Manipulation in communication is a HUGE problem in modern relationships. We can’t adequately cover the topic of communication in this series without addressing it. But I believe there are two categories of manipulation we need to address here, and for that reason we’re splitting this topic up into two posts.
The reality is, I doubt a single one of us has never been guilty of employing at least one of the 5 manipulation tactics we’re going to discuss today. We are a shrewd and devious people, whether we’re ready to admit that about ourselves or not.
But there is also another level of manipulation in communication that has become known as gaslighting. It is a very serious problem in far too many relationships. A problem that would classify as abuse! We’re going to save those manipulation tactics and deal with that very serious issue next time.
But before we dive into the more common manipulation tactics we’re dealing with today let’s quickly recap what we’ve already covered in this communication series:
- Week One – What Does the Bible Say About Communication in Relationships?
- Week Two – Practice Humility – How to Get Rid of the Log in Your Eye
- Week Three – Learn to Listen – Essential Communication Skills
- Week Four – The Negative Effects of Assumptions and Presumptions
God’s Standard for Manipulation in Communication
The name of this series is Communicating God’s Way. So, as we begin to examine the topic of manipulation in communication, it makes sense to me that we should start out by seeing what God has to say on the issue in Scripture. We need to know where to set our standard as we go forward.
2 Timothy 2:15-17 – Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive His approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the Word of Truth. Avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior. This kind of talk spreads like cancer…
2 Corinthians 1:12-13 – We can say with confidence and a clear conscience that we have lived with a God-given holiness and sincerity in all our dealings. We have depended on God’s grace, not on our own human wisdom. That is how we have conducted ourselves before the world, and especially toward you. Our letters have been straightforward, and there is nothing written between the lines and nothing you can’t understand…
Of course, there is plenty more Scripture has to say on the topic, but I think these three passages give us a good template to set our basic standards for communication.
- Be very careful with the Word of God – always apply it correctly, and never use it out of context to make a point.
- Use your words carefully. Avoid worthless, foolish talk.
- Reject every underhanded method of getting your way.
- Never try to trick people.
- Tell the truth.
- Be sincere in your dealings.
- Depend on God’s grace, not human wisdom to guide you.
- Be straightforward. Don’t hide anything “between the lines.”
- Speak to be clearly understood.
Our first and primary goal when learning about manipulation tactics should be to avoid using them ourselves. Above all else, we answer to Him for our own actions and we should make a clear conscience before Him a priority. However, while we all fall short some of the time, the Bible also warns us about people who make a habit of scheming, manipulative, selfish behavior.
2 Timothy 3:1-5 – You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful.
They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God.
They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!
There are those who are so bent on control that communication has become nothing more than a way of exploiting the weaknesses of another in order to gain the upper hand in every conversation. Such people have no interest in hearing anything other than themselves, and don’t care to take the time to gently help others understand their perspective. They simply want to dominate.
While we must be careful that we’re not guilty of manipulation in communication, if we’re married to a person like this, we also need to learn how to recognize these manipulation tactics and how to set up strong healthy boundaries around communication to avoid falling victim to these abusers. (Again, we’ll deal a lot more with this in the next post.)
How to Recognize and Respond to 5 of the Most Common (and Less Severe) Manipulation Tactics
Let me be clear. I say these 5 manipulation tactics are common and less severe, but I am not excusing them. Nothing we’re talking about here is okay and these things are definitely not God honoring. Nonetheless, these 5 manipulation tactics have likely become common practice for most of us and probably wouldn’t classify as abuse.
Sadly, it’s difficult to find a conversation that doesn’t include some of these early ones. We have become a society of manipulators and liars with little to no respect even for those we claim to love.
I find myself incredibly convicted as I look over the list. I know I instinctually do at least the first four on a somewhat regular basis. And the sad part is, I’ve always considered myself a pretty good communicator. My only hope – our only hope, my friends, is to humble ourselves before the Lord and plead for mercy and help! He is the great healer. He can set us free.
Through the power of God, we can overcome these sins in our own lives. If we find these tactics are being used against us, though, all we can do is learn to respond in a healthy, God-honoring way, and pray hard that our partner will choose to humble him or herself before the Lord as well. For each tactic we’ll include a short explanation, an example, and a healthy response.
Common Manipulation Tactics #1: Condescending Sarcasm and Patronizing Tone
Ephesians 4:29 – Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.
I’ll be honest with you, this one is a BIG problem for me. I’m sure many of us are guilty of it sometimes, but if the majority of your conversations with a manipulator include mocking, speaking in a tone as if you are a child, or belittling your words or opinions there might be a bigger problem that you need to address as a couple.
Example – When you say you don’t understand what she meant when she said you have an anger problem, and could she please clarify, she responds in a very sing-songy tone and says something like, “Well, an anger problem is when a person has a ‘problem’ with getting angry. Do you know what it means to get angry?”
Response – Keep it simple. Without being condescending yourself state that you are not a child and, as an adult, would like to be treated with respect. State that you would like to continue the conversation to be able to hear and understand her original point, and you will be happy to do so when she is ready to speak to you with respect. Then walk away until your conditions to finish the conversation can be met.
Manipulation in Communication Tactic #2: Universal Statements, Generalizations, & Splitting
Isaiah 28:17 – I will test you with the measuring line of justice and the plumb line of righteousness. Since your refuge is made of lies, a hailstorm will knock it down. Since it is made of deception, a flood will sweep it away.
These are very broad statements or ideas which are used to emphasize a point, and most of us are seriously guilty of over-using them like crazy. They often take a true, though narrow idea and make it untrue by grossly amplifying its scope. Generalizations are applied to a group of people or things, while universal statements are more personal.
Examples: Universal statement = You ALWAYS respond that way. Generalization = Men ALWAYS respond that way.
These are never a good idea, and we all need to commit to speaking plainly and honestly. Remember what we learned above about God’s standards for communication. When generalizations take the form of splitting, though, they become a more devious practice, and should be taken very seriously.
Splitting (Devaluation & Idealization) – Splitting is a form of generalization with the tendency to view events or people as either all bad or all good. It can manifest as:
- Idealization: a mental mechanism in which the person attributes exaggeratedly positive qualities to himself or others.
Example – My top priority is what’s best for this family. I ALWAYS work as hard as I can to provide the best life possible for us.
- Devaluation: When viewing people as all bad, the individual attributes exaggeratedly negative qualities to the self or others.
Example – You don’t care about this family at all. You always do what you want to do and never make the family a priority.
Response – Speak the truth in love. Gently correct the error, calling it what it is, and move on with the conversation. Try hard not to get diverted by talking about the person’s problem with doing this, simply state the truth and keep on topic.
Common Manipulation Tactics #3: Baiting and then Feigning Innocence
Proverbs 30:33 – As the beating of cream yields butter and striking the nose causes bleeding, so stirring up anger causes quarrels.
We all know how to push the buttons of the people we’re closest to, and we’re probably all guilty of occasionally doing it on purpose to get a rise or reaction. But when a manipulator pushes buttons and then pretends to have no idea what he/she has done when the desired reaction is realized, we need to put up our guard. If this has become a habit, it is getting more serious. A true abuser will do this over and over with such skill that the victim will begin to question his/her sanity.
Example – After noticing how carefully you keep your desktop clear of clutter, the manipulator intentionally begins to leave piles of mail, trash, or small items on the surface when you’re not around. When you get irritated and ask for it to stop, he/she acts like you’re a little crazy and keeps doing it. When you get very upset and make the accusation that it is being done intentionally, the response is, “Oh my goodness, it was an accident. I forgot I even put it there. Maybe you put it there! Why in the world would I TRY to make you upset like that? Everyone isn’t out to get you! Get over yourself.”
Response – This one is SO hard, but we have to discern whether this is being done maliciously or frivolously. If it’s just a silly thing our spouse has started to do without really thinking about it or meaning to, we should be able to call him/her out once or twice and it will stop.
But, if it is being used maliciously as a tactic, the only response that will work is to NOT respond. At all. Don’t say anything, don’t retaliate, don’t even show irritation. If you don’t take the bait, he/she can’t pretend you’re crazy for how you reacted. In any relationship we have to choose which fights to pick and which ones to let go. This one should be let go.
Manipulation in Communication Tactic #4: Guilt-tripping
Romans 8:1 – For there is now no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.
In this scenario, the manipulator uses the victim’s sensitive conscience to keep him/her in a state of self-doubt. The victim might be accused of being a bad person, being unable understand, not caring enough, being too selfish, or whatever else might bring feelings of shame. The manipulator then uses these feelings to control the victim into doing whatever the manipulator wants.
Example – After a long day at work, you ask for a shoulder massage before bed. The answer is, “Yeah, I mean, I was on my feet all day too, but I don’t want to be selfish. I guess if you think you need it more than I do, then I can do that for you.”
Response – The only way anyone can make us feel guilty is if we let them. If we understand our identity in Christ, we will be able to live in the freedom that exists there. Once again, the correct response is to not respond. Don’t give in to it. If you’ve done something wrong, correct it, but if you haven’t there is nothing to feel bad about. Don’t.
KNOW WHO YOU ARE IN CHRIST, and LIVE THERE!
Common Manipulation Tactics #5: Diversion & Deflection
While these are technically two different tactics, their end result is the same – they shift the attention of a conversation from the manipulator onto something else. These tactics are beginning to get into the more serious category, and should be handled accordingly. We’ll talk more about gas-lighting next week, but these practices begin to delve into the realm of the gas-lighter. We have to be on guard against them so we don’t fall victim to their subtle abuses.
Diversion/Evasion shifts the attention by simply picking up on some minor detail in an accusation and changing the direction of the conversation from dealing with the intended issue onto a completely separate issue.
Example = If I were to say how I wished he would go to work events with me, in response he would begin talking about what a dysfunctional work environment there is at my place of employment – expertly changing the conversation to that subject without ever addressing my request.
Deflection shifts the attention of the conversation by turning the accusation around on the one making it rather than acknowledging and dealing with one’s own culpability.
Example = If I were to say how I wished he would go to work events with me, he would quickly bring up the times I didn’t attend his work events with him, or some other instance of him not feeling supported and insist on talking about that instead.
Response – Gently shift the conversation back to where it belongs. Don’t respond to any of the diversions or deflections. Just go back to your original question or confrontation. If necessary, state that you would be happy to talk about these other issues some other time, but right now you would like to finish the conversation you started.
Dealing with the Manipulation Tactics that Have Become a Problem
Here’s the deal y’all. We’re all evil at heart. Every one of us. BUT… if the Holy Spirit of God has been given reign in our hearts the ways we communicate with one another will change.
May we all be quick to surrender those parts we’re still holding onto!
In addition, may we understand that we CAN trust the truth of Scripture. If the words of the people we love are consistently ugly, manipulative, and unkind, that IS what is in their hearts. We have to deal with where we really are, not where we want to be. If there’s a problem, we need to address it according to the standards of Scripture. May God give us wisdom, humility, and courage!
Matthew 12:33-37 – A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad. You brood of snakes! How could evil men like you speak what is good and right? For whatever is in your heart determines what you say. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgement day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you.