Manipulators are always hard to confront, but covert manipulators are the worst. When confronted, they will remain cool as cucumber, and yet rigid and unbending. When you begin to spot their flawed logic, you might start to get frustrated. If you continue to argue with them, it’ll be hard for you not to raise your voice a bit. You’ll start to look like the irrational one and they’ll try to take back control based on their “maturity” in remaining calm.
If someone acts like this on a regular basis, they are probably not someone you want in your life. The best thing to do is to exit the situation in the quickest and least-confrontational way. Here are a few guidelines to remember in the closing interactions with this person.
1. Do not expect them to see things your way.
It’s tempting to defend yourself and try to get the other person to see what’s really going on. But a true manipulator is not going to change their tune, and the more you give into that temptation to defend yourself, the more they will continue twisting your words. It won’t be long before you find yourself trapped in that distorted web of lies and false perceptions.
You need to be willing to separate yourself without trying to FIX, CONVINCE, or CHANGE the other person. In 99.9% of interactions with a manipulator, none of those things are possible.
2. When confronted, DIFFUSE and EXIT.
If you’re in a situation with a true manipulator, your two goals for any confrontation that occurs should be to DIFFUSE and EXIT, whether that means exiting the current conversation or exiting the friendship. Avoid insults, arguments, losing your temper, accusing the other person of manipulation, or getting overly emotional. When you speak, stick to statements that are truthful, objective, and peaceful.
I was in a situation with someone who was being clearly manipulative. They revisited an incident from months before and their version of the story was backwards from what actually happened. I realized that this person was trying to manipulate me into taking responsibility for something that they had done. The moment I realized this, I knew that logic and arguing was useless. They were just going to distort the facts until I agreed with their perspective.
I responded, “My memory of this situation is different than yours. Let me take some time to think about this before we continue the discussion,” and then I left. This statement allowed me to leave the situation without a fight breaking out.
In another interaction, they tried to accuse me of being the manipulator by telling me, “You’re trying to get me to adopt your perspective of the situation, which is manipulation.” I responded by saying, “What I actually said was [quoted back to them my request for time to think about situation before speaking]. That isn’t manipulation. I did not tell you that you were wrong, nor did I ask you to adopt my perspective.”
Take note that I didn’t respond by telling them that they were being manipulative – it would seem like the obvious response, but it would not have been helpful to diffuse what was happening.
Ultimately, I did not have any power to get this person to stop doing what they were doing, but I was able to defend myself in the interaction. Defend yourself by speaking truth while displaying as little emotion as possible (this requires some self-control). And once again, don’t get hung up on the other person agreeing with you – they most likely won’t.
3. Accept your skill level when it comes to dealing with manipulation.
There are aspects of dealing with a manipulative person that require a high level of maturity, patience, or self-discipline. You may not have the self-control to respond without losing your temper and making the situation worse. If that is the case, accept this about yourself and take extra steps to avoid a nasty confrontation (for example, invite a mediator into the discussion or send an email rather than talk in person so you have time to think through what you are saying).
For me, dealing with anyone who loses their temper can produce a bit of anxiety. I’ve had to bring a friend with me in order to feel comfortable in situations that had a lot of potential for blow-ups. As much as I wished I was able to handle the confrontation on my own, I knew I wasn’t quite in a place to do that. If I had refused to accept this about myself, I would’ve experienced a lot of unnecessary anxiety because of my decision to act tougher than I was.
Don’t wish you were better at dealing with the situation than you are. There will be people who criticize your weak areas and try to make it look like the situation should be easier for you to handle than it is. Don’t compare your reaction in a situation to someone else’s reaction.
It’s ok to know what your strengths and weaknesses are and to ask for help if you have a weak spot.
It is more important that you exit the situation safely and hold on to your character than is it for you to try to deal with it yourself simply because you’re trying to be stronger than you are.
4. When you can’t avoid the person completely, distance yourself and reframe your boundaries.
There are certain situations where you can’t exit a relationship completely — most commonly, if this person is a parent or a member of your extended family. Unless the person is causing significant harm or psychological damage, you probably can’t go cold turkey.
First, you need to fully recognize this person for who they are and alter your expectations of the relationship accordingly. If they were previously someone you wanted validation from, then you’ll have to stop seeking their validation. If they were someone you got advice from, recognize that their advice isn’t something you need in your life. If they continue to offer it, you can thank them for it and then silently discard it.
Be as subtle as you can when setting these boundaries, and don’t tell the other person that you are setting them. Creating this change on your end is going to require some energy, and when you anger the other person in the process you’ll have to handle their reaction on top of that.
Knowing that this will drain your energy a bit, set boundaries around the time you spend with this person. If you have been hanging out with your controlling mother-in-law every Saturday, cut it down to once a month and schedule something later that day so that your hangout has a definite end time.
Why should you focus on exiting instead of trying to resolve the situation?
Picture truth as a straight line (the “straight and narrow” path) and manipulation as something that goes in circles. The manipulator is not operating with truth as their foundation. Everything they say is meant to spin the conversation in a circle until you cave and adopt their perspective.
You can’t have a truthful conversation with someone who is not operating on the basis of truth.
You’ll end up getting spun into the circle that they are weaving. You may get tired and give in to them to keep the peace. Or you may keep getting twisted deeper and deeper into their web, which will exhaust your energy.
Proverbs 25:26 “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.”
If we allow ourselves to be manipulated by other people or if we accept a lie in order to keep the peace, we are allowing something that is wicked to pollute us. Any time you encounter a circular pattern of thought – whether it’s guilt from past mistakes keeping you up at night, irrational fears and anxiety, or manipulative tactics – the enemy is close at hand.
Confusion comes from the enemy, but the Lord gives us peace and wide open spaces. Get out and enjoy that wide open space that God has promised you, and pray from afar that one day, the other person will recognize what they are doing and decide to enjoy that wide open space with you. Until then, you are not responsible for their decisions. It is not your job to sacrifice your own joy and peace for someone who is — by their own actions — stuck in a web.
Questions to Ponder: Have you ever dealt with a manipulative person in the past? How did you handle the situation? If you encountered that situation again, what would you do differently?