A good “communicator” knows how to push the right buttons to trigger a desired behavior. In everyday professional life – especially in hierarchical situations – this is commonplace. In this article, I show various manipulation techniques with practical examples and describe methods to undermine the manipulation.
Manipulative communication is omnipresent. There is no everyday life, not even a professional one, without manipulation. One could say communication is manipulation by its very nature. When we communicate, we want our message to override the message that the person being addressed is receiving from within.
A good “communicator” knows how to push the right buttons to trigger a desired behavior. In everyday professional life – especially in the hierarchy gap – this is common.
In this article, I show various manipulation techniques with practical examples and describe methods to undermine the manipulation.
6 Triggers and their effect in practice
1. The hierarchy gap
Those who can’t or don’t like to argue factually like to use the slippery slope of the hierarchy gap. A leader or someone with a higher valued expertise uses his status to dispel arguments.
Basically, it’s a show of force.
The person casually emphasizes that management is of the same opinion. Or he refers to discussions that have already taken place with the higher level and thus denies participation in this discussion. The reference to the opinion of the higher ranking can be a fact but also a cleverly set trap. A manager in the so-called sandwich position reported that in decision meetings his superior always began his report with the words “We in the division management agree that, …”.
In this way, he regularly staked his claim and ensured from the outset that other opinions were worse off by subtly belittling them. So please always check whether it is about arguments or about celebrating your own power.
2. The topic “dwarfing”
Nobody likes to be put in the drama drawer. Pointing out that a topic is not so important after all and that one should “leave the church in the village” ends every discussion. It is likely to silence people who like to get involved.
A call center employee had a problem with bullying in her group. She repeatedly tried to bring it up in team meetings. Before she succeeded in putting bullying on the agenda, she was talked down seven times with the comment, “Oh, Ms. Müller, that’s normal, it’s just human nature, we have more important things to discuss here.
Anyone who has the nullity of their concern pointed out to them should check who benefits if it is swept under the carpet. In her case, it was her supervisor’s lack of leadership to cover up his inability to lead empathically.
3. The toxic embrace
A rather unpleasant kind of manipulation is the feigned solidarity or friendship. How are you supposed to defend yourself against someone who seems to be “fighting” shoulder to shoulder?
The supposed understanding for the situation of the interlocutor is used here to stall unwanted discussions. According to the motto “I understand you, I basically feel the same way” it is pretended that one wants to help but is powerless.
When someone in solidarity thwarts his counterpart, it is appropriate to ask what he gets out of it if nothing changes.An employee of an NGO that cares for women complained about this pseudo-solidarity at her workplace. On the surface, they were a team and everyone did everything. When she complained about unclear distribution of tasks and chaos, the saying of “we are all in the same boat” came quickly.
The real reason was the complete lack of structure, no one was or wanted to be responsible for leadership. Things were simply left to run their course. With the consequence that the employee looked for a new job.
Most people, including managers, want more empathy from their leadership, as a recent study by the business platform Linkedin showed.
4. The obviousness trap
Nobody likes to be accused of not being able to recognize the obvious. Discussions are successfully stifled by pointing out the obvious.
This often happens very subtly. Situations and arrangements are presented as self-evident and with the “everyone here knows that …” counter-arguments are silenced.
In practice, everyone knows this cover-up tactic. Supposed facts are put into the room in order to hinder inquiries. A clerk reported that in her company a certain colleague liked to be cold-called with “everybody knows that X has an authority problem”. His often well-founded objections to nonsensical specifications were thus wiped off the table without being looked at constructively.
Whoever is told again and again that “it is clear that …” should have the courage to ask for the evidence for this claim.
5. The opinion gag
An effective technique to seize the topic sovereignty is the opinion gag. Here, exchange is stifled in advance by denigrating any dissenting opinion.
With “who really pulls along here, becomes in each/no case …” is defined preventively what may be and what not. A chief buyer in the catering industry successfully prevented in this way for two years that the product range was supplemented by a further segment. After his retirement, this product line, which took into account the spirit of the times, became a great success.
Anyone who does not want to surrender to this dictate of opinion would be well advised to ask who made the preliminary selection of opinion and on the basis of what facts.
6. The honey trap
Especially in working life, it is often difficult to distinguish oneself from superficially good suggestions. Manipulators can use this effect by coupling a useful or irresistible suggestion with something to which the manipulated person would not say yes.
An idea is put forward that is useful and constructive. This is linked to a seemingly small request that is hard to refuse in this combination. “You wanted to meet our branches urgently. We’ll make that possible for you next week, and on this occasion you can …” is, under certain circumstances, a bitter-tasting concession.
The only thing that helps here is the necessary self-confidence to refuse the request if necessary.
3 tips for confident communication
How can you react more confidently and sovereignly? Here are some easy-to-implement tips.
1. Breathe first, then respond
A very simple but effective method is to first take a conscious breath before responding.
When faced with difficult questions or even accusations, people usually react reflexively, emotionally and defend themselves – often without need. This makes people feel insecure and unstable. First calm the emotion via the breath, then answer from the stable position instead of from emotion.
The effect this short pause has? The listener will perceive this signal as confidence. And the speaker has that moment to think of a good response.
2. When criticized, return the ball with a question.
There is a helpful quote from Bruce Lee: “When you are criticized, you must be doing something right. Because you only attack the one who has the ball.”
With this in mind, when criticized, it is advisable to specifically return the ball with a question. This puts the other person on the spot. This buys time to position yourself for the next “move.”
Let’s imagine that someone in the team asks almost aggressively: “So? Can you think of anything to say about that?” or “Do you have anything to say about that?” You can buy yourself time with the counter-question, “What makes you/you think I can’t think of anything?”
An all-rounder is the following retort: “Could you be a little more specific with the question?”
3. Avoid hasty justification.
This rule is most important for people who like to be made small by others. The other person’s motivation is often to cover up their own weakness or insecurity.
Some people justify themselves hastily and without need, because they are mentally too busy with feelings of guilt or inferiority.
These thoughts usually originate in early childhood. A strong expectation of the environment was internalized. If one cannot fulfill these expectations, one feels bad. Many know this. Feelings of inferiority or a guilty conscience are unproductive feelings and they open the door to manipulation.
Realize that you are doing your best every day. And be good to yourself.
If you start justifying yourself in conversations, you are putting yourself in a weak position. Justifying means explaining why and why you act or react in a certain way.
If you have to defend yourself, you are at a disadvantage. This is a principle that applies practically everywhere. So don’t go on the defense unnecessarily. Pay attention to the situations in which you start justifying yourself without need. If you do, stop doing it. It is better to remain silent than to make yourself vulnerable to manipulation in this way.
The gold standard
There is, so to speak, a gold standard in communication: that is the right balance between silence and speech. It is dynamic; depending on the situation, the occasion and the people involved, it has to be rebalanced. This balance must be trained like a muscle.
How can this be done?
For one thing: not everything deserves a reaction. Realize that some flies only mutate into elephants through reaction.
For another: Silence demonstrates strength and words make you vulnerable. If you don’t want to be silent, ask good questions.
A basic principle in communication is “He who asks, leads”.
So always remember: It is better to ask than to explain!
In this way, you will succeed more and more in evading manipulative communication.
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