How do you feel when you become aware that someone has manipulated you into doing something you really didn’t want to do?
Do you feel waves of resentment and hostility? How about betrayal? Contempt? How much does this feeling differ from when they have persuaded you with compelling reasoning, but also respected your decision if you declined?
We all learn quite early in life that we need to compromise with other people during this ridiculously hilarious rollercoaster we call life. It’s very rare that those we interact with will be wholly on board with the same ideas and directions we’d like to follow, so we end up trying to persuade them to see things the same way that we do.
That way we get what we want, right?
If a person interacts with others with respect and courtesy, then they put forth their arguments with supporting facts and whatnot, and hope that those will be powerful enough to sway the other to their side. In turn, they will listen to the other person’s arguments, and then find a compromise that causes as little tension as possible.
If, however, someone has absolutely no respect for the person they’re trying to coerce to their plan, then they’ll try to manipulate their emotions in order to get what they want by any means necessary. After all, getting their way is the only thing that matters, right?
It All Comes Down To Intent
Jonathan Fields summed things up rather perfectly when he said: “The difference between persuasion and manipulation lies largely in underlying intent and desire to create genuine benefit.”
Basically, when you’re trying to persuade somebody to do something you’d like to do, or to adopt an ideology of yours, you’re transparent about it. You both know that negotiations are going on, and you’re honest about the fact that it’s happening.
Furthermore, when you’re trying to persuade someone, you generally have their best interest at heart: you may KNOW they’ll have fun at the event you’re aiming to take them to, and you also know that they’re being hesitant because it’s out of their comfort zone. You can try to persuade them to try, and they’ll undoubtedly have a blast… which means you’ll have fun too, and everyone leaves with happiness in their hearts.
Conversely, manipulation is far less savory, and the goal is to control the other person in order to achieve what you want. Techniques are used to confuse them, fool them, gaslight them, even ridicule or guilt trip them, as long as your goal is attained. They won’t feel content or empowered at the end of it – in fact, they may be damaged by the experience… but that doesn’t really occur to the one doing the manipulation, and if it does dawn on them, too bad.
Things start to get ugly when one’s own wants take precedence over respecting the other person as… well, as a human being. When someone is utterly focused on getting what they want, no matter what, they stop thinking of the other person as an autonomous being who deserves courtesy: they’re just an obstacle in the way of achieving their goal.
When that happens, when the other is dehumanized, then it seems as though any behavior is fair game, regardless of the damage it may cause. “The ends justifies the means,” so to speak.
Let’s examine a scenario in which a mother wants her son to stay home with her instead of going out with his new girlfriend. She’s a controlling person used to getting her own way, and doesn’t like the idea that another woman is starting to exert influence on his life. When he tells his mother that he’s going out on a date with the girl, mommy dearest doesn’t want him to… but instead of persuading him to stay home with her, she’ll likely turn to manipulation because it’s more powerful, and more likely to result in her achieving her goal.
She may start with some sighing and other subtle signs of depression or illness to try to garner his sympathy, and if those gentle attempts don’t encourage action on his part, she’ll likely take things a step further. She could say that she isn’t feeling well: she might play upon existing ailments like a heart condition and say that she’s having difficulty breathing, to see if that’ll make him stay home.
If that still doesn’t work, things can escalate further, with a comment like “Well, I hope you have a good time tonight. Just know that I’m really not feeling well, so if you go out and come home to find me dead on the floor, don’t feel guilty about the fact that you weren’t here to save my life.”
If he’s a good son and he loves her, then he’ll stay home, right? Mum got what she wanted, regardless of what that result will do to her son. In that moment, it doesn’t matter that he feels resentful of her, or that he feels horrible cancelling his date, or that his girlfriend might break up with him: his mother “won.” This wasn’t persuasion; there was no benefit to her son or anyone else but her. She used manipulation to achieve HER wants, HER needs. End of.
The average person would be absolutely appalled at the idea of doing something like that to someone they claim to love, but when a person is wholly focused on what they want, it’s often difficult to be objective in the moment: while contriving to achieve their mission, they’d step on anyone’s neck in order to get their way. They may later feel remorse for what they’ve done, but there really isn’t any way to undo actions like those, is there?
What Is Your Goal?
Do you consider yourself to be a manipulative person, or a persuasive one? If you find yourself in a situation where you’re aiming to change someone’s mind, do you do so with courtesy and consideration? Or by underhanded means?
Persuasion and manipulation aren’t just different in terms of how the person ends up feeling towards you at the end: they’re also very different with regards to trust.
When and if you persuade someone of something, with their full knowledge that you’re trying to change their mind, there’s a level of trust that ensues. They realize that you’re not trying to hurt them, and if they end up benefitting from your persuasion, they’ll have a higher degree of trust in you at the end.
If, instead, they realize that you’ve manipulated them, not only will they feel used and immensely betrayed, but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll trust you again in the future. After all, if you’ve manipulated them once, how can they ever truly believe you? Even if you apologize later and promise you’ll never do so again, you’ve already set a precedent, and they’ll question everything you say or do.
If you shatter a plate and then apologize to it, those broken pieces aren’t magically going to stick themselves together again. Trust is the same: once it has been broken, it can never mend into wholeness again. Think very carefully before you even consider manipulating someone to achieve your own wants, as you may cause more damage than you realize, and you may end up losing someone you care about as a result.
Do you think this article gets it right? Is intent the critical factor that separates persuasion from manipulation? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec’s Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn’t writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.