Developing An Inner Meter on Manipulation — A Critical Life Skill

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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

Five Key Signals To Be Able To See Manipulation and “Buy Out” of It: Using Highly Workable Strategies and Stress Inoculation

You can’t talk your way out of problems you behaved yourself into.
—Stephen R. Covey


People say a lot of things. With poor behavior and attitude, no amount of talking will talk you out of the problems you behaved yourself into, as author Stephen R. Covey notes above. This sure doesn’t stop people from giving it their best shot at doing just this. This is one example of manipulation, with most manipulation being passive-aggressive behavior. If every interaction is a negotiation, then you might as well add manipulation usually being on center stage too! In contrast, you can be straight and assertive. An assertive person can stand up for herself, express her true feelings and not let anyone take advantage of her, and still be considerate and respectful of another person’s feelings, interests and wants.

A good way to become aware of manipulation is to notice when you’re doing what someone else wants instead of what you want, what another expects from you that you really have not signed up for. Feeling vaguely uncomfortable, unsettled, disconnected and imbalanced can be signs you’re allowing or permitting yourself to be manipulated. Likewise for growing irritation, annoyance, and frustration, all different levels of anger. Perceiving your life as out of order, unfitting or amiss are warnings. Also nervous, jumpy behavior of yours or another’s is worth noticing, putting you on manipulation alert.

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All such bodily feedback serves as important signals that it likely you are being “set up,” consciously or unconsciously, to be manipulated. Developing what can be called “an inner meter on manipulation” is a critical life skill in becoming an assertive person and being able to count on yourself as your own authority. Here are five core signals to support your awareness to clearly see manipulation:

  • Experiencing a “wobble”, discomfort or incongruity in a given interpersonal environment: You feel unsure, doubting the realness of what is going on and not on solid ground within yourself;
  • A lack of value resonance: The values underlying actions and words do not reflect what is important to you, thus showing a lack of connection and resonance to the values presented;
  • Feeling drained, very tired and exhausted after interpersonal interactions (not attributed to challenging physical, emotional or relational work): Being with certain people and in specific environments is associated with feeling physically and emotionally drained, especially when you give a great deal and receive little in return. This phenomenon is sometimes likened to being around “emotional vampires” that drain you of all your blood, energy and fortitude and give back little to nothing, or the astronomical term “black holes” that suck up all light and send none out;
  • Ego, as an imaginary false sense of self, is evident and activated in the form of enacting and enlisting others in the person’s ego agendas: Being unconsciously led around by ego agendas, or someone aiming to get something or somewhere, is like being sweep away on a tsunami of another’s needs and wants, goals and plans, that you were neither asked about nor signed up for;
  • You feel a tendency, push or urge, or simply begin speaking and acting, in such a way that is clearly not you: You don’t recognize yourself in your verbal and action behavior because you are not saying and doing what you would normally and naturally be saying and doing-Unreal!

The critical and most important factor in these five key signals for manipulation is that you are letting yourself behave in a manner different than how you would normally and naturally perform in your life-literally not being yourself. Whenever one or more of these key signals are clearly present and you hear the wake-up call, you can accurately call this your inner meter on manipulation. With the people we’re closest with, we can notice the same with them and whether they’re being manipulated, and we can alert them as well. When your inner meter on manipulation begins to ring, it is worth heeding this warning and take immediate actions, often paradoxically by doing absolutely nothing. It is in non-action that you “buy out” of saying and doing anything that you would typically not say or do.

At times almost every one is victimized, yet the role of being a “victim” of circumstances, situations and other people is largely optional. Typically no one enacted the dreaded “to me’s”, “at me’s”, “on me’s”, “upon me’s” and “made me’s, with the exceptions of the usually infrequent criminal actions or catastrophic natural circumstances. Once you are beyond the age of reason, approximately 9-years-old, and with few exceptions, life simply doesn’t work this way. There are set-ups in life, that is, you are lead or expected to say and act in the way the other party wants. Examples include someone using guilt, obnoxiousness or anger to be right or get their way. How you behave in the face of set-ups always remains up to you, not another or any set of circumstances.

Even in severe circumstances, what happened is simply what happened and the attitude you bring or the mindset or cognitive frame you put around or hold circumstances is completely yours. A famous example is the author Victor Frankl who lived through being in a Nazi Germany concentration camp. Frankl eloquently wrote that what attitude anyone brings to any situation, even the most hellish and extreme, was completely up to that person. Within this context, what happens doesn’t happen directly “to me”, it just happens. For example, when a person leaves or rejects being with you, doesn’t reality feedback tell you that they just left, not left “you”; rejected themselves, not rejected “you”?

The way out of manipulative stratagems is straightforward, tough and rewarding: continually practice awakening to recognize manipulation as early as possible; resist the impulse to react emotionally or behave in a defeating or destructive way, sometimes called “acting out”; heed the warning and consciously behave as you would have if you had not been unexposed to this attempted misuse of your life by setting unmistakably clear limits and offering remarkably translucent choices.

Illustrations abound showing manipulative set-ups and how to steer clear of them. Rescripting, or re-perceiving and rewriting old ideas, images and decisions in a new, healthier way that is workable today, is central. You can rescript each manipulative scenario and visualize how you would behave in each situation without becoming ensnared in the set-up. A phone solicitor aims to convince you to switch your long-distance telephone services or health insurance, when you are perfectly pleased with your present ones. Rescript this by briefly stating you don’t conduct such business over the phone, you’re not interested, or to send you further information if you prefer.

Other examples: an advertiser wanting you to buy some product, such as cologne or toothpaste, with the message that you will attract a beautiful or handsome mate; or your children demand you buy them specific clothes, toys or games you don’t approve of buying. You can rewrite each of these by plainly translating the truth about ads or demands and by making your choice concerning products or services that meet your or your children’s needs, all without caving and selling out who you truly are.

Another illustration: a relative uses guilt to twist your arm so you’ll visit more regularly. Consider briefly informing this individual of your preference and, if you wish, your rationale, without explaining or giving reasons for anything. The truth is that we all have choices, and it’s important to know and honor them. The non-manipulated life belongs to you, unless you play small, needy and false.

The everyday give-and-take of social relationships provides trade-offs, that is, each alternative yields different gains and losses, some of which produce benefits and others that cost you dear if you play the tape all the way though. Attending a business function may be good business, yet socially intimidating. To date a new person can be exciting, yet scary. Our choices reflect these trade-offs and the complexity of life. Sometimes we bend in other people’s directions and sometimes we hold true to our own direction. This is social balancing. Yet, manipulation infers no respect for choice or well-being.

Authors Davis, Eshelman and McKay 1 offer a broad palette of techniques to overcome the predicable blocking gambits others are likely to use in not honestly responding to your assertive requests. Each approach is a savvy strategy to powerfully avoid, sidestep, and “buy out” of manipulation.

  • Broken Record: Choose a concise phrase or sentence to repeat over and over, such as “The candy is gone,” or “I’m not buying anything today,” or “I want a refund for this defective item.” While you can briefly acknowledge hearing what another says, “Yes, I agree, and as I was saying” or “Yes, I know, and I still want” or “Yes, and getting back to the point,” you stay on-point, on-message, and on-task.
  • Content-to-Process Shift: You wisely shift attention from the topic or content of discussion to the form or process of the conversation between you. For instance, “Gee, you seem to be getting really annoyed with me,” or “Now we’re getting caught up on extraneous issues,” or “I notice that you keep changing the topic, instead of staying on the topic I’m bringing up and want to seriously address.”
  • Defusing: Given another’s anger or emotional outburst, you refrain from further discussion until he has calmed down and can continue a useful conversation. You might say, “Let’s stop at this point and continue early this evening once you’ve calmed down,” or “I see how incredibly difficult and emotionally upsetting this conversation is for you, so let’s talk more sometime tomorrow.”
  • Assertive Delay: You deliberately delay responding to a challenging statement until you are calm and prepared to handle it most appropriately. For example, you can say, “I’ll have to sit with this and get back with you about this,” or “I choose to reserve judgment right now and address this later.”
  • Assertive Agreement: Own, acknowledge and offer thanks for any specific complaint or critical feedback that you can honestly agree. An illustration: “I wasn’t at my best in handling that situation,” or “I was twenty minutes tardy for that meeting”, or “You are correct that it was inappropriate to swear to make my point.”
  • Clouding: Choose to not address any complaint, criticism or put down, and only address complaints or criticism that you do agree with. Rephrase the criticism so you can honestly concur or agree. You can agree in part: “You are accurate in my handing in sloppy work for the secretary to type.” Or you can agree in the probability: “You may be correct that I am often tardy by ten minutes to meetings.” Or you can agree in principle: “I see your logic that if I was as socially awkward as you claim, then it would certainly get in the way of my conducting good business.”
  • Assertive Inquiry: Challenge the criticism to help discover what is really underlying it. For example, “Since your upset seems really out of proportion to these circumstances, what are you really so upset about? Did something happen I don’t know about?” Or ask, “I wonder what you are so bothered about by my speaking out?” or “What seems to be your problem with my comments?”

These same authors present ways people tend to further block assertive requests and what you can do:

  • Laughing it off: Your assertive inquiry is reacted to like a joke. You can use the Broken Record or Content-to-Process Shift. You do not “take insult” to their insulting, outrageous behavior.
  • Accusing Gambit: You are simply blamed for the problem. You can disagree or use Clouding.
  • The Beat-up: Your declaration is met with a personal attack and character assassination. Again, you can use the Broken Record or Defusing, yet Assertive Irony (“Thank you!”) may be the best.
  • Delaying Gambit: The other person wants to delay their response because they are too tired or simply brush it off as inconvenient. You can use the Broken Record or simply insist on a specific time and date when the issue can be seriously examined, appropriately debated and discussed.
  • Why Gambit: All assertions are blocked repeatedly by asking the question, “Why?” Besides using the Broken Record once again, possibly the best is to use the Content-to-Process Shift (“It’s not about “why” anything. That’s missing the point. The real issue is…”
  • Self-Pity Gambit: Your declaration is met with sadness, tears and turning away, sending the message that you are being hurtfully sadistic by continuing in this thread of conversation. You can use Assertive Agreement (e.g., “I get this topic is a painful one, and it is important to resolve it.”)
  • Quibbling: The person wants to nitpick and debate the legitimacy of how you feel or think, the strength of the problem, or whether they want to address it at all. Comment on the process by using a Content-to-Process Shift, Defusing or Assertive Delay.
  • Threats: Your assertion is met with a veiled indirect or blatantly direct threat of bad consequences. Use Assertive Inquiry, Defusing, Assertive Delay or Content-to-Process Shift.
  • Denial: As obviously ridiculous as it may appear, your assertion is met with outright denial, such as “I just didn’t do that,” or “You’ve misunderstood me”, or “You’ve confused me with my identical twin brother…” (!) Stand in present awareness and report what you’ve heard and observed.

Another very powerful intervention for spotting, avoiding and productively addressing manipulation is the use of “stress inoculation” when addressing difficult “stressors”, or what demands a change from you. The idea behind stress inoculation, first suggested by researcher Donald Meichenbaum with his development of cognitive-behavioral therapy and further contributed to by Raymond Novaco in the 1970’s, 2, 3 was to provide people ways to perceive, evaluate and use self-talk in addressing challenging events as a means to build self-confidence and resiliency in handling stessors in their lives. By anticipating every step in a difficult encounter, draw upon helpful, empowering ways to perceive, evaluate and hold the specific circumstances, using honest supportive statements coupled with relaxation, it would inoculate them from defeating, unworkable and inappropriate responses or reactions.

Stress inoculation is theoretically close to the use of inoculations in medicine. Like with the use of inoculations in immunizing a person from a disease by giving the person a very small dose of the disease to help build necessary antibodies and antigens against the full-fledged disease, so stress inoculation aims to inject a small dose of a difficult stressful situation, paired with relaxation and specific self-supportive statements every step in the process, to powerfully aid the person to build the coping strategies, assertive words, and inner strengths/resources to effectively handle such provocations.

In stress inoculation theory, whether anger arises in the face of some provocation is thought to be determined by what you think, say to yourself, what happens inside your body and what behavioral choices you make. The core underlying source of anger is considered to be your thinking and the changing of an angry response hinges upon your taking complete responsibility for creating the anger coming out by choosing the structure of your thoughts. This entails conducting a situational analysis of how you trigger anger using a self-monitoring technique of observing five recent anger-provoking situations. The five steps in Novaco’s Stress Inoculation treatment for anger are: 1) redefining anger; 2) conducting a situational analysis of trigger mechanisms; 3) learning relaxation skills and a sequence of stress coping thoughts; 4) applying cognitive skills to a hierarchy of anger-provoking situations; and 5) applying coping skills to real life provocations. 2, 3

The recognition and development of appropriate, effective relaxation skills for you are then used to counteract physiological tension, that tends to lower anger threshold and increases the likelihood for angry acting out. Shaping the ability to relax at will within one or two minutes affords you the ability to encounter provocative situations without physiological tension. Stress inoculation theory also includes training your awareness to notice physiological arousal from your body and any negative automatic thoughts arising in helping cope well with anger arising in real life. It can be used in applying cognitive skills to forming a hierarchy of anger-provoking situations to continue to desensitize the arousal of tension and anger. For our purposes, finding, shaping and learning a limited number of coping statements with relaxation for stressful, provocative situations that involve anger or other stress-related emotion, such as fear, loneliness, grief, despair and feeling powerless or helpless, is a focus here.

Researchers have suggested four key steps for coping with any stressful situation that involves anger or another stress-related emotion: 1) preparing; 2) confronting the situation; 3) coping with the emotional arousal during the situation; 4a) reflecting on the provocation when the problem is unresolved; and 4b) reflecting on the provocation when the conflict is resolved and coping has been successful. Here are adapted statements to use with relaxation to help cope effectively at each stage:2,3

1. Preparing for provocation

I’ll stay present and bring a vision for coping well. These thoughts are just thoughts and they will fade.
What is there for me to do right now? How about staying present and engaged, real and relaxed.
Let’s turn our attention from the worry and do what is essential right now for everyone’s well being.
Instead of what I usually do, I can relax right now and do what works for everyone: a win-win-win.
I’ll take one thing, one step, one action at a time to help ensure all works well and is well.
What appears will disappear, what arises will fade, what comes will go-I will remain well.
I don’t have to take all this too seriously. This too will pass and I’ll be just fine.
I can handle this; I’ve done it before and I know I can do it again.
Usually I would upset myself over this, and I know I can calmly handle this so much better than I think.
Easy does it, and I choose to remember to keep it all in perspective.
This sure looks like a testy situation, and let’s keep our sense of humor and confidence.
I know I can handle this one too, step by step by step, one right after another.
Time for a few long, slow, deep, timeless breaths of relaxation to feel comfortably at ease.
I am fully capable of handling this situation and using great self-regulation with these feelings.
And if I find upset, frustration and anger arising, I’ll know exactly what to do and do it very well.
I can count on myself to use all the resources within me to cope remarkably well with almost anything.

2. Impact and confrontation

What comes will go; this too will surely pass and I will remain.
I am now releasing all unworkable scary thoughts and all that remains is seeing this working well.
Right now I am taking good care of myself and I’m all right, well and thriving.
I choose to be free of all that blocks my coping well in this moment. I take a deep breath and let it go.
It is easier and easier to let go thoughts about what others think of me; what I think of me is everything.
I know I can follow each step in my game plan here-and-now and I am absolutely worth it.
Come on now, let’s breath, stay grounded and calm. Just continue to feel more and more relaxed.
I am on top of the situation and in control of what I have control of-me.
If I keep feeding hot angry thoughts, I will not change him and only upset myself-enough! I surrender.
Let’s give attention right here-and-now purely to what you want to happen.
I am keeping my focus of attention on what I want to unfold here.
So long as I keep my cool, I’m in charge of me, no matter what anyone else does.
No one can get my goat unless I lead him to it, and that’s not going to happen, period.
I am free in this moment of any need to prove myself to anyone. I can count on me no matter what.
What payoff is there for me getting me mad? None that I can see.
I refuse to give her the satisfaction of me getting upset.
I simply won’t let him get to me no matter what he says or does.
I am equanimity itself – timelessly serene, peaceful, and calm.
Let’s look for the affirmative and positive. I only envision what I do want and release everything else.
It appears you need to act just as you do given where you’re at, and I don’t have to join you whatsoever.
It must be really tough being inside of your skin, existing in your life, facing your challenges.
I can only consider what you say and do as someone who is really hurting, as a cry for help and support.
For you to be so snippy and irritable, you must have had a hellava day, even a hellava life.
I might as well calm down since there is no point in smashing my head against this wall. No door is here.
Since there is no reality at all in doubting myself, what he says about me is none of my business.
This junky, nasty, mean-spirited reaction totally belongs to you, and I’ll let you keep it. Good riddance!

3. Coping with arousal

Attention now on your breathing, that’s right.
I’ll slowly and briefly tighten, then fully relax my neck, shoulder and back muscles.
I fully stop and release all unworkable thoughts and beliefs, and only uplifting helpful ones remain.
Let’s notice the tightness in our body, and now I can let that go and completely relax.
Where is the holding in my body right now? We can let that fly away too.
Breath calmly and deeply. Be aware of coping very well indeed.
Take this in stride, take it easy, cope well.
Let’s do what works by taking a cooperative approach.
Very possibly we’re both correct from our different perspectives. How paradoxical.
I sure could get angry, upset and frustrated over this, but there is just no percentage in it.
I’ll allow him to make a complete fool of himself, and without any help or assistance from me.
Let’s agree to disagree, unless we can find some common ground. Let’s take this point-by-point.
This anger swelling up in me right now is my body’s signal for speaking up, setting limits, taking action.
It’s time to cope in my highest and very best interest for the good of all.
I’ll stay on-task, on-purpose and on-present because this works. I am committed to what works.
I’ll let my yes be yes, and my no be no. There’s no confusion about any of this for anyone.
I simply don’t do getting pushed about, feeding angry hot thoughts, or going out of control.
I’ll stay present, witnessing my mind’s antics and giving my attention to what I DO want.
I’m being given an invitation to get upset, and I decline it. I refuse to give away my true power.
Sure I have a perfect right to be annoyed right now, and I can choose to not react and keep a lid on it.
Realistically there is no reality in expecting people to act as I want them to, for this is out of my control.
I only choose to say what my vision is, what I observe, hear and sense, so let’s do it constructively.

4. Reflecting on the provocation

a) When the problem is unresolved

Let’s now continue on our true path, taking a very deep relaxing breath.
It’s not personal so let’s not take it personally. It probably had little if anything to do with me.
Hey, can you back up a bit and take it a little lighter? It’s really not that serious you know.
Let’s remember the great shortcut-tell the whole compassionate truth to yourself. How freeing.
We know that relaxation is a whole lot better than feeding any of the old programs, issues and feelings.
I’ll just carry on in getting better at this as I get more and more practice. I’ll ever shape my coping well.
Now it’s time to shake this off and simply get on with life already.
The truth is that these are genuinely difficult situations and it will take some time to straighten them out.
I can now choose to release any built up aggravation and frustration for it all originates in my thinking.

b) When the conflict is resolved or coping is successful

Hey, good show buddy! Hot dog, did I ever handle that one well. Indeed.
Eureka, it worked! God for you! One for the home team!
That wasn’t half as bad as I thought it would be. Lo and behold! Huh?!
While it might have been worse, it wasn’t. In fact, it turned out far better than I could have imagined.
I actually got through that without any reactivity or anger. I can really do this. Huh. Hurrah!
I’m doing better and better all the time. Just look at how well that turned out. It speaks for itself.
I now know I’ve been getting me upset, angry and frustrated when it wasn’t really necessary at all.
I handled that one terrifically. Gee, I really could care less about being right. I just want it all to work.


This listing is a grand potpourri or smorgasbord, depending on whether you like dried, naturally fragrant plant material or simply like to eat a lot. Variety is here for the taking! Select what you will from each of the main categories of stress coping thoughts that resonate for you. You’re welcome to add your own creations as well, since these will most likely be the ones that will work most effectively for you. In any event, pick and memorize at least five stress coping statements from each of the coping stages. So from this moment, as you head straight into provoking situations, you are forearmed with highly supportive coping statements to face and adaptively move through such circumstances, instead of your over-learned, anger-upset-reactive automatic thoughts. It’s the difference between ending a date that went well with a relaxed, sweet, smiley, juicy kiss, or a date that didn’t go so well with a dry, posturing, phony handshake, and “See, ya.” There is just no comparison once you find what works in a relaxed way that excites your heart, stimulates your mind, and animates your soul, all manipulation-free!


1. Davis, M.; Eshelman, E. & McKay, M. (1988), The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, (Third edition). Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, 152-154.

2. Meichenbaum, D., & Cameron, R. (1974). “The clinical potential of modifying what clients say to themselves”, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 11 (2), 103-117.

3. Novaco, R.W. (1975). Anger Control: The development and evaluation of an experimental treatment. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, D.C.; Novaco, R.W. (1977). “Stress inoculation: A cognitive therapy for anger”, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 45, 600-608.

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