We’ve all dealt with it. The subtle manipulations. Always angling to get what they want, but still looking like a little angel. Making you feel like you’re the problem or like you’re crazy — but you can never quite prove it …
Then you read something about how to deal with passive-aggressiveness but it doesn’t seem to help. What’s the deal?
You cannot solve a problem if you didn’t properly diagnose the problem. And we’ve all been misdiagnosing passive-aggressiveness for a long time …
The DSM-IV describes passive-aggression as a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.”
So true passive-aggression usually takes the form of non-compliance. Does that sound like “manipulation” to you? Does that sound like endless deliberate head games? Nope. And that’s because what we usually call “passive-aggressive” isn’t passive-aggressive at all …
The proper term is “covert aggression.”
Covert and passive-aggression are both indirect ways to aggress but they’re most definitely not the same thing. Passive-aggression is, as the term implies, aggressing though passivity. Examples of passive-aggression are playing the game of emotional “get-back” with someone by resisting cooperation with them, giving them the “silent treatment,” pouting or whining, not so accidentally “forgetting” something they wanted you to do because you’re angry and didn’t really feel like obliging them, etc. In contrast, covert aggression is very active, albeit veiled, aggression. When someone is being covertly aggressive, they’re using calculating, underhanded means to get what they want or manipulate the response of others while keeping their aggressive intentions under cover.
Simply put: covert aggressives want to be bad while looking good.
To all aggressives, life is a competition — and they despise losing. But the covert aggressive is in some ways the most dangerous type because they don’t look aggressive. The teddy bear has claws.
So what are their tricks — and what can you do to stop them?
Dr. George K. Simon was the supervising psychologist for the Arkansas Department of Corrections. (Yeah, he’s dealt with the worst of the worst.) His book is In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People.
Time to get overt about the covert. So how do we know when someone is a covert aggressive? And how can we identify their manipulations so we don’t fall prey to them?
By reviewing their playbook, of course …
Covert aggressive tactics 101
First, a caveat: everybody does a few of these things now and then. Just because someone lies once does not make them a pathological liar. Don’t run around diagnosing people as pure evil because they occasionally dodge blame for something. That’s just being human.
However, if you see a notable, clear pattern of manipulative behavior — a number of these used frequently and consistently — your Spidey-Sense should be tingling.
1) Feigning innocence, ignorance or confusion
Playing dumb when something awful they did is called to their attention. When someone who is very sharp suddenly acts oblivious. When someone with a great memory becomes conveniently forgetful.
George Simon explains the motive behind it thusly: “The tactic is designed to make you question your judgment and possibly your sanity.”
2) Diversion and evasion
Never giving a straight answer to a straight question. Always changing the subject when cornered.
Manipulators use distraction and diversion techniques to keep the focus off their behavior, move us off-track, and keep themselves free to promote their self-serving hidden agendas. Sometimes this can be very subtle. You may confront your manipulator on a very important issue only to find yourself minutes later wondering how you got on the topic you’re talking about then.
But it’s usually not black and white, straight-up lies. Those are too easy to catch. They’ll lie by omission or distortion.
One of the most subtle forms of distortion is being deliberately vague. This is a favorite tactic of manipulators. They will carefully craft their stories so that you form the impression that you’ve been given information but leave out essential details that would have otherwise made it possible for you to know the larger truth.
4) Charm and Anger
Why respond to an accusation when you can just distract your way out of it with flattery and humor? If cornered, they may turn to anger. Remember: anger is an involuntary emotional response. If you see it suddenly switch on or off without good reason (especially after a previous tactic failed), that’s not a sincere feeling — it’s a gambit. They’re trying to intimidate and put you on the defensive.
5) Playing the victim
Covert aggressives don’t mind seeing people suffer. But you hate seeing people suffer — and they know it. So they’ll make themselves out to be the one in distress so your compassion becomes their ally.
This tactic involves portraying oneself as a victim of circumstance or someone else’s behavior in order to gain sympathy, evoke compassion and thereby get something from another. One thing that covert-aggressive personalities count on is the fact that less calloused and hostile personalities usually can’t stand to see anyone suffering. Therefore, the tactic is simple. Convince your victim you’re suffering in some way, and they’ll try to relieve your distress.
They’ll often combine this with vilifying the actual victim for a one-two punch.
6) Rationalization and Minimization
You want to believe they’re a decent person. That means you are looking for a way to excuse their behavior. And they’re more than happy to give you one. They use your natural tendency toward confirmation bias against you.
A rationalization is the excuse an aggressor makes for engaging in what they know is an inappropriate or harmful behavior. It can be an effective tactic, especially when the explanation or justification the aggressor offers makes just enough sense that any reasonably conscientious person is likely to fall for it.
Minimization is insisting it’s “not that big a deal” or “you’re blowing this out of proportion.” To detect minimization, listen for two words: “just” and “only.”
7) Guilt-tripping and Shaming
These two are their favorites. Covert aggressives don’t feel bad — but they know you do. And if they send you on a guilt trip, you’ll ease up with the accusations.
Manipulators are skilled at using what they know to be the greater conscientiousness of their victims as a means of keeping them in a self-doubting, anxious, and submissive position … All a manipulator has to do is suggest to the conscientious person that they don’t care enough, are too selfish, etc., and that person immediately starts to feel bad.
And shaming is putting someone down to make them feel inadequate or unworthy so the aggressive can maintain dominance. The more you feel bad about yourself, the more likely you are to defer to them.
Do you see a consistent pattern of these tactics being used by that special someone? (They will often shamelessly cycle from one to the next, waiting to see what gets a reaction before doubling down.)
If so, the best and most effective response is simple but not always easy: walk away. “No contact.” It’s quite hard for someone to manipulate you if you never deal with them again.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Yeah, yeah — “no contact” isn’t always a realistic option. Maybe you’re married to them and have kids. They work with you and you can’t quit immediately. I get it. So we have to do this the hard way …
Suit up. We’re going in:
First, address the big picture
Let go of the misconception that you playing nice is going to get them to play nice. They’re not like you. If they were, you wouldn’t have been nodding your head while reading the above. Treating a Bengal tiger like a kitty cat is a good way to get mauled.
Know your vulnerabilities. They already do. If you’re prone to being guilted, if you’re emotionally needy, too willing to see their side of things, whatever — you need to be aware of that and compensate for it.
And most of all, you need to be focused on the one thing that really needs to change here. Think it’s them? Wrong. What really needs to change here is the only thing you have power over: your behavior toward them.
(To learn how to deal with psychopaths, click here.)
I know: you feel screwed. You want to make them pay. Or to just say they’re sorry. Good luck with that. You can’t make them do anything. But you can control what you do … So what should you do?
First thing you need is some boundaries. What will you no longer tolerate? And what will you do if they violate those boundaries? Go no further until you have concrete answers to those two questions.
Next, know what you want from them — and be prepared for consequences. If an aggressive feels like they’re losing, they’ll do anything to regain dominance. You need to anticipate their moves and know what to expect to protect yourself.
Finally, have a support system in place. You’ll need someone to provide you with a reality check and some emotional support when your CA realizes you’re on to them and starts upping the head games.
(To learn how to never be frustrated again, click here.)
Okay, prep work is done. What do you do next time you’re face-to-face and they start using their black magic?
Be on the lookout for tactics
I wouldn’t want to say you should memorize that above list of tactics … but, um, you should memorize that above list of tactics. It’s hard to properly counter something if you don’t know it’s happening.
Listen for not necessarily to what your manipulator says. Be constantly on the lookout for tactics. Label the tactics immediately when you detect them. Regardless of the kinds of tactics a manipulator is using, remember this fundamental rule: Don’t be swayed by the tactics themselves. Reinforce the idea in your mind that the manipulator is merely fighting for something. Then, respond solely on the basis of what you legitimately want or need. Don’t react instinctively and defensively to what they’re doing.
(To learn the four harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
You’re not falling into their traps. Good. But how do you confront them about their latest infraction?
Accept no excuses
If you are willing to accept an excuse, they’ll just start throwing excuses at you – deftly – until one sticks. Don’t be swayed by rationalizations. Plain and simple: judge actions, not intentions.
Getting caught up in what might be going on in an aggressor’s mind is a good way to get sidetracked from the really pertinent issue. Judge the behavior itself. If what a person does is harmful in some way, pay attention to and deal with that issue. The importance of this principle can’t be overstated. Remember, the tactics covert-aggressives use are effective tools of impression-management. They keep you second-guessing yourself about the true nature of the person you’re dealing with. So, if you base your opinions on your assumptions about intentions or are swayed by the various tactics, you’re going to be deceived about the character of the person with whom you’re dealing. Behavior patterns alone provide the information you need to make sound judgments about character. And past behavior is the single most reliable predictor of future behavior.
You need to keep the focus of the conversation on them. And avoid using sarcasm, hostility or threats. If you’re calm and polite, it’s much harder for them to say you’re the bad guy here.
(To learn how to win with a narcissist, click here.)
So how do you get them to do what you need — or stop doing what they do?
Make sirect requests. Accept only direct responses.
Without being rude, be as matter-of-fact and concrete as you can about what you want them to do. Do not give them the wiggle room that they love.
Be specific about what it is you dislike, expect, or want from the other person. Use phrases like: “I want you to … ” or “I don’t want you to … anymore.” … it gives a manipulator little room to distort (or claim they misunderstood) what you want or expect from them.
A yes-or-no question can and should be answered with one word. If they won’t give it, they’re already laying the groundwork for their Houdini escape from the agreement.
Once you’ve made a clear, direct request, insist on a clear, direct answer. Whenever you don’t get one, ask again. Don’t do this in a hostile or threatening way, but respectfully assert the issue you raised is important and deserves to be forthrightly addressed … Most direct, appropriate questions can be answered with a simple direct answer. If you get more than that, less than that, or something completely foreign to that, you can assume, at least to some degree, someone is trying to manipulate you.
(To learn how to stop being a pushover, click here.)
And what’s the final — and single most powerful technique — for dealing with a covert aggressive?
Focus on win-win
Aggressives will often play ball if you have something they want. But if they have to lose, they’ll make sure you do too. So you absolutely want to propose as many win-win solutions as possible.
Remember that an aggressive personality will do almost anything to avoid losing. So, once you’ve defined some terms and conditions by which the aggressor can have at least something they want, you’re half way home. Seeking out and proposing as many ways as possible for both of you to get something out of doing things differently opens the door to a much less conflicted relationship with both aggressive and covert-aggressive personalities.
You want an agreement that is clear and enforceable because if there’s a way to wiggle out, they’ll find it. And whatever you do, don’t make promises you can’t keep — then they’ll have a legit reason to paint you as the bad guy.
But as long as you structure the bargain effectively, win-win is the single most powerful tool in your arsenal. Why?
Because it puts the unrelenting power of their aggressive personality to work for you.
(To learn the secret to overcoming bullies at work, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up — and learn how to avoid the worst possible scenario …
This is how to deal with passive aggressive (actually, covert aggressive) people:
- Address the big picture: Stop thinking they’re like you. Address your vulnerabilities. Focus on what you can control — your own behavior.
- Prepare for the next encounter: Establish boundaries. Know what you want. Be ready for consequences. Get support.
- Be on the lookout for tactics: It’s really hard to block a roundhouse kick if you don’t know what a roundhouse kick looks like.
- Accept no excuses: “I don’t care why you waterboarded Larry; my problem is that you waterboarded Larry.”
- Make direct requests, accept only direct responses: Yes or no will do just fine, thanks.
- Focus on win-win: It doesn’t force them to learn a foreign language like “kindness” or “altruism.” They get what they want if you get what you want. And if they won’t say what they want, then it’s definitely something you don’t want.
The worst case scenario has nothing to do with this covert aggressive person, actually. It’s all about what happens after …
Nobody likes to get burned twice, so it can seem quite reasonable to keep your guard up. All the time. To be forever vigilant and skeptical of everyone. But this is like fixing your roach problem by burning your house down.
Research shows that, over the long haul, trusting is better than not trusting. And starting off mistrusting can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, there are bad people out there you’ll have to contend with. But as Marcus Aurelius once said:
The best way to avenge yourself is to not be like that.
Dealing with bad people should always lead you to do one thing:
Appreciating the good people in your life all that much more.
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