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Don't Get Manipulated

By Marty Nemko

People want things from you: Your boss may want you to work harder; your supervisee may want you to let him slide; a salesperson definitely wants you to buy; your special someone wants all sorts of things.

And sometimes you want to say yes, but other times, you say yes because the person manipulated you. You can keep that from happening to you by staying alert to these ploys:

The Preying-on-the-Wimpy Ploy. Audacious people ask favors knowing we may be too wimpy to say no. Before saying yes, for example, to a supervisee pitching for a plum assignment, ask yourself, “In saying yes, am I choosing the best person or merely rewarding audacity?”

The Feigned Friendship Ploy. Ever meet people who, as soon as you meet them, seem very interested in you? They ask you lots of questions about you. As you answer, they look fascinated. They make a point of adding your name to statements, for example, “That’s a good point, Joe.” Of course, they may like you, but if they soon ask for something, be sure you say yes because of the request’s merits, not their feigned interest in you.

The Feigned Humility Ploy. When someone precedes a request with a twitter such as, “This may be a stupid idea but (insert idea), it’s natural to want to make the person feel good, so you reassure: “That’s not a stupid idea,”--and he’s halfway home to getting your buy-in. Another example: “I know you’re probably too busy to do this but (insert time-demanding request). Embarrassed to be too busy for a humble wretch’s request, you’re more likely to make time for that manipulator than for a straightforward person’s request such as “Could you do X for me?”

The Mirroring Ploy. Salespeople, negotiators, and other professional persuaders are taught to mirror their mark: If he or she slouches, do the same, speaks quickly and only in brief bursts, do the same; mainly talks facts, do the same; mainly talks feelings, do the same. Even breathe in unison! Mimic, mimic, mimic. Why? People like and therefore do things for people who are like themselves.

The Foot-in-the-Door Ploy. If your boss asked if you had time for an additional 20-hour project, you might well say no. But what if she asked if you would sit in on one meeting on the project so you could provide input? You’d more likely agree. Providing input invests you in the project. If after that, your boss said how impressed she was with your suggestions, wouldn’t you be more likely to take on the extra 20 hours of work? The manipulative boss got a foot in the door by getting her patsy to first make a small commitment.

Salespeople use the foot-in-the-door ploy all the time. With a new customer, they start by pitching for a small sale, and only afterwards, hit them up for a biggie. This is true not just of products but of services. For example, workshop peddlers such as Tony Robbins and the Landmark Forum start by pitching a free or low-cost event. Only at the end of that event, do they try to sell you the thousand-dollar multi-day workshop.

Even nonprofits, especially colleges and universities, aren’t averse to such tactics. College fundraisers always start by asking for a small commitment, such as buying a discount ticket to some on-campus event. If you say yes to that, you can bet they’ll keep going after you for ever bigger commitments until you say no or they achieve their ultimate goal—to get you to put the college in your will. (I believe that colleges and universities are among the worst places to donate your money but that’s another column.)

The Freebie Ploy. A car salesman writes up a customer’s offer for $20,000 and says he needs to ask his manager to okay that “great deal.” Offhandedly he adds, “By the way, I’m going to buy myself a Coke. Want me to get you one?” You can’t help but feel, “He’s a nice guy.” When he comes back saying, “The very best she can do is $21,000,” you’re more likely to say yes because you unconsciously were softened up by that 50-cent Coke.

Freebies also can invoke guilt. When a coworker bakes brownies and later asks for a favor, it’s harder to say no. When your boss lets you go home an hour early, it’s much harder to say no when he later asks you to take work home the next weekend.

Freebies are sometimes given out of true generosity, but when you get one, ask yourself whether the motivation is likely pure or manipulative.

The Bandwagon Ploy. Perpetrators of the Bandwagon Ploy play on the fact that most of us like to be insiders, not the odd one out. So to get you to say yes, they might, for example, say, “Joe and Sally are already on board. Can I count on you?” Make decisions based on the merits, not because someone else does. Fortune 500 CEOs and even US presidents make bad decisions all the time. Make up your own mind.

The Sexuality Ploy. Many people use their attractiveness to get what they want. They may not necessarily sleep with their target but can often derive big payoff from such mild flirtations as a brief touch on the shoulder, standing just six inches closer than normal, or even just by using the right tone in asking, “How are you doing, Joe?”

How you know you’re at risk of being manipulated: It’s often simple: When you’re being asked for something, if you like the asker, beware. Your objectivity in making the decision is being colored. And whenever you’re unsure of your objectivity, take a day before saying yes. Time dissipates manipulation’s effects.

Should we be angry at manipulators? We all use these techniques at times, but it’s usually unconscious, so we shouldn’t be too hard on the perpetrators. But that doesn’t diminish those ploys’ effectiveness in making us do what we don’t want to. Keep your ploy antennae out.

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