9 subtle ways manipulative people gain control in a conversation

by Tina Fey | March 16, 2024, 10:15 pm

Ever felt like you’re in a friendly chat, but somehow you end up agreeing to something you didn’t want?

It’s like there’s a hidden chess game going on, and you didn’t even know you were playing.

That’s the art of a manipulative conversationalist – they’re smooth, they’re savvy, and they know how to pull the strings without showing their hands.

Think of this article as your guide to spotting those stealthy moves.

I’m diving into the tell-tale signs that someone’s trying to take the reins in a chat, often so subtly that you don’t notice until it’s too late. 

1) They play the victim

Who doesn’t know that manipulators are masters of disguise?

That being said, one of their go-to characters is the victim.

Playing the victim card is a subtle yet powerful way to gain control in a conversation.

It puts the manipulator in a position where they appear vulnerable and in need of help.

And you know what else?

This tactic creates a dynamic where the other person feels obligated to assist or empathize, giving the manipulator control over the situation.

It’s a sly move that redirects focus and responsibility from the manipulator to someone else, allowing them to steer conversations and outcomes in their favor.

2) They use guilt trips

Another tactic manipulators love to use is the infamous guilt trip.

In simple terms, they know how to make you feel guilty for not aligning with their wants or needs, subtly taking control of the conversation and, by extension, you.

I remember a friend who always had a way of turning things around for me.

We’d be talking about plans, and suddenly I’d find myself apologizing for not being available, even when I had legitimate reasons.

“I just thought you’d be there for me,” they’d say, and that pang of guilt would settle in, nudging me to concede just to ease that discomfort.

It was their way of driving the conversation toward what they wanted, using guilt as their roadmap.

Sounds familiar?

Well, then you need to know that this is classic manipulation.

Yes, my friend was trying to control my decisions by making me feel guilty.

It’s a subtle yet effective way manipulators steer conversations and people in their desired direction.

3) They’re masters of diversion

Just when you think you’re getting to the heart of the matter, a manipulator can flip the script.

They’re like skilled magicians, directing your attention one way while they’re doing something else entirely.

This sleight of hand in conversation is all about diversion.

They’ll acknowledge your point, only to quickly introduce a new topic that shifts the focus away from the original issue.

Here’s an interesting fact:

Psychologists find that diversion is a common defensive technique—it’s often used subconsciously by people who want to avoid conflict or scrutiny.

But in the hands of a manipulator, it’s sharpened into an art form.

They’ll use diversion not just to deflect, but to steer the conversation into territories where they hold the advantage.

Needless to say, this leaves you disoriented and often without the answers or closure you were seeking.

4) They use flattery

Let’s be honest: we all enjoy a little flattery now and then.

It makes us feel good about ourselves, right?

Well, that’s exactly why manipulators use it as a tool to gain control.

Flattery can mask their true intentions, making you more susceptible to their influence.

It’s a sneaky way of lowering your guard and nudging you towards their desired outcome.

For instance, they might compliment your decision-making skills while subtly suggesting that you make a decision in their favor.

It’s a two-fold strategy that can be very effective if you’re not aware of it.

That’s why I want you to think about this:

While authentic compliments are great, beware of those that come with strings attached.

Be discerning and don’t let sweet words cloud your judgment.

5) They prey on your insecurities

It’s a low blow, but sadly it’s part of the playbook for manipulators.

I’ve seen it and, unfortunately, felt it.

They have a radar for sensitivities and will exploit them without a second thought.

By bringing up your past mistakes, doubts, or weaknesses, they do more than unnerve you—they steer the conversation by holding your self-esteem hostage.

Let me share my experience with you.

I’ll never forget a coworker who would often remind me of the time I messed up a presentation.

Anytime I had a differing opinion, they’d say something like:

“Well, you know, after that presentation… I just want to make sure we’re on the right track.”

It was subtle, but it effectively silenced me and shifted the dialogue back to their viewpoint.

Luckily, now I know that it’s a cunning move that manipulative people use to gain control, and it works by tapping into that little voice of doubt we all carry inside.

6) They exploit your empathy

Empathy is a superpower — it’s the glue in human connections, the comfort in times of distress.

But in the chess game of conversation, a manipulator sees your empathy as a pawn waiting to be moved.

Here’s the counterintuitive bit:

Your strength in feeling for others becomes the very tool they use to gain the upper hand.

I’ve been there, where my natural response to someone’s woes or emotional outbursts was to offer support and understanding.

It seemed right until I realized I was being nudged into a corner, capitulating to demands that were unfair or one-sided.

Trust me, it’s a strange realization when your virtue is turned against you.

You see, the more you try to be understanding, the more they seem to need – and the more you find yourself giving in.

Wondering why?

Simply because manipulators bank on your empathy, betting that you’ll bend over backward to keep the peace and meet their needs.

And sometimes it’s at your own expense.

7) They use silent treatment

The next sign is the silent treatment – it’s the emotional equivalent of someone slamming the brakes in the middle of a highway.

Everything comes to a screeching halt.

This isn’t just about being quiet — it’s a calculated move to throw you off balance.

By withholding communication, manipulators create a loud void, filled by your own attempts to mend the silence.

Simply put, it’s a control through absence. And of course, it can be incredibly disconcerting.

I’ve been on the receiving end, and I can tell you, it’s a complex mix of confusion and desperation.

You’re left to wonder:

  • What did I do wrong?
  • Are they upset with me?
  • Should I approach them first?

This silence can feel like a gaping chasm, tempting you to fill it with concessions.

The absence of their words suddenly shifts the power, forcing you into a position where you feel compelled to bridge the gap, often bending your boundaries in the process.

It’s a quiet tactic but a loud strategy in the manipulation playbook.

8) They gaslight you

You’ve probably heard the term “gaslighting” — a psychological tactic of manipulation that sows seeds of doubt in a person, making them question their own memory, perception, or sanity.

It’s drawn from the classic stage play and film “Gaslight,” where a husband manipulates small elements of his environment to convince his wife she’s losing her mind.

Let me tell you, experiencing gaslighting firsthand is like walking through a maze where the walls keep shifting.

Once, a colleague assured me they’d stand by a decision we’d made together.

But when we were called to explain, they acted puzzled, saying:

“I don’t recall us agreeing to that. Are you sure?”

Their tone was calm, their face a mask of genuine confusion. It made me stop and think, “Am I misremembering?”

Now I know that I wasn’t.

That’s the goal of gaslighting: to destabilize and confuse.

It makes you question the validity of your experiences, undermining trust in your judgment and, in some cases, your sanity.

And when you’re busy questioning your reality, you’re less likely to question their motives.

That’s how you give them room to manipulate the situation to their advantage.

9) They project their behaviors onto you

Finally, when manipulative individuals use projection:

They’re engaging in a form of psychological defense where they attribute their own negative behaviors or feelings to someone else.

It’s a tricky maneuver that serves to protect their ego while placing you in the line of fire for those same traits.

Imagine someone frequently criticizes others for being dishonest.

You might start noticing that they’re often less than truthful themselves.

It’s a confusing experience, I know.

I mean, you’re accused of the very thing they are guilty of.

The result?

This tactic can make you second-guess your actions and behaviors, wondering if there’s truth to their claims, while the real issue— their behavior—remains unaddressed.

By projecting, they effectively redirect attention away from themselves, avoiding scrutiny and accountability.

It’s an attempt to control the narrative, making you the problem when, in reality, it’s their behavior that’s questionable. 

Final thoughts: It’s all about awareness

To sum up, every interaction we engage in, every word we exchange, carries weight.

And sometimes, those weights are cleverly disguised under the veil of manipulation.

But now you’re armed with knowledge. You can spot these tactics and prevent others from taking control.

The key lies in setting boundaries — once you see these patterns, you can establish limits to protect yourself from being drawn into the manipulator’s emotional whirlpool. 

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