Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to a
Controlling/Manipulative Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/manipulate.htm

Updated  04-11-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your  primary needs met well enough, and both people feel heard and respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone you feel is too manipulative or controlling. It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it    

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.

      This YouTube video summarizes the requisites for "effective" communication:


      Social "manipulation" occurs when a person tries to get you to do something that you're reluctant to do. It differs from "persuasion" in that manipulation is inherently covert and disrespectful. For example..::

  • you may have already declined to do the "something," and the other person ignores that (you). This implies that their values and need/s are more important than yours;


  • the manipulator may subtly or overtly use guilt or threat (fear) to get you to do what they want. This is dishonest as well as disrespectful. And/or s/he...

  • may say or hint that you're not able to do the "something," to get you to "prove" that they're wrong *("Well, you probably couldn't finish the bathroom by noon anyway...").

      "Controlling" ("Norma's a control freak") occurs when another person tries to dictate your behavior or priorities ("So you're going to take me shopping at 10:30.")  They assume you'll comply, and may feel irritated, offended, and resentful if you don't.

      By definition, manipulators and controllers are ruled by fakse selves who primarily focus on their own needs. Most (all?) are psychologically wounded and unable (vs. unwilling) to empathize with some or all other people. They seldom know how to communicate effectively, and will indignantly deny and/or rationalize their behavior if confronted

      The opposite of manipulation and controlling is making a direct request of you and respecting your response: "Will you please do _____ for me?" If you say "no" or "not now," the next best option is win-win problem-solving. . .

      So how can you respond effectively to manipulating and controlling? 

Response Options 

      These options work best if your true Self is guiding you and you're fluent with the 7 communication skills. Each of these options may take a few seconds to compose, and will become automatic with practice...

  • breathe well, and mentally acknowledge that you're feeling manipulated or controlled. Avoid blameful thoughts like "You're trying to manipulate me."

  • mentally review these general options until they become automatic;

  • accept that the other person doesn't know how to approach you honestly because of some fear that you're not responsible for

  • check your attitude about the other person. If you feel mutual respect and compassion, go ahead. If not, suspect that a false self is controlling you, and lower your expectations;

  • mentally remind yourself of your personal rights as a dignified, worthy person, and these wise guidelines.  

  • breathe well, and become aware of your thoughts and specific feelings;

  • decide what outcome you seek from your response - to inform, to vent, to set a boundary, to cause action, or something else;

  • choose one or more of these responses as appropriate:

    • respectful empathic listening: "So you feel / think / want / ___________." Remind yourself - this is not agreeing!

    • a respectful two-part ''I'' message. "When you (factually describe their behavior), I feel ______________." Expect "resistance" (like excuses, protests, denials, blame, etc) and acknowledge it calmly with a hearing check. Then restate your assertion calmly, with steady eye contact. Repeat this sequence as needed.

    • a question, like "What do you need from me right now?" Then use empathic listening to affirm (not agree with) the response.

          or you can...

    • make a factual observation, like "Seems like you need me to _______________." If you get an affirmation, you can (a) say nothing or (b) respond - agree, refuse, problem-solve, vent, question, etc. If you get "No, I need _____." use empathic listening, and then decide what you need now.

    • ask permission - "(Name), are you open to some personal feedback?" Most people will say "OK" out of curiosity or politeness. If they say "yes," give them a respectful "I"-message (above);

    • confront the person, like "(Name), feel like you're trying to get me to __________, and you're not able to be honest and direct about owning that. When you choose not to be direct, I lose respect for / interest in / patience with you." Expect "resistance/s, and respond with calm hearing checks as needed.

  • Avoid getting into a lose-lose "I'm right! <> No, I'M right!" power struggle with the other person. Keep your true Self in charge, and use calm, respectful hearing checks and assertions instead. 

  • If your response fills your need/s, affirm yourself. If it doesn't, review your communication process, and decide what to do differently the next time. 

      Stay aware that many manipulative (wounded) people are unaware of their covert need to control others, and will probably deny it. Other people are aware of trying to deceive or control you, and will vigorously deny it because doing so is socially shameful.

      Can you think of a manipulative adult or child in your life now? if so, recall how you usually respond to them. Then mentally role-play responses like those above, and imagine (a) how they'd react, and (b) how you'd feel.

      Finally - ask yourself and maybe trusted others if you ever seem manipulative or controlling. If so, that's probably due to well-intentioned false seves controlling you. See Lesson 1 for options!


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to irritating social behaviors. This article offers options for responding to a significantly-manipulative or controlling person. The options are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a genuine mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights; and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

Also see response options to dishonest or phony, distrusted, and disrespectful people.

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      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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