Understanding Subtle Manipulation

Subtle Manipulation

Subtle manipulation is more common one might think. Like most manipulation, it’s rooted in a covert attempt to gain advantage over you. But not all manipulation is the same. In fact, sometimes manipulation is not even covert. A truly savvy manipulator can operate in the open. Knowing his/her target well, he/she knows just what to say or do to sway. But most manipulators operate covertly. Keeping someone in the dark about what you’re really up to is generally a more effective strategy. So, the subtle someone is in their manipulative ways, the more likely they are to bamboozle.

In one way, subtle manipulators operate much like their overt counterparts. They understand the needs, wants, idiosyncracies, etc. of their intended targets. So, they know just how to play their cards to get what they want. But their chances of success improve greatly when they hold those cards close to the vest. This is the point I emphasize in my landmark first book In Sheep’s Clothing.

The subtlest manipulation occurs when someone seems really attentive to your concerns. Knowing what you want/need, etc., skilled manipulators are pleased to give you exactly what they understand you’re looking for. But what initially appears a generous gift on their part actually comes at a hefty cost. Subtle manipulators are always looking for something in return that they don’t want you to fully recognize. As a result, you don’t realize what the attention they gave you has cost you until well after the fact.

Subtle Manipulation and Gaslighting

Subtle manipulation almost always causes some gaslighting effects. Gaslighting is that crazy-making feeling I first described in the opening pages of In Sheep’s Clothing. And the main reason you suffer these effects is because of how long it takes to validate what you suspect is the truth about your manipulator. Subtle manipulators are adept at appearing benign. They may even be charming, charismatic, amiable, and congenial.  But possessing these pleasing and attractive personality traits is not the same as having character integrity. Integrity requires a heart surrendered to something much bigger than our selfish desires. And I begin a discussion of this very issue on the latest installment of Character Matters.


I’ll be taking some time off next week, so there won’t be a weekly post. Nor will there be a Character Matters podcast. But I’ll be back with both the week after next.



5 thoughts on “Understanding Subtle Manipulation

  1. It’s easy to mistake genuine concern and love from another from subtle manipulation. As stated here, one finds out the other’s needs and desires and plays on that, then comes the reality of why they are in your life in the first place.
    In my case, I figured out I was seen as the Sugar Momma. HE did everything he could to do things to make my life easier, except the important things, like not quit his job, quit making excuses why he can’t do this or that (allergies), whining, pouting, and slowly possessing me.
    Read those red flags. It can all be so confusing because on the one hand they’re doing all these nice things and on the other hand no so nice.
    It will be quite a long time till I give of myself to even try to trust and be with a partner again. It’s too much work.

  2. It seems to me that the church leaders sometimes promotes this by encouraging us to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and look at them in the best possible light. While that’s helpful when dealing with normal people who made a mistake, it’s dangerous when dealing with character disturbed people.

  3. Grace,

    As you say, it’s those sayings that we have heard repeatedly through life that we used to guide us, but was bad guidance.
    This website has given such useful information. Had I known what I know now it would have saved me much time and grief in my life in dealing with people.
    I now know to not trust someone till they’ve proven worthy of my trust.

    1. Lucy,
      It would have been so nice to have learned this earlier in life. I recommend “In Sheep’s Clothing” to everyone who comes to me asking for advice about these kinds of situations. Some people think it’s too “harsh”. I suspect the truth is too hard for them to accept at this point.

      It’s the inconsistency you mentioned above that makes my red flags go up. Someone once told me that decent people don’t pretend to be abusive but abusive people do pretend to be decent. I found that life-changing.

      Hoping that you find someone of truly decent character whom you can trust.

  4. Grace
    Good quote and so true. Abusive people can’t keep it under wraps all the time. And it sure can be confusing.
    My last relationship all sorts of inconsistencies were cropping up. I actually journaled them. It was confusing. I never knew how to have a conversation about it, I’d be surprised and my brain would freeze. But I’d think it over and analyze it. Time and time again. And I re read my notes. It then became clear. Time for him to get out of my life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *