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7 Signs of a Covert Manipulator

Improve your relationships by finding more authentic ways to express your needs.

Key points

  • It's often hardest to recognize your own subtle manipulations.
  • Everyone tries to influence others, but continual manipulation hurts close relationships.
  • Simple changes can help you be more straightforward in your dealings with others.
goodluz/Adobe Stock
Source: goodluz/Adobe Stock

Some types of manipulation are easy to see. For example:

  • A salesperson tries to scare you into buying the extended warranty.
  • Your boss asks you to work through the weekend and suggests that your answer will affect your bonus.
  • A political candidate blames every problem on the incumbent and promises to turn things around.

But other types of manipulation can be harder to spot, especially when it's covert and you're the one engaging in it. Covert manipulation refers to subtle ways of trying to influence what other people think, feel, and do.

Covert manipulation can be hard to recognize not only for others but even for the manipulator, for several reasons:

  1. We often have blind spots for our own motivations and actions.
  2. It tends to be habitual and automatic, operating just outside of conscious awareness.
  3. It's easy to attribute it to more noble intentions—for example, believing that flattery (see below) is only meant to make the other person feel good about themselves.

The subtlety of covert manipulation doesn't make it more benign. In fact, the covert element makes it all the more manipulative, because the other person believes they're having a straightforward interaction with you.

Common Signs of Covert Manipulation

If you suspect that you might engage in covert manipulation, look for these seven common signs:

  1. You share information selectively. For example, if you really want to go to a restaurant but aren't sure your partner will, you play up all the positive reviews and don't share any of the negative ones. Controlling what the other person knows helps you control the situation.
  2. You crave approval. Few things are more important to you than being liked and pleasing others. Gaining approval is a (probably unconscious) strategy for getting what you want, such as companionship, status, self-esteem, or financial rewards. This motivation can lead to subtle manipulations such as doing your partner a favor—not to make their day nicer, but so they'll like you and think well of you.
  3. You're always trying to be "nice." It's very important to you that other people see you as a good person—kind, thoughtful, unselfish, upstanding. While a part of you may genuinely care about being good and decent, much of your motivation for being nice is to get what you want. As a result, you might tend to bury negative feelings and put on a happy face, or pretend like everything is fine even if you're upset about something.
  4. You choose your words very carefully. Your mind works hard at finding just the right things to say to help you get the outcomes you want. For example, you might mentally rehearse how to avoid visiting your in-laws at Thanksgiving, aiming to sway your partner with just the right mix of sympathy and guilt. Instead of telling them honestly that you don't enjoy being with their parents, you blame other factors such as the driving distance or the difficulty in finding a pet sitter. Consequently, your partner doesn't know the truth behind your wishes.
  5. Your behavior varies greatly depending on who is present. Everyone is affected by the presence of other people, but your actions are drastically different based on who's around. Maybe you're much kinder to waitstaff when you're trying to make a good impression on your date, or you work harder when someone else is watching. You might even put off doing a task until someone is present so you'll get "points" for doing it.
  6. You often flatter others. Complimenting people can be a way of gaining their approval, thereby helping your own cause. Perhaps you butter up your partner with the hope that they'll have sex with you, or you use flattery to cajole a business owner into giving you a discount. Although it might feel as if the compliments are sincere, you realize that you wouldn't be saying those things if you didn't want something from the other person.
  7. You often feel resentful. A major downside of covert manipulation is that it's based on implicit or explicit mental contracts. Your behavior is designed to get something from the other person, and if they don't comply, you're likely to feel angry and resentful. You might think, for example, "I was so nice to clean the kitchen and they didn't even say thank you!" Without realizing it, you're handing control of your emotions to others based on whether they do what you want.

We all can be manipulative, and everyone experiences at least some of these signs from time to time. Moreover, many work roles rely on the ability to manipulate—for example, a trial attorney's efforts to sway the jury. But if you often see many of these signs in your personal relationships, you might benefit from finding other ways to meet your needs.

How to Stop Manipulating

It can be hard to stop manipulating since getting what we want is very rewarding. Manipulation is often seen as helpful to the manipulator and harmful to others, but the truth is that it hurts everyone. The lack of honesty gets in the way of more genuine connection, and it alienates you from yourself. It's also a lot of work to constantly try to bend others to your will.

When you loosen your grip on the need to control the situation and other people, you can find greater intimacy and peace. These three steps can help you break the habit of covert manipulation.

  1. Get curious about your intentions. Start to ask yourself what's behind your actions. What is motivating you to "be nice," or to do your partner a favor? Bringing curiosity to your behavior makes it easier to spot subtle forms of manipulation.
  2. Explore what is driving your actions. Interpersonal manipulation is correlated with emotional intelligence (Ngoc et al., 2020), so use your emotional intelligence to examine why you manipulate. Without judging yourself, consider what's behind your manipulation. What need are you trying to fulfill? Where did you learn to manipulate? What is stopping you from being more authentic? Understanding where manipulation is coming from can give you more flexibility in your relationships.
  3. Aim to be more direct. When you catch yourself about to manipulate, see if there is a more authentic option available to you. What would it look like to be more straightforward? What are the possible upsides of expressing your needs directly?

Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock


Ngoc, N. N., Tuan, N. P., & Takahashi, Y. (2020). A meta-analytic investigation of the relationship between emotional intelligence and emotional manipulation. Sage Open, 10, 2158244020971615.

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