In my many years of workplace mediation, negotiation, and conflict coaching, I’ve helped many people navigate dirty tactics from their counterparts. Emotional manipulation is one of the most difficult and most challenging. It’s difficult because it toys with the power dynamic: it gives one party an advantage over the other, using primarily provocation. This advantage can both distract and destabilize the other party.

Although emotional manipulation is just one of many ways to sway a negotiation (others include bluffing, time pressures, misinforming, silent treatment, and hidden agendas), it remains challenging because of its power to erode trust silently and stealthily over time. Why? Because often, the person using the tactic can go uncorrected for far too long.


What Is Emotional Manipulation?


Every time a person uses a personal attack, fear-mongering, scapegoating, or victim narratives to gain strategic advantage in the negotiation, this is emotional manipulation. They are not gaining power through a rational argument. They are gaining the advantage by provoking you to feel a negative emotion: shame, anger, fear, guilt. If they land a successful provocation and you get caught up in emotion, then they can steer the conversation and influence outcomes in their favour.


Why does it work?


Emotional manipulation works because it can both distract and destabilize the other party.

By deploying this tactic, an individual can distract you from the matters at hand. You will zoom in on the immediate emotional experience and lose focus on the more significant content. A simple example might be an instance where you remember a person’s tone of voice more than the actual words they spoke. Such distraction makes you vulnerable to sleights of hand or glossed-over details that would otherwise make you stop and ask questions.

Secondly, emotional manipulation is destabilizing. You might experience a stress response: changes in your heart rate or breathing patterns, likely signalling a flight or fight response. This shifts your focus toward taking actions to relieve the stress response, such as placating or people pleasing. But, any actions taken during a stress response will most likely end up perpetuating the cycle of emotional manipulation.


How Can You Recognize Emotional Manipulation?


There are two ways: recognizing certain behaviors in others and recognizing feelings within yourself.

Behaviors in others to look out for:

  • Personal attack (ad hominem logical fallacy) – where a person attacks someone’s character rather than a position. It is an appeal to the emotions that distracts from the substance of the argument itself.
  • Fear mongering – where a person cherry picks information so they can scare you. It serves as a fear-based funnel directing you to their proposed way forward.
  • Scapegoating others – where a person singles out an individual or group as the sole source of blame. It elicits and directs your attention to the scapegoat rather than at the complexity of the situation.
  • Playing the victim – where a person shifts the narrative away from their accountability or agency in a situation. It drives the conversation down a psychological road that few of us can effectively care for in a negotiation.


Feelings in yourself to look out for:

  • Shame – this feeling arises when you are the target of someone’s personal attack. You may hear their emotional manipulation as something you did wrong.
  • Fear – when the fear mongering hits you in an area of vulnerability.
  • Anger – instead of talking about the issue at hand, your feelings of anger take over and you join the crusade of blame towards a group or individual.
  • Guilt – this feeling arises when you hear that the other person was victimized, and you feel like you should have stopped it.

All these feelings and behaviours raise the emotional level in a negotiation, where hasty actions or ill-informed decisions germinate. Remember: You compound the emotional manipulation by falling victim to feelings that arise via provocation from the other party.


What can you do?


The first important step is to identify what’s happening. Is this emotional manipulation? What behaviours are you noticing? What feelings arise when you interact with this person and notice their behaviours? Are either of these things causing you to drift from the substance of the negotiation?

The next step is to recognize that while you don’t have control over others, you do have control over the dynamics playing out. Do not get caught in the trap of trying to change or control the other person in an attempt to end the emotional manipulation. Control your own emotions by noticing when they arise and by taking the space you need to calm down and refocus.

From a calm and focused place, you can employ emotional de-escalation techniques to invite the person to move away from emotional manipulation. Here are some examples,

  • Listen without interrupting or judging – this takes patience on your part, and for those you care about, it will help you strengthen the relationship. Sometimes people communicate with emotional pleas when they do not feel heard.
  • Summarizing what you heard – this takes focus and will help you and the other person validate the information being shared. Sometimes people are not as understandable as they think, and hearing it summarized helps them clarify their key points.
  • Asking open-ended questions to get more information – this allows you to fill the gaps in information that would be glossed-over if the emotional manipulation took hold. Getting more information will improve your decision making.
  • Empathize while maintaining your boundaries – emotions are not the problem, it is using them to manipulate that is the problem. Sincerely acknowledge the emotion they expressed and assert a boundary at the same time. Boundaries include what can or can’t be handled in the workplace (the mandated work and the importance of keeping focused), friend versus co-worker limits (appropriate and inappropriate interpersonal conduct in the workplace), and conversational boundaries (time and space available in this negotiation).

These de-escalation techniques offer an invitation to the other to refocus the discussion and move forward together. If the emotional manipulation is an ongoing challenge with the person you are dealing with, and you tried unsuccessfully to refocus the negotiation, then it is appropriate to exit the negotiation.

Now that you know how to detect emotional manipulation, your task is to not fall into its traps. Take control of your response, avoid hasty decisions, and maintain the integrity of the conversation by shifting the dynamic or exiting the negotiation.

If you are managing a situation at work that has some of these characteristics, either with peers, subordinates, superiors, or stakeholders, and you’re looking for guidance on how best to manage them, book a discovery call or email me.


J Jones-Patulli, MA, HSDP