I have noticed, from time to time, books and workshops that are advertised with bombastic promises such as: ‘take control in all communications’, ‘get people to do things you want them to do’, ‘ develop magnetic attraction’ and so on.
Everything we do influences other people, even without our knowing or meaning to. The authors of such books use this fact to argue: since we already do this, why not do it so to gain some benefit? In an article about one of those ubiquitous “pick-up artists”, I read, amongst other things, his comment that there are ways in which a man may encourage the woman he desires to be more self-confident, or that by using specific words he can suggest that she is spontaneous, has an adventurous spirit, is relaxed, etc. and that there is nothing negative about this.
Communication skills are incredibly important in human relations because with careless communication we can create a number of misunderstandings and problems. Often, though, there is a thin line between the conscious use of communication methods to improve relationships, and to influence people to do things we want them to do, but which perhaps are not what they truly want to do, or when they are not even aware of our intentions.
For example, parents who use communication techniques with their children, often don’t use them in an honest attempt to understand what their children want and feel, but to control their behaviour. In the former example of seduction workshops, such methods are used to get sex or have a short fling without disclosing one’s true intentions, and especially without considering possible emotional and physical consequences for a woman. They may also be used to get the other person to fall in love with you, before they have had a chance to get to know you better and are able to judge how much do they really like you. Furthermore, men in those workshops were encouraged to make a woman feel insecure and increase her desire to fulfill expectations.
What is “good” for others?
Promoters of the use of the art of communication to control others would say that we actually do them good, in particular if we succeed in making the other person really want to behave in the way we want, or to feel better about themselves. This idea, however, is a disrespectful attitude and implies that we know what is good for the other person better than they know. This is an egotistical and immature approach sometimes even in a parent – child relationship, and especially in relation to another adult. Even if you try to prevent somebody from making a mistake – people need mistakes. How else can we learn, if not from experience?
Even if we believe we are doing good to the other, we have to ask ourselves if we can really feel good and have a clear conscience knowing that we have influenced another person without their knowledge? Is it possible to do this with true respect for the other, if we through purposeful control put them in the position of a weaker, manipulated person? In such a relationship honesty and closeness are not likely to occur. From another perspective, is it at all possible to influence another person with their full knowledge and agreement, if we often don’t know ourselves how we influence others?
Perhaps the more you try to hide from the other person that you are trying to influence them, the more you try to do this from a disrespectful position. Communication methods are the most honest and respectful if we can apply them without hiding our intentions. I personally, for my own integrity, favour approaches which are not designed to awaken specific emotions or responses, but to help another person to consciously and independently consider both their own and my viewpoints.
What is the real purpose?
The need for power is within all people. We desire to shine, to be attractive to others, to feel powerful; for all people these are very attractive images and it’s easy to justify our attempts to achieve them. The question we rarely consider is, why do we feel the need to do this? What kind of feeling is missing inside, that makes us seek reassurance in such a manner? Why do we feel worthy enough only when we feel special or better than others? Working on our own feelings of self-esteem (and on our creativity) rather than on an external image may save us not only years but decades of effort.
Moreover, no kind of external success can change the way we feel about ourselves, except temporarily. Self-esteem must come from within rather than from without. Then it’s a feeling that is incomparably better than power over others. When you have healthy self-esteem, you will most likely act in a way that will motivate others to value and love you deeper than you could achieve using any type of trickery.
As a rule, if you feel subtly manipulated in a conversation with someone, even if you don’t understand how – it’s very likely true. Practically any communication skill can be used dishonestly. The key is the intention and the attitude of the other person, while their external behavior might be difficult to recognize as manipulative. Yet, it’s almost impossible to play that game without tiny non-verbal signals giving us out: subtle changes in tonality, increased rigidity, small incongruousness or lack of spontaneity – things that people probably won’t even notice consciously, but unconsciously they will.
In such a case, usually there is an intuitive feeling, something like “something feels strange about this, but I’m not sure what”. The sooner you acknowledge and explore that feeling, the better (but to be able to make it quickly, instead when it’s too late, you need to exercise observing your feelings.) To avoid being manipulated, often it’s a good idea to say to the other person that you need some time to think, for example if somebody is asking for a favor. Especially if you are being persuaded to make a purchase, say that you’ll be back after you have given it some thought, go outside, take a walk and contemplate the decision without external influence.
Manipulation vs. healthy self-esteem
It’s so much easier to live with honesty, instead of having to constantly control ourselves and pretend something we don’t really feel; constantly worrying if we missed something or if somebody might see through our act. Would you really want to invest so much energy into manipulation, even if you thought that there were no other problems the desire to manipulate people might be indicating?
You might be playing a short-term game, which means you are probably aware that you don’t really care about consequences for the other person. Another possibility is that you want to keep people around you impressed continuously (desire to have charisma) to be able to feel important or powerful. In this case, disrespect to others, as well as disrespect to your own self, might be unconscious – inner sense of not being worthy or important enough, which is covered by attempts to control others. A person without healthy self-esteem will be attracted to methods, books and workshops offering power and charisma, hoping to fill the inner void created by unconscious belief that their true self and honest feelings cannot attract love and appreciation.
I’ve mentioned seduction methods earlier. Often, some seduction methods are used as common and even expected “mating rituals”: flirting, gifts, emphasizing physical attributes, compliments… Sometimes, the seducer might be honestly interested, and sometimes selfishly, but since the behavior is the same, it might be difficult to distinguish one from the other. The “seduced” person might want to believe that the seducer was honest, might enjoy the attention and good feelings. Such person might hope that the “seducer” is using such stereotypical behavior because it’s a normal and familiar way to be romantic.
Sometimes it is so, yet I would say that the more natural and spontaneous one is in expressing their romantic feelings, the more likely it is that they are honest and open in the other areas of life, and that they have healthy self-esteem which allows them to be themselves. As an additional help in estimating potential love interest, observe how they communicate with people who are not so important in their lives. When the romance wears of, they will probably treat you in a similar way.
Consequences for the manipulator
When you use communication skills, ask yourself if you’re using them to hide your true intentions and feelings, or to express them in an appropriate way. Every time we use communication skills to avoid being honest and open, we also reject our own true self and a chance to accept ourselves. Also, in the future it will be more difficult to respect yourself, knowing how you used people without caring for consequences they would suffer.
The price of artificial power over others – even if we manage to achieve it – is that we could never relax and be ourselves. We’d be under pressure to keep sustaining the illusion, not only in relationships with others, but ourselves too. We’d be constantly careful and worrying if the others might finally see through us. What the authors of all those books on charisma and persuasion won’t tell you, is that having control over others presumes much worse, painful control over yourself, over the honest and healthy parts of you. Perhaps there are few better examples of the “boomerang – effect” than the methods for controlling others.
If you are tempted to try this kind of games, ask yourself: do you want relaxed, spontaneous relationships with healthy people who wouldn’t tolerate such games, people who see you and appreciate you as you are – or do you want to see people as puppets, try to mold them into what you desire, and thus attract immature people who accept games and pretense, who couldn’t see you and love you if you were yourself?
Whenever I met people who manipulated others, even if they had succeeded in achieving some power and influence over others, I never felt that they were really happy, really liking and appreciating themselves. The price of being a successful manipulator is that other people might like, maybe even admire, your act, a false projection, but not your true self. Incidentally, it’s the same attitude you yourself come from, and the more you succeed in manipulation, the more difficult it is to recognize and change it. The price you pay is your self-esteem, because, no matter how much you deny or justify it, you know you cheat people. On the other hand, I’ve also met people who radiate true charisma. Their attractiveness comes from healthy self-esteem – accepting who they are and enjoying their existence.