People who are highly manipulative but deny it often display these 7 subtle behaviors

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If you are a regular reader here at Hackspirit, you will know that I often write about manipulation. But looking back on some of my previous posts, I’ve realized I don’t say one thing enough: most people are good. 

That said, the harsh truth is that not everyone is. And the most dangerous are those that hide it well.

I’ve been burned by such people in the past, but on reflection, the writing was on the wall. If I had known what to watch out for, I could have saved myself much stress and embarrassment. 

With this in mind, we dive into seven behaviors that show someone might be secretly manipulative.

Knowing these can help us avoid getting hurt and build better relationships. 

Let’s get to it. 

1) They use guilt-tripping to get what they want

Guilt-tripping is a subtle yet potent tool in the manipulator’s arsenal, especially prevalent in intimate connections like those with family, close friends, or partners. 

And let’s not beat around the bush; it’s a maneuver that cuts deep, exploiting bonds of trust.

They might things say, “After all I’ve done for you, can’t you do this one thing for me?” In doing so, they weaponize guilt and nudge us toward decisions that serve their ends, not ours.

The worst part is that because it’s typically people close to us who employ this tactic, we are more inclined to look the other way. 

But we shouldn’t. Guilt is hugely damaging; a 2018 study found that it can erode self-esteem and make us isolated. 

No one who truly cares for us would put this on us. People who truly care for us don’t keep score or employ such emotional blackmail.

If you find yourself ensnared in such a dynamic, there are a few strategies to reclaim your autonomy. 

First, consider reducing your interactions with the manipulator, creating physical and emotional distance to mitigate their influence. 

If cutting ties isn’t feasible or desired, initiate a dialogue. Sometimes, the manipulator may not fully grasp the impact of their actions. 

By setting firm boundaries and clearly articulating your needs and the repercussions of overstepping, you can foster a healthier interaction pattern, one that respects your well-being.

2) They subtly but consistently undermine others 

So you’re in your office, and a coworker begins to comment on another team member’s recent project who is not present. They say, “It’s amazing how well John is doing, considering he’s juggling so much.

I wonder if he might need some help to keep up?” or “Sarah’s really taking the lead on this one. It’s great, but do you think it’s a bit much for her?.”

Sound familiar?

At first glance, such remarks might come across as concerned and considerate, possibly even giving the impression that the person making them is a supportive and observant team member. 

However, if you listen closely and observe the pattern, you’ll notice a subtle yet persistent undercurrent of undermining. Such comments are often designed to sow seeds of doubt about the competence and capabilities of others.

The individual employing this tactic is often adept at maintaining a facade of being helpful and engaged, making it challenging for others to pinpoint the manipulation.

They leverage this approach to subtly diminish others’ reputations, casting shadows on their achievements and planting the idea that perhaps these team members aren’t as capable or reliable as they seem.

What makes this behavior even more damaging is its cumulative effect. A single offhand remark might not leave a lasting impression, but when such comments are made consistently, they begin to shape perceptions.

Over time, this can erode trust within the team, create unnecessary tensions, and even influence how leadership views the abilities and contributions of certain team members.

In a professional setting, where teamwork and collaboration are pivotal, recognizing and addressing this manipulative behavior is crucial.

It’s essential to foster an environment where feedback is direct, constructive, and offered with the genuine intent of helping others grow, rather than undermining their confidence and stature within the team. 

3) They skilfully “pass the buck”

This is a big one. 

It involves shifting responsibility and blame onto others, effectively absolving themselves of any wrongdoing.

For example, when a deadline is missed, they might say, “I thought you were going to finalize that part,” or if a problem arises in a project, they might comment, “Well, I only proceeded because I got the green light from you.”

Dealing with this isn’t easy, but here are a few suggestions from Clinical Psychologist Daniel S. Lobel

  • Confront them: Approach them calmly but assertively. Make it clear that you recognize their attempts to shift blame and that such behavior is unacceptable. It’s crucial to assert your boundaries firmly.
  • Don’t make it personal: Understand that their manipulative behavior is a reflection of their issues, not a measure of your worth. Maintaining emotional distance can help protect your well-being.
  • Focus on the situation, not the person’s character: When discussing problematic behavior, concentrate on specific incidents rather than making generalized statements about their character. This can help prevent the conversation from escalating into personal attacks, which may lead to further manipulation.

4) They make others feel like they are the problem 

“You’re too sensitive.” “Why are you getting so upset?” “No offense, but…” Ring a bell? 

These phrases are classic signs of someone who’s mastered the art of passive-aggression

While they might seem quite harmless or even well-intentioned on the surface, they are often employed to make us feel like we are the problem and slowly grind our confidence down, making us more susceptible to persuasion.  

What other phrases should we look out for?

I’ve already written a full post on this; for a deeper dive, you can find it here

5) They weaponize information shared in confidence

Ever confided in someone during a moment of vulnerability, only to have that same information later used against you? 

It happens. 

In fact, it’s all too common with highly manipulative individuals who, under the guise of being attentive friends, store personal revelations to leverage them at opportune moments. 

As noted by Preston Ni, a professor and author: 

 “Manipulators can detect a person’s weaknesses and will repeatedly ask that person to give themselves up to serve the manipulator’s interests.”

For example, they might subtly remind us of past mistakes or amplify our insecurities during critical decisions, influencing our actions to suit their agenda.

Recognizing these sneaky tactics is the first step in dealing with them

When you do notice them, it’s important to remember that it’s more about their own issues than anything wrong with you. 

Then, you can try to talk things out openly or set boundaries to stop this behavior from affecting you. It’s all about keeping things clear and not letting their indirect jabs get to you.

6) They keep people in the dark

Imagine you’re part of a project team working on an important client deliverable. When you ask a colleague for specific data points essential for your part of the work, you receive vague responses or are told to focus on the “bigger picture.” 

As the deadline looms, you feel unprepared and increasingly uncertain about your understanding of the project’s core objectives. This not only undermines your confidence but also potentially jeopardizes the project’s success. 

Your colleague’s withholding of information places you in a difficult position, reliant on incomplete data to complete your task.

Sound familiar?

You’re not alone. 

As noted by Harvard Business Review, 60% of employees struggle to obtain crucial information from their peers. But of course, this phenomenon isn’t confined to the workplace; it can happen in personal interactions, too.

Anyway, whatever the context, manipulative individuals often employ this tactic, intentionally omitting vital information or shrouding details in secrecy.  

This plants seeds of self-doubt, making you question your grasp of situations.

Dealing with such information hoarders necessitates a blend of diplomacy and strategy. Here are a couple of approaches that can be effective:

  • Ask them directly: Confrontation can be uncomfortable, but sometimes, it’s the only way. Pose explicit questions to extract the information you need. It’s challenging for someone to withhold details when faced with direct queries.
  • Cross-check info: If you suspect you’re not getting the whole picture, it might be wise to cross-check facts with other colleagues or reliable sources. This ensures you’re not left in the dark, piecing together half-truths.

Staying informed is your right, especially when it pertains to matters affecting your decisions and well-being. Don’t let manipulative tactics undermine your confidence or leave you second-guessing.

7) They compliment others for their own benefit

We’ve all encountered someone who always seems to have the perfect compliment at the ready. And they’re the ones who make us feel seen, understood, and appreciated in just a few words. 

Beware. It may be a case of ‘too good to be true.’ 

While genuine compliments are a part of healthy interactions, some individuals master the art of flattery for less noble reasons. As Dr. George Simon highlights, “Skilled manipulators can be quite seductive and charming,” They use their words to weave a web of influence. 

Their ‘compliments’ often serve a dual purpose: to disarm and to direct. Their flattery is strategic, tailored to soften you up for a request or to sway your opinion in their favor.

Dealing with this subtle manipulation requires vigilance. 

Enjoy the praise, but weigh the giver’s words against their actions. 

Also, watch out for consistency. This can be a giveaway; a manipulator’s words often betray them when their actions fail to match up. 

When you sense that compliments are not just about appreciation but about manipulation, it’s important to establish boundaries. 

The bottom line

These behaviors might not scream manipulation at first glance. 

And that’s the point; a skilled manipulator cloaks their actions in subtlety, making them hard to pinpoint until it’s too late. 

Awareness is your first line of defense, and looking out for the above signs is a good place to start. 

As always, I hope you found some value in this post. 

Stay vigilant.

Mal James

Mal James

Originally from Ireland, Mal is a content writer, entrepreneur, and teacher with a passion for self-development, productivity, relationships, and business.

As an avid reader, Mal delves into a diverse range of genres, expanding his knowledge and honing his writing skills to empower readers to embark on their own transformative journeys.

In his downtime, Mal can be found on the golf course or exploring the beautiful landscapes and diverse culture of Vietnam, where he is now based.

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