting it out directly, or letting it go, we do neither. We say nothing but they know in no uncertain terms it is not forgotten. While not ideal, we are all human and it’s not a problem when it’s not a pattern.
Where it becomes a problem is when it becomes a pattern.
Emotional manipulators are different from those who don’t have the skills to be direct because of their upbringing, socio-political environment or just a difference in power or position (where directness can have serious consequences). People who get shot down may also retreat to indirectness as a defence.
What distinguishes them is that they thrive on drama; where it doesn’t exist they will create it. They love the fallout from their antics because it puts them slap bang at the centre of the universe where they feel powerful and in control, and that’s just the way they want it.
They are also clever, exploiting people’s willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt.
Because manipulators are excellent at reading the play, they as easily charm one person as bully another, appealing to the vulnerabilities of a particular target.
Their tactics vary, there’s the dummy spit or its subtler silent partner, the dark cloud.
Here’s how it works.
A person wants us to do something or say something or react in a certain way. The problem is – we don’t know what that is because they never articulated it. We learn that we’ve got it wrong is when we feel the bite of their displeasure.
A normal person might attempt to sort it out – what do you want? How shall I react? But clarity is the enemy of the manipulator whose power comes from the fog.
Emotional manipulators cause, then reinforce, the chaos they set in motion, making people around them feel unsafe, a team can buckle under the weight of a bad boss.
This behavior is a controlling device. It sends the message that: if you do not do what I want you to do, you will be punished.
They play the victim, always aggrieved. As far as they are concerned –
You made them cross. You made them do it. You were wrong. It’s your fault.
They are not interested in responsibility. Why? It’s uncomfortable. It makes them vulnerable and flawed like everyone else.
Sound like any two-year old you’ve seen in temper tantrum action? Well it is. Except that’s a developmental requirement for a toddler and an impediment in an adult.
Although it’s difficult to deal with if you play along you are reinforcing that they will get what they want by behaving badly. If you recognize this behavior in yourself, then you need to do some work.
Clarity is a key tool for dismantling the power they wield. Name the game, so that you can deal with it.
- First, name what is going on whether in yourself or someone else. State it clearly. For example – when I asked X to stop having a one-on-one conversation with Y in the team meeting after they had disrupted the meeting three times they withdrew and failed to participate for the rest of the session. This just gives you the lay of the land but it’s critical because so often with these people we land up feeling destabilized and in a fog.
- Next, describe what message the action sends to other people. For example, by cutting everyone else out X was telling the team that they would pay the price him/her not being able to act as s/he wanted.
- Ask yourself – is this a once off or a pattern?
- Ask yourself – is this an emotional event in which other people pay the price for someone else’s mood? Or did the person just deal with the behavior personally?
- Now decide what you are going to do about it. This is harder because sometimes we want to let things go and other times we need to deal with them very directly, there’s no one-size-fits all reaction to these events. There are many factors to think about including the skills we have, the context and the impact of the behavior – trivial or important? Knowing what to do requires judgment. Before acting – write down your different options, the possible consequences and how you will deal with any of those. For example: I could talk to X about this behavior. S/he could do X, Y, Z. This would make me feel X, Y, Z. How I could deal with this would be … Sometimes by preparing ourselves we can work through the emotions that trigger our fears and deal with the issue, despite them.