McLeod"She's just trying to push your buttons."

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Lisa Earle McLeod: Is your mother-in-law really smart enough to be manipulative?

Published 11:06am Wednesday, September 2, 2009

“He’s such a manipulator.”

We often accuse people of being manipulative, but do you know how hard it actually is to manipulate others?

It may seem like when, say for example, your mother (or your mother-in-law) repeats the same subtle jabs over and over that she’s doing it with the sole intent of making you nuts.
Caustic comments can feel like they are aimed directly at your heart.

But in reality, it actually takes quite a bit of skill and strategy to be manipulative.

I’ve spent years as a sales and leadership coach and another decade as a sales person myself, so trust me when I tell you, it’s really hard to manipulate people.

You have to get inside their head, think about their hot buttons and how they respond to certain things, and then choose the exact words and phrases that will elicit the response you’re going for.

You have to be three emotional steps ahead of them if you really want to be good at it.
I’ve worked with super-smart CEOs and six-figure sales reps, and even they found it challenging.

Frankly, I think we give people too much credit.

I don’t think most of us are smart enough or disciplined enough to manipulate others.
Your mother-in-law or boss may be Machiavellian genius.

But it’s more likely their annoying commentary is their own unconscious brain chatter, not a well-crafted strategy to mess with your mind.

I know that some politicians do try to manipulate our thoughts, and many of them do it quite well.

But they have speech writers, elaborate polling data and sometimes even behavior specialists and focus groups testing their messages before they start spinning them.

However, when your mother-in-law starts rearranging your throw pillows or your boss criticizes your font choice, they’re probably very unaware of how their behavior is affecting you.

We’ve all been in situations where we felt like someone was purposefully trying to push our buttons, and who hasn’t come back from a family gathering thinking, “I can’t believe it, he or she did it to me again!”

We swore we wouldn’t let them get to us, but it seemed like they knew exactly what to say to send us over the edge.

However, try to imagine it from their end.

Do you honestly think they sat down beforehand with a piece of paper and said, “Let’s make a list of all Betty’s or Bob’s hot buttons and then see if we can inflame them”?
I can envision it now, as the in-laws map out their strategy on a white board.

They post a picture of the target at the top, then, using an elaborate diagram of X’s and O’s, they plan their attack.

“OK, Herb, you take criticizing her cooking, and I’ll make snide remarks about his weight.  Bill, don’t forget to cover our flank with sarcastic comments about how they’re raising the kids. Now on three, let’s go manipulate these people. Ready, break!”

Next time you think someone is trying to manipulate you, you might want to pause and ask yourself: Do you really think they’re that clever?

Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, syndicated columnist and inspirational thought-leader.
A popular keynote speaker, Lisa is principal of McLeod & More Inc., a training and consulting firm specializing in sales, leadership and conflict management.
Her newest book is The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Resolving Conflicts Large and Small (January 2010 from Penguin Putnam).

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