10 classic tactics manipulative people use to control others

by Isabel Cabrera | April 7, 2024, 6:45 pm

Have you ever felt like someone’s pulling your strings, turning you into a puppet in their own little show? It’s a sinking feeling, realizing you’re being manipulated. 

The worst part? Sometimes you can’t put your finger on how it’s happening. 

But the good news is, manipulative tactics are often cut from the same cloth, following classic patterns you can learn to recognize. 

In this article, we’ll dissect 10 classic tactics manipulative people use to control others. 

This is your playbook for spotting manipulation and reclaiming your power. Let’s get started.

1) Emotional blackmail

Emotional blackmail is a tactic that’s as sneaky as it is harmful. It’s when someone uses your feelings against you, leveraging guilt, fear, or obligation to make you do what they want. 

Picture this: you’ve been looking forward to spending a weekend with old friends, but at the last minute, a family member lays it on thick. “If you really cared about me, you’d cancel your plans and stay home.” Sound familiar?

When this happens, it’s crucial to separate your emotions from the decision at hand. Take a deep breath and assert your boundaries. 

You might say something like, “I understand you’re disappointed, but I’ve had these plans for a while, and I’m going to keep them.” 

By recognizing emotional blackmail for what it is, you’re taking a vital step toward reclaiming your personal power.

2) Gaslighting

Gaslighting is another tactic manipulators love, and it’s even more insidious because it aims to make you question your own reality. 

Imagine you confront someone about a promise they broke, and they deny it ever happened. They might say, “You’re remembering it wrong,” or even suggest you’re being overly emotional. The goal here is to make you doubt yourself so that they can maintain control

So what can you do when faced with gaslighting? The first step is to trust your own perceptions. 

Keep a record of important events, conversations, or anything that can serve as an objective reminder of what truly occurred. 

Next, consult someone you trust. External validation can provide the reassurance you need when your reality is being questioned. 

Finally, stand firm in your recollection and resist the urge to second-guess yourself. 

Understanding gaslighting helps you build a mental shield against it, so you’re less likely to fall into this manipulative trap.

3) Playing the victim

Playing the victim is a tactic that can really tug at your heartstrings. This is when someone portrays themselves as the innocent party in any situation to garner sympathy or evade responsibility. 

For example, you might ask a co-worker to complete their portion of a project, and they respond by saying how overwhelmed they are, turning it around as if you’re the one being unreasonable for asking. 

When you encounter this, it’s important to focus on facts and actions, rather than getting caught up in their emotional narrative. 

Validate their feelings if you must, but don’t back down from the issue at hand. You could say, “I understand you’re stressed, but this is a shared responsibility, and I need you to hold up your end.” 

Recognizing when someone is playing the victim allows you to address the situation without getting sidetracked by unnecessary drama.

4) The silent treatment

The Silent Treatment is a classic move in the manipulator’s playbook. This involves someone deliberately ignoring you or refusing to communicate to gain the upper hand. 

It could happen after a disagreement, where instead of talking it out, the other person goes radio silent, making you anxious and willing to concede just to restore communication.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of the silent treatment, resist the urge to seek their approval or ‘fix’ the situation. 

Give them the space they seem to want, but also take that time to evaluate the relationship. You might say, “When you’re ready to talk, I’m here,” and leave it at that. 

In doing so, you’re maintaining your dignity while not feeding into their control tactic.

5) Over-exaggeration

Over-exaggeration is another tactic that manipulators use to sway you. 

They might magnify an issue or dramatize a situation to make it seem worse than it is, all in an attempt to elicit a strong emotional response from you. 

For instance, if you’re late to a casual outing, they might accuse you of always disrespecting their time, turning a small mistake into a character flaw.

To counter this, aim to de-escalate the situation by sticking to the facts and keeping your emotions in check

You could say, “I apologize for being late this time, but saying I always disrespect your time isn’t accurate.” 

By calmly addressing the exaggeration, you can steer the conversation back to a constructive and honest path, instead of getting swept away by hyperbole.

6) Keeping score

Keeping score is when someone constantly reminds you of past favors or mistakes, using them as leverage in the relationship. 

Let’s say you forget to do something for them; they might bring up all the times they’ve helped you, making you feel like you owe them. 

To address this tactic, don’t let guilt drive your actions. You might say, “I appreciate the times you’ve helped me, but that shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip now.” 

Acknowledging the past but emphasizing that it shouldn’t dictate the present can help you regain your footing. 

Keeping score is no way to build a healthy relationship; it turns love and friendship into a transactional game, and nobody wins in that scenario.

7) Shifting the blame

Shifting the blame is a tactic where someone avoids taking responsibility for their actions by making it seem like it’s actually your fault. 

For example, if they forget an important date, they might say, “Well, you should have reminded me,” turning their mistake into your responsibility. 

The key to responding is to stand your ground without getting defensive. 

You might say, “I’m not responsible for keeping track of your commitments. Let’s focus on how to prevent this from happening again.” 

By refusing to take on blame that isn’t yours, you stop the manipulative cycle and encourage a more constructive way to deal with issues.

8) Intermittent reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement is a sneaky tactic where someone gives you just enough positive reinforcement to keep you hooked, but not enough to make you feel secure. 

One day, they might shower you with love and attention, and the next, they’re distant or critical. This inconsistency keeps you on your toes, always craving their approval.

The best way to deal with this is to recognize the pattern for what it is — a control tactic — and not an indicator of your worth. 

You might think to yourself, “Their inconsistent behavior says more about them than it does about me.” 

Understanding the manipulative game can empower you to disengage from it and seek relationships that offer genuine, consistent affection and respect.

9) Projection

Projection involves someone attributing their own negative traits or actions onto you. 

If they’re being dishonest, they may accuse you of lying; if they’re feeling insecure, they might claim that you’re the one being overly sensitive. 

It’s a way to deflect from their own issues by making you the focus of the problem.

To tackle this, keep your cool and don’t get drawn into defending yourself against unfounded claims. 

A simple response like, “I think you’re projecting your feelings onto me, and that’s not fair,” can help you set boundaries. 

Being aware of projection allows you to avoid the trap of endlessly trying to prove your worth or innocence.

10) “Love bombing”

“Love bombing” is when someone overwhelms you with affection, praise, or gifts, especially in the beginning stages of a relationship. 

It can feel intoxicating, but beware — it’s often a setup for future manipulation. 

Once they feel they’ve secured your emotional investment, they may start pulling back, becoming demanding or controlling.

The way to respond is to keep your feet firmly on the ground. Enjoy the positive attention, but remember that true love is consistent and not overly extravagant, especially at the start. 

If you feel rushed or that things are moving too fast, it’s okay to say, “I appreciate the affection, but let’s take things at a pace that’s comfortable for both of us.” 

This keeps you in control of the relationship’s tempo.

Navigating the minefield

There you have it — 10 classic tactics manipulative people use to control others. 

Each one is a red flag, a signal that you need to tread carefully and consider your next steps. 

But the good news is, once you’re aware of these tactics, you’re better equipped to protect yourself and reclaim your emotional freedom. 

Remember, manipulators thrive on confusion and vulnerability. By understanding their strategies, you can diffuse their power and take back control of your own life. 

Keep your emotional well-being at the forefront, because you deserve relationships that uplift you, not ones that bring you down.

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