How to recognise an arch-manipulator
Imagine you are a highly skilled individual who considers that you can always get your point across in an intelligent, considered and structured manner, which most people can understand and accept, even if they do not always agree with you. Then you come across one of these characters who seem to have a way of deflecting and reframing everything you say to the detriment of your argument. I believe it is only natural to think that these people are highly intelligent, because mostly you do not feel flummoxed in this way. You will then feel that you are missing something and must just concentrate more.
In other words, they gradually and subtly start taking over your working life and your thoughts. It is precisely this level of surprise, shock and disbelief that lets arch manipulators get away with their strategies.
From listening to my clients who were experiencing problems with these difficult people – or arch-manipulators – they appeared to share some common factors.
- They were often highly charismatic characters who appeared out of nowhere
- They sometimes claimed overseas qualifications and experience, but due to the lack of formal recruitment process and the sense of authority they commanded, these claims were often not checked.
- They had people running around in circles and erupting in emotion outbursts, while this person sat back and watched it happen.
- They often made their interventions in the name of greater efficiency, proposed new structures because the current ones were not working, and suggested that people were not doing their job properly.
- They rarely had a significant project or chunk of work to do, when all the tasks were allocated.
- They cloaked all of their contributions in terms of the authority gained from their patron or other person in authority.
- They make incredibly general contributions whilst making very specific criticisms.
- They have an ability to identify each person’s ‘Achilles heel’ or weak spot.
- They would get the most even-tempered of people swinging into action to defend themselves.
- They knew what buttons to press to create chaos and they appeared to take a great deal of pleasure in walking into a room, pulling the pin on the hand grenade, then stepping back to see the result of their actions.
- They gain pleasure from identifying how they can wheedle themselves into an organisation or group and gain huge satisfaction from manipulating it, just because they can.
- They also appear to have a ‘hold’ on the leader of the organisation or group, although they seem unlikely to go for the leadership role itself.
- They use the reflected, unappointed or unelected power that is conferred on them by the leader to destabilise the organisation.
After months of discussing the phenomenon and helping my clients to cope with the chaos that these people generated, we were able to piece together an effective strategy for dealing with the arch manipulators.
Defusing the arch manipulator
The key to understanding this behaviour came when one of my clients became interested in the strategies of powerful men. He told me about a publication called The Art of Controversy – volume 5 by Arthur Schopenhauer, who (writing in 1831) described a form of interaction called ‘the Controversial Dialectic’. This is defined as the art of disputing, and of disputing in such a way as to hold one’s own, irrespective of whether or not you are right. In this extended essay, Schopenhauer identified 38 common tricks and dodges used by people who he perceived lack the learning, intelligence and self-respect to present their case in a logical, reasoned, truthful, just and yielding manner.
The 38 stratagems that Schopenhauer set out for winning arguments can be paraphrased as follows.
- Exaggerate then discredit the opponent’s position.
- Pick out a word or phrase which stands out, then misinterpret it.
- Attack something different from what was asserted.
- Conceal the game, by gradually gaining admissions and then mingle premises and admissions into the conversation
- Draw a true conclusion from a false premise.
- Discredit truth, by making sweeping generalised statements about the subject area in general.
- Ask a number of wide-ranging questions at once, so that people will not notice gaps or mistakes in the argument.
- Make the opponent angry, so that he is incapable of good judgement and of perceiving where his advantage lies.
- Put questions in a different order than the conclusion to be drawn from them requires.
- If someone continually says ‘no’ ask the question in the opposite to get them to say ‘yes’
- Use support for particular cases to suggest support of generalised cases.
- Use phrases, words or metaphors which suggest a positive interpretation of the preferred position.
- Give an exaggerated and less favourable view of a counter-proposition.
- When the argument is not going their way, claim victory anyway
- Suggest seemingly absurd propositions from the opponent’s arguments.
- Say the equivalent of ‘If you are not happy about the situation, why don’t you do something about it (e.g. leave, resign, speak up)?’.
- If the opponent presses counter-proof, advance a subtle distinction.
- Interrupt, break or divert a successful line of enquiry.
- If pressed to find an objection in a winning argument, make generalised criticism of the human condition.
- Draw final conclusions yourself, even though some of the premises are lacking.
- Counter superficial and misleading arguments with equally unsound arguments.
- Create a circular argument, where the conclusion appears both at the beginning and the end of the argument.
- Irritate your opponent into exaggerating their argument through contradiction and contention.
- State a false deductive argument.
- Identify a single instance to the contrary to overturn their argument
- Turn their opponent’s arguments against them.
- If an argument accidentally causes anger, press the point more to exploit the weak spot.
- Use ridicule and laughter against an opponent, to get the audience on your side.
- If the argument is being lost, create a diversion.
- Appeal to authority or universally held opinion, rather than to reason.
- Declare a lack of understanding of the opponent’s argument.
- Link their opponent’s argument with an ‘odious’ category or ‘ism’.
- State ‘that is all very well in theory, but it will not work in practice’.
- If a weakness is identified and reduces them to silence, press the point more
- Demonstrate that the opponent’s viewpoint is contradictory to their self-interest.
- Puzzle and bewilder, by blasting with words assumed to have meaning.
- Refute a faulty proof to a correct argument and use it to discredit the whole position.
- Become personally insulting and rude.
When you read about these strategems did any particular person, politician, manager, politician, relative, politician come to mind?
As you can see, the whole premise of the Controversial Dialectic is ‘I positive, you negative’, so it is essentially an aggressive stance. I have included these stratagems not to suggest you learn them, but to make you aware of their existence. Once you realise you are dealing with someone who likes to indulge in this type of interaction, you can prepare some more considered responses.
At a very primitive level, as human beings we are programmed to defend ourselves or attack the opponent if threatened. Faced with the very sophisticated and skilled stimulus used by a very tiny proportion of the population, even people with highly developed interpersonal skills find themselves either defending themselves or attacking the other person.
This may involve doing masses of additional work that they know is unnecessary, or justifying their actions for reasons which they cannot quite explain. Alternatively, they become very emotional or angry, despite all their efforts to control their reactions.
What arch manipulators do is create chaos where none existed before and know what ‘buttons’ to press to get people to act emotionally and fall out with people that they used to previously get on with. When this over reaction occurs the spotlight is taken off the manipulator who can then carve out a pathway to their goal.
Defusing the arch manipulator – a practical example
In the chapter on assertiveness we left a finance director successfully saying ‘no’ to an aggressive department head wanting additional funding without producing a business plan. If the department head was an arch manipulator, that would not be the end of the story.
The department head would continue to work behind the scenes to undermine the finance director. They would arrange or just turn up at meetings where the director is finance is present where the agenda has no relevance to them and ask the director impossible questions and then verbally attack their response, which will weaken them and put them on their guard for the next time they meet.
They will have organised a meeting as soon after this personally challenging event as possible and raise their issue again whilst their victim is still licking their wounds.
They will drop in and visit people who interact with and work close to the director. After a pleasant chat they will gently suggest that they question the competence of the finance director and plant insecurities in their mind about the director of finance’s role, which they will feel complelled to express at meetings. When writing up documents or emails they will deliberately misinterpret something the director has done or said and include an implied criticism, which the recipient would feel compelled to respond to. They ask deceptively simple questions of the director and his incredibly busy team which appear to be relevant but will involve a considerable amount of extra work with very little benefit. When they challenge the request, the department head will declare a greater understanding of the issue than the team designated to do the job.
Another tactic is to find someone with another project who likes to ‘nit pick’ and encourage them to ask lots of questions about their project to the director of finance. When they get the answers to their questions the arch manipulator will encourage them to check the answers by making the request or similar requests again. They will find an agenda, which is attractive to others and dangle that in front of them to subtly encourage them to say nothing about their behaviour behind the scenes. The arch manipulator will cross boundaries by ringing the director and people around them in the evenings and weekends asking questions of little importance. When they protest the arch manipulator will suggest that their agenda is more important than theirs.
If this campaign is prolonged over a long period of time. The director of finance and the people around them will get busier whilst at the same time their sense of being calm and centred would be knocked. They will be less able to keep their ‘eyes on the ball’. As a result of this behaviour the chances are that the finance director will lose their sense of control and will end up ‘fighting so many fires’ that the funding request goes through unchallenged. It is also interesting to note that the reason for the original request – to get additional funding – almost seems to get lost as the main focus for the activity is replaced with the need to win at all costs.
So what do you do if you have an arch manipulator in your midst? The simple answer is to first recognise it is happening and then not feed the behaviour in any way.
Manipulators are very skilled at causing a reaction, so when they push your ‘buttons’ to make you angry or defensive, calm down and use one of the assertiveness techniques of broken record, fogging, negative assertion and negative enquiry. This is easier said that done since you will be put under extreme pressure to react. When you manage to stay in control, you will start to defuse their manipulations.
It may take a while for you to realise that whatever you say or do, you are not going to ‘win’, because you are not in an environment where logic or rational thinking has any relevance. You can then decide not to play the game, despite the very strong invitations you are receiving to engage in this behaviour.
Once you are aware of the existence of this phenomenon, you use the step by step approach to identify them, defuse their behaviour and create your own strategies to deal with it.
This is an excerpt from the People Skills Revolution Handbook which would also give you a step-by-step approach to defuse the arch manipulator.
With thanks to Jo Grant for permission to use her photographs in this blog.
Please note that this blog is copyright (2016) and cannot be reproduced in part or whole in any form whatsoever without the prior permission of Pamela Milne, the author.