Like the fish don't see the water they swim in, people don't often see how their conversations are infused with manipulation. One of the goals in ourwork is making the manipulation visible. (Our definition is that we aremanipulating anytime we try to get someone to think or behave in a certain
way without revealing our true intentions.)
Manipulation can take the form of name dropping, hidden agendas, spinning information, deliberate deceptions, exaggerating a sense of urgency or making promises about the future that are impossible to keep. People who engage in techniques such as these, intentional or not, create something that no one can believe in. Silvia Covacio, a communications professor at University of South Australia considers such deception a psychological control tactic, requiring the sender to devise stories containing a mix of fact and fantasy.
It's what happens at work when serious problems or difficult issues are repackaged as opportunities, and people are told to get on board with a change because the boss says so. That might get you compliance, but it's probably not going to get you commitment and creativity.
Two recent media reports underscored just how common - and celebrated -manipulation is in our society. In fact, these two examples show how it can be taken to an art form.
In an interview with magazine writer Deborah Solomon, Frank Luntz, a conservative political pundit and pollster, talks about how he helps politicians create phrases and other linguistic fancy footwork to manipulate voters. The Language of Health Care, authored by Luntz, ts a 28-page memo where he recommends that Republicans in the U.S. Congress use ominous phrases when they talk about health care reform. He also is responsible for vernacular such as death tax (instead of estate tax)
or energy exploration instead of drilling for oil. What ramifications do such tactics have when we need to have open, honest discussions about such important issues?
Another example of the way manipulation as a corporate objective can be found in a story published in the business section of The New York Times. Business reporter Charles Duhigg chronicled the way major credit card companies use techniques developed by psychologists and data analysts to
recover bad debts. Call center workers are given electronic dossiers with information and tips that can help them frame their messages in a way most likely to persuade customers to make good on their delinquent credit card balances. They are trained in corporate-sponsored classes with titles like
The Psychology of Collections. As one employee said in the article, It's all about getting inside their heads and understanding what they need to hear.
To have such conversations, you have to see people as objects, things to used as a means to your ends. Manipulation is compelling because we have all learned that it can be an effective way to get what we want in the moment. But at what cost? Manipulation might work, but it also destroys trust, creates parent-child relationships, fosters resentment and cynicism. When you choose to manipulate others, you are creating a world in which no one can believe.
So how do we break out of this counterproductive habit and start constructing conversations based on truth, full disclosure and engagement? How can we begin talking to each other in ways that help us create a shared futures based on something we can both believe in. One place to start is by
asking yourself a few questions:
← What types of situations cause me to use language for manipulation?
← How do I feel when people try to manipulate me?
← What am I afraid of losing if I stop using manipulation?
← What would I gain if I began dealing with people honestly and
The answers to these questions do have serious business implications. They can make the difference between a place where people see their job as showing up and one where commitment and passion fuel business success.
Once you take a stand on you who want to be in the world, the choice between contributing to a world governed by self-interest and getting your way or creating something you can believe in becomes clear.