We all like to think that we are immune to the idea of being manipulated.
And sure, many of us can have a good antenna for the more overt forms of manipulation.
But what about when the manipulation is so subtle that we don’t see it coming? Manipulative behavior can infiltrate our everyday interactions without us realizing it—even from the people we love.
How would you even know that you are being sucked into someone’s subtle but skillful manipulation?
Here are eight indicators of this rather delicate form of deception.
1) They say something without saying something
Not all manipulation is malicious. Subtle manipulation can involve “well-meaning” or “harmless” gestures that end up creating issues, says intimacy coach Londin Angel Winters.
“The person doing them intends no harm, but does damage without realizing it,” she says. “The intention isn’t to hurt someone else. In fact, they could even be motivated by a desire to be polite, harmonious, or non-confrontational.”
This could be something like specifically asking your partner not to mow the lawn because you’ll get to it later in the week. But they do it before then anyway, sending an unspoken signal that they’re the ones who always take care of everything.
Winters says that over time, this subtle form of manipulation can close off the lines of communication and lead to deeper issues.
“They are usually veiled attempts to get what we want, whether that is love, approval, connection, or avoidance of conflict,” she explains.
2) There’s gaslighting, and then there’s ambient gaslighting
Most of us have heard of the term gaslighting—that is, when someone tries to make someone else question their reality.
But then there’s something called ambient gaslighting. This refers to the subtle undercurrents of mistreatment or disrespect that we experience in small and subtle doses and we may not even realize that we are being gaslighted, according to physician psychiatrist Dr. Grant Brenner.
“Think of it like background noise,” he says.
This could come in the form of opinion-like one-sided news programs or target marketing. But it could also hit closer to home such as having a boss whose demeanor makes their employees hesitant to have a counter perspective.
“There’s just this background feeling that maybe I’m being tricked in some way,” says Brenner. “And so I think it just makes people have a general sense of unease.”
The thing about this subtle form of manipulation is that it’s hard to know how to react to it.
Do you ignore it? Do you call it out even though it’s something that is not obvious or overt?
“But if you ignore it, you might be afraid that you’re going to be susceptible,” says Brenner.
3) They love bomb you little by little
Many of us (hopefully) would recognize being love bombed. We would see the lavish displays of affection from a mile away—something that would make us uncomfortable, especially when the “relationship” has barely left the ground.
But some forms of love bombing are a lot more subtle and spaced out, compelling us not to second guess the feeling that they are real.
“Love bombing doesn’t always involve obvious displays of gift-giving, grand gestures, and face-to-face manipulation,” says the mental health team at the Cleveland Clinic.
“Sometimes it can happen more subtly in day-to-day conversation. A person who love bombs might check in frequently about what you’re doing when they’re not around.”
This could be something like a new love interest texting you every couple of hours because they “couldn’t help thinking about you”.
It could also be them “popping in” when you don’t have plans because they “just happened to be in the neighborhood”.
The reality is that they want to make sure you always have time for them and aren’t spending time with anyone else—either romantically or even platonically.
What makes this type of love bombing so hard to detect is that they might not do this so frequently as to make it obvious—but they do it nonetheless.
4) Their communication style is always to be indirect
Let’s say you ask your partner to buy a new suit when they have a chance for an upcoming family wedding. You know your partner isn’t fond of the family member who is getting married but you think it’s important for both of you to attend the family event.
Your partner doesn’t say no to the request, but they don’t do what you asked, either.
Life gets in the way and you forget about the suit until the day before the wedding. “Did you buy the suit?” you ask your partner.
“No, I completely forgot about it because you know how I’ve been so busy traveling for work, but it’s too late now anyway. I’ve gained weight and my old suit doesn’t fit. But it’s okay, you go on without me.”
This form of manipulation makes you wonder if they really were too busy (they have been traveling after all and it’s understandable that they would forget), or if they purposely didn’t bother buying a suit so that they wouldn’t have to go.
5) Their compliments feel more like insults
Have you ever had a boss who said something to the effect of: “The report you submitted was very thorough and well done. I was worried you wouldn’t be able to handle the assignment, but you surprised me.”
Or say your sister says something like: “Your hair looks better today than it usually does.”
“A manipulative person will prey on your insecurities to make you feel bad about yourself,”
says Amanda Kobley, a registered provisional psychologist.
“Whether it’s your weight, income, education, or appearance—if you feel insecure about something, they’ll sniff it out and use it against you.”
A manipulator is well aware of the fact that starting with a compliment allows the insult to slide with repercussions.
In the words of Kobley: “Rude AF.”
6) They use “home court advantage”
Here’s an interesting one we sometimes don’t realize.
Let’s say your boss calls a meeting in the boardroom and starts to rattle off complaints to the employees. You call them out on something you don’t agree with.
Instead of addressing your concern, they say: “We can discuss that privately in my office. Right now, I need to stick to my agenda because of time.”
Home court advantage allows them the comfort of addressing the matter on their turf—an advantage that could make things go more easily their way.
It also delays the matter and gives them time to think of a counter “attack”.
“Being in your home turf, whether it’s your actual home or just a favorite coffee shop can be empowering,” says Timothy J. Legg, PhD.
“They claim ownership of that space, which leaves you at a disadvantage.”
Legg says that other signs of this subtle form of manipulation can include:
“Walk over to my office when you can. I’m far too busy to trek over to you.”
“You know how far of a drive that is for me. Come over here tonight.”
7) They stack the numbers against you
Another common form of manipulation is when the manipulator uses other people in your life to back up what they’re saying.
Say your partner wants to have a child but you’re not ready to. Your career is going well, and you’re enjoying traveling with your partner any chance you get.
They bring up the idea of having a baby again, and you start to say your usual response. To which they reply, “I was talking to your mother and it came up. She can’t wait to have a little one running around. And I know your sister would love being an aunt.”
A manipulator used the coercive strategy of outnumbering you as a way to pit you against not only them, but also the people in your life that you’re close to such as friends and family members, say
“They’re trying to take away your support system and give themselves the upper hand,” says Kobley. “Sooo not okay.”
8) They use the “door-in-the-face” and “foot- in-the-door” formula
The “door-in-the-face” is a subtle strategy of manipulation, and it’s kind of interesting, as devious as it is.
This one involves the manipulator making a large request at first, pretending to think about it and then downgrading their request to something that seems small and “doable”.
The obvious example is asking for money. They might say:
“I’m really tight this month, would you be able to lend me $1000 so that I can make rent? No, you know what, that’s too much to ask, I’m sorry. I think I can be okay with $500.”
Now, you might say that you would still be able to see through this request.
I also came across the example of asking to borrow a friend’s car. When the manipulator senses hesitation, they’ll quickly chime in with: “I understand that’s a big ask. How about a ride to work this week instead?”
It’s easier for people to fall prey to this one because it’s something that is more doable, and hey, giving a ride beats out lending them your car, right?
Kobley also makes mention of the “foot-in-the-door” method of manipulation as well. We’re all familiar with this one as it’s the main tactic used in retail stores.
“The person will ask for something small, then escalate to something bigger,” she says.
So, a sales clerk will let you ask you to try a sample of their product, and then introduce another sample, and maybe even another.
Then, of course, they’ll ask you to buy just one product from the myriad of samples they’ve given you.
You feel bad for “taking” the samples so you feel compelled to say yes.
The way I see it…
I think if you have a feeling that you’re being manipulated, you probably are. And it’s most likely in one of the above ways.
Except now you’ll be able to see right through it.