Founder of New Horizons Child and Family Institute
El Dorado Hills
April 18, 2021
The Surprising Benefits of Manipulation
Manipulation generally gets a bad rap, and for good reason. We commonly use the term when we describe its more nefarious practice, i.e., when we intentionally use an insidious, indirect way to influence someone’s behavior without their awareness for our own gain often at the expense of theirs. I think we can all generally agree that when we’re manipulated in this way none of us much cares for it, rightfully so.
But there’s another form of manipulation that’s far more common, benign, and in many cases dare I say it? Benevolent and loving.
Defining Benevolent Manipulation
Let’s define manipulation in a slightly different, but equally accurate way: it’s when we use an indirect method to influence another person’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior without the person’s awareness that we’ve done so in a way that benefits them.
My fellow psychotherapists and I manipulate our clients all the time, right and left, unashamedly, sometimes for the entire session. And we’d be terrible therapists if we didn’t. Here’s why.
We’ve learned (and I bet you have too and you just don’t know it) that sometimes when we try a direct approach to counter someone’s negative beliefs, it often doesn’t go very well. For example, if someone comes into my office and says something along the lines of “I have no friends because I’m not a very likable, interesting, fun, (fill in the blank), person,” I know that if I directly counter that belief with the direct approach (“No, I really like you and I think you have a number of good qualities”) it falls flat, bounces off, and does nothing remotely helpful for them. In fact, often when we counter someone’s firmly held belief the person tends to lock down even tighter on that belief. Think of it as the law of opposites—the harder we pull on our side of the argument the harder the person pulls in response. If you don’t believe me just listen to any two people in an argument.
We do it all the time–because it helps people
What works far better in helping someone change their beliefs in a more positive (and true) direction is to ask questions which help them disconfirm their own negative belief. This is the essence of cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), a staple among most modern therapists. For example, if a parent says “I’m a terrible mom” the exchange would flow something like this:
Patient: I’m a terrible mom and it makes me feel sad and ashamed.
Therapist: Oh really, okay. How did you decide that was true? That you’re terrible mom?
P: Well my kids argue with me and we fight all the time.
T: I see. Well the fact that you’re bringing this up and you’re sad about it suggests that being a good mom is important to you? That it matters? If so that’s a very cool quality. Bad moms in my experience generally don’t care all that much about how they’re doing so that already tells me something positive about you. So it’s 24/7 nonstop chaos in your house? Never a moment of peace from sun up to sundown? That must be awful.
P: Okay, not all the time I guess, but more than I would like.
T: That’s reasonable. But you said you were a terrible mom. I’m wondering if that’s a fair statement? The arguing thing you’d like to change, yes, but is there anything you do that might park you into the good mom category?
P: Like what?
T: Well, I’m not sure. But good parents, I think, deeply love their children. Provide for them. Try to keep them safe. Teach them right from wrong, tell them school is important, ask them to brush their teeth, read them bedtime stories, pull them off the X-Box knowing they’ll probably be mad about it, hold them when they cry. You do none of those things?
P: Ok, yes, I guess that’s true. I do all of those things. I didn’t think of it that way.
T: So what can we agree on? That being a good mom is important to you. We’ve established that. Also that you’re actually a pretty good mom in a lot of ways that really count. But a good mom that wants to learn ways to argue less with her kids? Is this true? I’d be happy to help you with that.
It would have been pointless for me to just tell her she was a good mom (I already knew she was but it’s ineffective to just tell her that); far better for her to look at the evidence she herself presents and can agree with in order for her to arrive at a different conclusion all on her own.
Did I manipulate her? By our definition, yes, I sure did because the direct approach won’t work. And she had no idea I was doing it. I manipulated her for a benevolent purpose: to help her see her own truth and in turn relieve her suffering.
This is not unique to therapy
This doesn’t just happen in therapy by the way; manipulation (helping someone in an indirect way) with benevolent intent occurs every day in human relationships. A little boy wakes up at night and is scared after a bad dream—dad goes in and turns on the lights, tucks him in, and reads his favorite story to him rather than just telling him not to be scared and go back to bed. Your best friend has an especially painful breakup and so you take her out for coffee and try to make her laugh knowing that if she laughs she’ll feel better. A student has test anxiety so you teach them organization skills because you know that will help them feel more confident rather than just reassuring them they’ll probably do fine on the test. A shy kid in class finally raises their hand and you praise them on their thoughtful comment knowing they’ll be more likely to speak out again as a result. Your partner comes home from a bad day at work and is irritable with you but rather than becoming irritable in return you light some candles and draw a bath for them. And a million more examples just like these.
Indirect? Totally. But benevolent, kind, affectionate, and ultimately loving? Absolutely, 100% yes.
About the Author
Dr. Paul Sunseri is a psychologist, researcher, consultant, and TEDx speaker (August 2021). He is the founder and Director of the New Horizons Child & Family Institute in El Dorado Hills, California. In addition to treating adults and couples in his private practice, Dr. Sunseri is also the developer of Intensive In-Home Family Treatment (myIIFT.org). IIFT is a family-based treatment model for children and adolescents with severe mental illness (significant depression, anxiety, self-harm, and highly oppositional behavior). The model is based on Dr. Sunseri’s research on the importance of family therapy (Family as Medicine), and it is designed to for children and adolescents at risk for hospitalization or residential care, or for situations in which outpatient therapy has not been effective.