Skilled manipulators can be quite seductive and charming. Still, I confess readily in my book In Sheep’s Clothing that when I first began my clinical research, I wondered how the victims of covert-aggressors could be so blind to their manipulator’s true character without having a lot of issues of their own. Only after I got much deeper into the study of covert aggressors did it become clear to me not only how adept they can often be at using various tactics but also how powerful the tactics themselves inherently are. So while there were exceptions to be sure, most of the time there were some pretty good reasons why someone fell under the spell of someone who would later be exposed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Also during my research, I came to realize something rarely mentioned in mounds of information now available on disturbed characters: not all charm is of the same character. Moreover, the power a manipulator has to seduce and eventually exploit depends not only on their intended target possessing certain attributes that might make them more vulnerable but also on the nature of the charming behavior the manipulator displays. Because there are numerous, complicated issues involved in charm and seduction, it’s going to take more than just this article to really give fair treatment to the subject. But hopefully this article will serve as a good introduction to the topic and a fair springboard for discussion.
Most of us want to be liked and valued. So, when someone shows us attention or behaves toward us in a way that invites us to feel somewhat special, we’re likely to be drawn to them to a degree. And we almost never assume the person is mounting a calculated “charm offensive” merely to get something they want or that perhaps they even have intent to take advantage of us in some way. Rather, we’d like to think there’s something really remarkable about us that is motivating the person to behave in an appreciative and kindly manner.
Some folks are charming in the most benign and appealing way. They are not only sincerely well-mannered but also genuinely positively regarding of others. The very way in which they conduct themselves and the authentic respect they have for others is “attractive” in its own right. But there are those characters whose display of charm is a farce, part of a calculated use of seduction to take advantage of others. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference between benign charm and malevolent seduction, but armed with sufficient information and with some careful scrutiny a person can distinguish the two (which will be the subject of a follow-up article).
As a general rule, mature, non-disordered characters go after the things they want in direct, fair, disciplined, respectful, and non-destructive ways (the very definition of assertiveness). Disturbed and disordered characters lie, cheat, and sometimes “shmooze” to get what they want. They hate to be denied. So, rather than approach things in an open and direct manner with their prime agenda clearly exposed (which might raise the other person’s defenses and increase the risk of them not winning), they prefer to approach things on the sly and catch the other person unaware and with their defenses down. A disarmed target is a much easier to control target, so they’ll play to the desire of the other person to be valued and liked which becomes a powerful manipulation tool.
Seduction and flattery devoid of malicious intent is relatively harmless. And much of the time, the person on the receiving end is aware enough to know that they’re being buttered-up and will enjoy the flattery while not taking it so seriously or being unduly swayed. But sometimes, seduction can be carried out in such a carefully crafted manner or with such intensity that the other person is completely swept away, blinded to the true character of the seducer. Only after the manipulator gets what he or she wants will their true character become clearer, and by then it’s generally too late.
Great-sounding words and awesome gestures have been the eventual ruin of many a relationship. I’ve counseled many individuals over the years who’ve told me how completely swept off their feet they were in the initial stages of their relationship. But then slowly over time, the reality of their partner’s character and patterns of behavior once hidden but deeply ingrained became more evident and life changed from what seemed to be the promise of heaven on earth to a living hell. Words you see, simply cannot be trusted, especially in a character-impaired age. Even gestures can’t be trusted sometimes. Habitual behavior patterns alone can be trusted (for good or for bad), and there’s abundant scientific evidence supporting the notion that the best predictor of future conduct is past behavior. Someone’s words won’t really tell you what you can expect from them. But you can be fairly sure their behavioral history will.
Because we live in a markedly character-impaired age, one of the main pieces of advice I offer in Character Disturbance is that folks pay much less attention what people say and more attention to their track record. I also advise that when we do listen, it’s often more important to listen for the subtle cues that character issues might be present (i.e. we need to listen carefully for various tactics and manifestations of problem thinking patterns and attitudes) as oppose to listening to what the person is saying. Listening in a receptive, accepting way to manipulative or other character-disturbed individuals can be quite risky. If we simply take what they say at face value, we’re likely to be unduly swayed. Once the irresponsible character has our ear, we become more vulnerable to all sorts of possible further exploitation. So, it’s important to listen for those subtle indications that a person is trying to curry favor without really earning it (through consistent, reliable actions) or trying to promote a positive image of themselves without demonstrating a legitimate basis for it.
Next week’s article will examine the many ways we can be charmed, some of which are benign but some fraught with danger. And we’ll take a closer look at some of the more “charming” personality types – including those that are relatively harmless and pleasant to be around and those who, while capable of mounting impressive charm offensives, are primarily out to win at your expense.
As always, if you have questions about this or any other issues discussed on the blog, or have stories to share and have the time to tune in to Character Matters this Sunday at 7 pm Eastern time, I’d love to take your call.