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Leadership, Relationship and the Bottomless Language of Manipulation

Tape Measure 

     There are words which can be, and frequently are, used as a manipulative fulcrum and lever device to gain the upper hand in a relationship, company or a ministry. It is a commonly employed linguistic device which left unaddressed will bring unrelenting pressure to bear. The problem is that such words seem totally innocent, yet they camouflage a cruelly manipulative power play.

       What words?

       "More," is one.  "Enough," is another. But these are just two examples.  The issue is an open-ended "complaint" or "need" for which there is no specific answer, no real resolution. Such words are manipulative because they dig a bottomless pit. There is not, in all the world, enough efficient management, salary, love, affection, sympathy or whatever to fill it. Hence digging such a verbal and emotional pit keeps the other party constantly on the defensive, ever striving to meet an unmeetable need. That is manipulative.

     Here is how it works and what to do about it.

 

     Watch for language such as:

     "You don't love me enough."

     "I need more sympathy from you."

     "You weren't tender enough with me."

     "You didn't try hard enough to understand my needs."

     "This department is way under-funded."

      There is usually a veiled or at least implied accusation. Eventually it will be very blatantly stated but not at first. Notice however, it is not specific. It will be a blanket accusation.  t will also be emotional. When pressed, the manipulator will have some list of specifics, which is nothing more than a self-justifying trail of "evidence" which when confronted with contrary data may collapse. Logical, specific answers to an emotional and non-specific accusation can be a match to the fuse. That does not mean you should not light the fuse; it simply means you need to know there may be an explosion.

     Secondly, the vagueness of the need or accusation will force the unsuspecting into a defensive posture and put the crowbar in the hand of the accuser. Because the demand is open-ended, the accused will never quite meet it. They just keep stretching, striving to satisfy an unreasonable performance demand which is unhealthy to say the least, and will eventually be exhausting. In fact, the exhaustion factor is often what spells the end of the relationship. Unable to meet the need and fatigued from trying, the defender gives up. This gives the accuser all the proof they needed. "There! You see? I knew it from the beginning."

     That is the reason manipulators leave a trail of broken, exhausted relationships behind them. They will see these as proof of how shallow and uncaring others are.  They will never see their demands as having simply burned others out.

      I have learned that the sooner this trap becomes obvious the better. Some years ago a paid nursery director at a church I pastored was driving me crazy. She never had enough of anything: volunteers, budget, supplies -- ANYTHING.  Being new to the game, I wanted to help her. I soon discovered what a bottomless pit is. Finally the answer came to me.

     I waited until one Sunday she came to me and said, "I need more volunteers today."

     "I cannot get you more."

     “What?!?" She was horrified. This was obviously what she had long expected of me. "You don't care about the nursery.  You never have. Not really. You don't care about anything but what happens in the auditorium. I knew you wouldn't help."

     "I didn't say I wouldn't help. I said I cannot get you more. More is impossible. Three is possible. Eight is possible.  More is impossible. I don't how how many is more. Give me an exact number."

     She was dumbfounded, which frankly was a tremendous improvement. She would not even give me a number and finally went back to the nursery claiming that they could manage. I never again allowed her to make open-ended demands or accusations.  Eventually she left my employee because she was a manipulator and specificity frustrates manipulation.

      At another church I employed a very talented youth pastor who did a terrific job as far as the teenagers were concerned.  He was, however, a handful for the others on the staff--- especially me.

      He came to me one day complaining that he was not "appreciated enough" for the contribution he was making. When I asked him how I could show my appreciation more, he said salary would be one way.  I asked him how much he should make but he wouldn't state a number.  “How about my salary?” I asked.  “Do you expect to make what I do?” Well, no, he did not expect that. “How about what your boss, Jim, makes? Should you be paid what your boss gets?” “No,” he said, but he should be the next highest paid in that department.  “You are,” I said.  “You are exactly that.  The next highest paid.”

      I will never forget his response. "Why are you making this about salary? That was just an example."

      "Ok," I said. "You brought up salary. Give me another example."

       He said his rising attendance numbers, and they were rising, should be pointed out to the board. When I showed him in the board docket the exact paragraph which lauded his success, he was not mollified. He was, in fact, angrier than when he came in. These were just examples, he claimed, and I would not deal with how he felt. He was not with us long.

      I will say, in his defense, he later wrote me a memorable letter of apology which I appreciated. When did he write it? When, as a senior pastor he struggled with a youth pastor of his own. Life is full of interesting… “turns.”

      Specificity also makes the manipulator face the unrealistic nature of their demands. More may seem perfectly reasonable. Eight, when you say eight right out loud, the manipulator may see that is way too high a number. You don't pay me enough, seems correct. Putting a dollar amount in place of "enough" may reveal that what they are paid is actually very generous.

      This is also true in relationships. "You are not patient enough with me" is unanswerable. What should one say?

      "When I do not seem to understand you, please explain to me n a different way." That I can do.

      "You are not romantic enough."

       How can I possibly answer that?

       "Call me from the office. Send me flowers a few times a year. Take me on a date once a month. Tell me how beautiful I am every morning."

       Okay! Now I can make progress.

       "You never take an interest in the house." I don't know what to do about that.

       "I want you to start taking out the trash without my reminding you."

       "Gotcha!  That I can do."

 

     To deal with the bottomless language of manipulation, always demand specifics. There is, however, a caveat.  Manipulators do NOT like that. The only thing that can seal up the bottomless pit of open-ended language such as "more" and "never" and "not enough" is the anti-toxin of specificity.  That does not mean it will be easy.  It may very well be explosive. The issue is, as in most of life, short-term peace versus long-term health.

     I cannot be more caring.

     I can make the bed or change the baby or take out the trash.

     I cannot pay you more. I can raise you 2.5%.

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