Responding to Manipulators: Keep the Focus Where It Belongs

Knowing how to respond to a manipulator or other character-disturbed individual is key to avoiding being taken in by them.  In my last post (see: Questions about Manipulators:  How to Respond to their Tactics?)  I pointed out how important it is to never accept an excuse for any inappropriate behavior.  I also made the point that not accepting an excuse is one major way you can keep the focus of responsibility where it belongs: on the person displaying the inappropriate behavior.  But excuse-making is just one way manipulators try to deflect responsibility, and it’s just as important to know all the ways they’ll try to do it as it is to respond to those tactics in a manner that keeps the focus where it belongs.

In my book In Sheep’s Clothing, I assert that manipulators are at heart fighters, albeit covert ones.  That means they actively jockey for the one-up position and the tactics they use are designed to help them secure or maintain that position.  So, the most important thing to to remember is that no matter what tactics they might use, be it evasion (dodging the issues you want to bring to their attention), diversion (shifting the focus off their behavior and onto someone or something else) or externalizing (blaming someone or something else), you must always keep the focus on them and their irresponsible behavior.  Character-impaired individuals do their best to shift responsibility elsewhere.  Your job is to keep the ball of responsibility solidly in their court.  This is one of the prime “tools of personal empowerment”:  keeping the weight of responsibility where it belongs: on the person exhibiting the inappropriate behavior.  So when you feel yourself going on the defensive, recognize it’s because the tactics covert fighters use are meant to make you doubt, hesitate, second-guess, and back-peddle.  In your heart, you know it’s them, but manipulators do their best to make you think it’s you.  And succumbing to their tactics is how manipulators gains control.  It’s up to you to recognize their tactics and to keep the focus on the person displaying them.  That’s a major key to empowering yourself.

18 thoughts on “Responding to Manipulators: Keep the Focus Where It Belongs

  1. Can anyone offer some suggestions about what to say when adult children come to you with a distortion of the truth that their father has told them, to their mother? I have learned to take the high road and focus on my own behavior, to model for them the character and prinicples that I value, and that my own parents instilled in me. But after several painful years of the divorce process, my kids have turned to me, as you said they would, Dr. Simon, simply wanting to be with me and more comfortable in my home. I did not expect this, and it came solely by my quietly sticking with my principles, maintaining my integrity in my actions during the division of assets and other adjustments in the separating of our household. But I am at a loss at times what to say to them when their father bends their ear with something to discredit me, and it causes them to question me on occasion.

    Dr. Simon, your writings have empowered me in dealing with him myself, but his remarks are always made behind my back. But I could really use a script of sorts to say to others, a safe selection of words to put the responsibilty where it belongs, dismiss the allegations, and keep my children and myself from engaging in the game. It is so hard with certain challenges to my integrity to reply to them and not sound defensive and bitter. It would be so empowering to have a reply that doesn’t engage, and doesn’t attack their dad. Without it- their father succeeds in planting doubt about my credibilty. I have ignored it for years- but it hurts and he continues unchecked, and still succeeds in harming my reputation, and causes my own children to wonder. Is there nothing I can say to stand up for myself? Taking it in silence makes me feel powerless and depressed, when the attacks to my character are personal and damaging.

    1. I think I’ll let some of the readers weigh in with some suggestions before I comment. And please excuse the minor edits made to invite them to do so.

  2. Wow, Dr. Simon! This article really nailed it! My “ah-hah” moment came she I realized my manipulator didn’t misbehave in front of certain people. This meant two things. She was aware of the behavior, and that it was wrong, or else she wouldn’t have to hide it. Thanks for the great writing

        1. Ani,

          The actual question came to me via the “back-channel” or “contact Dr. Simon” tab. In such cases, I don’t post the information shared with me, out of consideration for the person’s privacy. But if the question submitter either gives permission for the information to be posted or wishes to post it themselves, then I can respond on the blog.

          1. Dr. Simon : Please feel free to use both my email and your wonderful reply. (If I gave you any personally identifiable information, for my children’s sake, I would appreciate it if you edit, as they are young adults, one actually studying the field of psychiatry) But other than that, if you can use it to help others, of course, please do so. Your reply was so needed, and has helped me so much in the past months. My children and I are all further along than we were, and I know it helped that you gave me a script of sort, clear guidance in how to speak of their father’s treatment of them in a way that identifies it for what it is, so they have a chance of coping, and yet guiding me to avoid speaking with bitterness, thus losing their trust and triggering a need to defend their other parent. Tricky stuff. I felt powerless a few months ago, and weary trying to negotiate resolutions. I have employed your methods of dealing with a difficult person, and ( I know you will edit this one) he folded like a cheap suit. Quietly, without a word, but he folded. I already, thankfully, had made the myriad of choices in a complicated divorce, with the clear goal to keep my integrity and character intact, being able to look myself in the mirror when it was all over, and be a parent my children could respect. This was instilled in me by my own parents, but also by, of all people, my divorce lawyer, in our first meeting. I am gratefulto them all, and I am enjoying your writings about character and personal responsibilty. Very timely and very much needed today.

          2. It’s disappointing to see that she did give her permission and it still was not provided. It would help us to see your reply. I don’t understand why you didn’t post it as you said you would.

    1. Instead of trying to pinpoint this so-called manipulator and accuse them and down their actions, why don’t you focus on your own healing and how you should adjust yourself to react to the individual. It is important to remember that though people’s actions may seem repulsive and insidious, some believe that they have true warrant regarding the decisions they make. Maybe she felt just handling whatever she did in private because she simply didn’t feel like I elsewhere. The makeup of a persons psychology is very complex and though psychology attempts to render explanation detailing those interworkings, it is reckoned as a soft science because it varies from person to person and its intricacy is impossible to detail for each person with complete and total accuracy. Basically: be concerned with yourself and try to help the manipulator, not harm them, not everyone knows better or has the same perspective as you

  3. I have the same situation as Susan. My older two are not adults yet and still get something from their Dad that I can not give. What seems to be total acceptance, I see as indifference. The truth is always bent. For years I defended myself, always defending because I to felt powerless and abused all over again. I am working hard at trying to stay in the truth and not get into the dance. I would benefit greatly from a script I could say to not have them feel they have to choose sides, because when I state the truth they both back away and check out saying they don’t know who to trust so they will not trust either and go on their own.
    The only way I can keep peaceful is to stay away from their Dad and not do “family” sittings all together, ice cream together to celebrate graduation, or even just a normal conversation. This makes me the “crazy” one who is driven by hate and nonforgiving.
    Dr Simon if you could share some helpful tips on trying to maintain the truth without defending and entering into that dance of I am right he is wrong I would appreciate it.

    1. Patrice,
      Above and beyond all else, remember where you do and don’t have power. You have power over what you do and say. You don’t have power over what anyone else does or says. You have the right to ask for what you want (e.g., “Please don’t give the kids information to make me look bad or to make yourself look better;” or, “Kids, I only ask that you judge me based on what I do and say to you, not what others might tell you.”). But then it’s up to you to model the things you ask for. Give it time. Your kids will be watching and appraising. Eventually, they will make mature judgments based on what they see and hear from both of you, and they will learn what and who can or can’t be trusted. But if you forget where your power lies, your resentment will grow and your depression will worsen. So, even though you might be tempted to focus on anything other than what you can really control, resist! Then give yourself a well-deserved pat-on-the-back.

  4. Thank you, Dr. Simon. It is easy to forget to just focus on me and what I have power over.
    Needed that gentle reminder to put all in its place…without judgement.

    Thank you.

  5. Sadly the ex is bound to feel a need to “bring you down” . STOP! AND SAY I LOVE MYSELF and your kids. Tell the ex the history is over. This is the present regardless what level ex is stooping to. Do not engage the divorce details and do not respond. Explain; we have divorced for our differences and it’s past slander. End. To the point. Honest neutral . and the high road. Keep your integrity, honor. People.become.exes for a reason. Good luck

  6. I think what Dr Simon is true but it’s not good enough. No one has to just accept that someone else is defaming their character. You might not be able to stop him but you should still say to your kids that the things he says about you are very untrue and very hurtful, and that you feel sorry for him that he has to stoop so low to make the kids like him better. You can’t ignore the fact that someone is destroying your character and you should make it clear that it is very wrong of him to do so. Acting passive makes you look guilty of the accusation, it’s human nature

  7. I need help with my husband. The heart of the matter is how he deflects and turns every issue back on me. Recently, a good friend of mine pointed out (because of therapy she was receiving) the way all arguments are turned back on me which triggers my self defense and anger. For example: He drives like a maniac…I ask him to slow down he points out that I drive fast too. Triggers me to say I have never had an accident and he has almost lost his license several times. He responds with “I drive worse when I am alone in the car”. And round & round we go. Then when I am seriously angry he asks me questions like “do you think I INTENDED to scare you” or “Has my driving improved since we met?” I feel like these questions are traps designed to make me acknowledge he is blameless and it is all me. Of course this is only one example of too many. I am disconnected, disappointed and ready to leave. His need to be right far outweighs his desire to be a better husband or partner. Is there ever going to be a way to make him take responsibility? Is there a better way to respond when I know he is deflecting?

  8. My lease on my apartment is being terminated due to false complaints by a neighbor projecting/ deflecting thier bad behaviour to the property managers, blaming me. Any video cameras out there would show the truth and GOD knows, but that does not cure the major injuries emotional and financial I’m going through as a result.

  9. I am very interested in you response to the question from
    Greer April 18, 2020 at 7:30 am
    I have a similar situation with my husband. Deflection, denial, defensive and projection. I sought out therapy multiple times and he’s attended one round for my sake he sacrificed because there’s nothing wrong with him. He now uses what I revealed I confidence as emotional daggers.

    Additionally, No big decisions can be made as it’s his sole decision because I simply gave in rather than suffer through another exhausting argument which ends in me being accused of all kinds of things that I didn’t do. Or no decision gets made because I don’t go along. Even when he makes a decision he is resentful and I hear it for years.

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