Setting Boundaries to Avoid Manipulation

Do you sometimes find yourself in a Crucial Conversation with someone who is disrespectful and demeaning towards you? This can leave you feeling devalued and take a toll on your self-worth. But could this person be trying to hold you accountable (and failing), or are they trying to manipulate you (and succeeding)?

Whatever the case, here are some tips to help, should you find yourself in either situation.

Firstly, let’s assume this person is being demeaning and disrespectful. You could choose to ignore this in the moment, but long-term, the relationship is likely to suffer, and any results that depend on your cooperation will also suffer. Having a conversation about the facts of the matter could be a far better approach.

A fact is observable—a truth about events as opposed to our interpretation of them. Sticking with the facts, as opposed to opinions, is far more productive and diffusing. 

The next time this person asks you to take responsibility for something they believe is wrong or not up to standard and you believe you’ve nothing to answer to, start with facts.

For example, “Last month we agreed that I would compile all weekly reports and then send them to you on the last day of the month. Now you say you’re upset because you haven’t seen the reports on a weekly basis. How do you recall our last conversation?”

Perhaps the facts related to your situation are a little harder to delineate—perhaps they involve attitudes and words rather than policies and actions. Perhaps this is a marital partner or friend, not a work peer. Nonetheless, try to isolate precisely what this person expects and precisely how they believe you didn’t meet this expectation.

Make it clear you intend to stick to these facts. “Just so we’re clear, you expect me to do such-and-such. If in the future you think I haven’t met this expectation, it would be great for you to cite some evidence of how. That way we’re unlikely to have a misunderstanding. Does that seem reasonable to you?”

As you clarify expectations, you may discover you’re unwilling or unable to meet some of them. If so, don’t pretend otherwise. Try to find a mutually acceptable alternative. “I understand why you want me to do that, but I can’t agree to that and here’s why. However, I am able to do this, and I think this will satisfy both our wants. What do you think?”

These Crucial Conversations skills should help you express your viewpoint rather than withhold it. This may feel uncomfortable at first, and the other person may be taken aback by your frankness. If you meet resistance, stay respectful. And should this person try to avoid a discussion of facts, make that the topic of conversation. 

But what if this person is merely trying to hold you accountable?

The same approach applies; start with facts.

Whenever we act irresponsibly or behave poorly and someone tries to hold us accountable, we tend to get defensive. In our defensiveness, we often can concoct all kinds of stories that paint the other person as the villain and ourselves as the victim.

How can you know? Look in the mirror. Do you feel disgust or distrust when interacting with this person? Do you raise your voice? Do you feel like a victim? Is there anything you might have done to give this person cause to demand responsibility?

It is said that “The truth is hard to swallow,” and sometimes, it can be us that doesn’t want to hear what another person has to say.

It is also said “The truth shall set you free.” So, again, focus on facts. The demand for responsibility may be feedback. Don’t dismiss it because it’s difficult to embrace. This person may have a perspective that can help you become a better version of yourself.

“Do you mind if we start over? Perhaps I haven’t been hearing you. I’m willing to take responsibility for the things I’ve done wrong, and it would help me to review the facts of the situation. I think it’s essential if I’m going to improve and not make similar mistakes in the future.”

If you learn during a conversation that you did, in fact, fail to meet a clear expectation, apologise sincerely and quickly. Acknowledge the misdeed and specify what you will do to prevent it from happening in the future.

Finally, as this article has talked so much about facts, it’s worth noting that: While we are all connected in ways, it remains a psychological fact that I am me and you are you. Most of our interpersonal conflicts result from failing to respect where “I” end and “You” begin.

We often behave as though others are extensions of ourselves, employing various tactics to get them to behave as we wish they would—demands, threats, putdowns, sarcasm, silence, and so on. Sometimes we do this overtly, but usually we are subtle about it. And should we give in to manipulation, we’re prone to resentment and ineffective backlash. The relationship result is a muddled mixture of codependence.

Paradoxically, it is only through recognising and respecting each other as separate, individual, autonomous human beings that we can create effective and meaningful connections.

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