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How to Deal with Controlling People

How to Deal with Controlling People

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Controllers can really get our hackles up, because they can make us feel like helpless children who are always being told what to do. Interestingly, childhood conflicts might be what caused those controllers to become the way they are.

Four Controlling Styles

Not all controllers exercise power and control in the same ways. Some are very forthright about their desire to dictate what happens, who does what, and when and how they do it. Others are much more subtle—even covert. Control can also be achieved through duplicity, even seeming passive.

The Volatile Controller

Volatile controllers get others to do what they want by holding a threat like a sword over their head. The threat is simple: if what they want to happen doesn’t happen they will lose their temper.

The “good” news, such as it is, about volatile controllers, is that although their blow-ups can be fierce and frightening, they are usually relatively short-lived. In fact, controllers don’t especially like losing their temper because doing so gives them a fleeting feeling of being out of control. They would rather intimidate by threatening what might happen, rather than actually losing their cool.

The “Smarter-Than-You” Controller

The smarter-than-you controller wants everyone to accept their authority because their knowledge, expertise, and logic are infallible. They’ve got an answer—yes, often a smart one—for every objection you could possibly make.

To get a handle on smarter-than-you controllers in your life, remember this: They draw their power not from their smarts but from your insecurities. If you want to get this type of controller to accept your ideas, you have to believe in those ideas, and in yourself. Put your self-doubt on a shelf. Then you will be able to employ strategies that can gently and effectively get a smarter-than-you controller to redirect their attention from their idea to yours.

The Deceptive Controller

Deceptive controllers crave control so badly that, for them, the end justifies the means. They’ll bad-mouth others, start and spread rumors, mislead, set one person against another, omit crucial facts, and sometimes lie outright.

Precisely because they are so good at what they do, it might take a while to realize how events are being orchestrated behind-the-scenes by deceptive controllers at work, in personal relationships, and elsewhere. Moreover, they’re slippery when confronted, and they are very good at protesting—with some degree of believability—Who me?

If you can’t always expose a deceptive controller’s shady tactics, you can at least keep yourself from being a primary target by not painting a bull’s-eye on your chest. Don’t share secrets with deceptive controllers—they won’t be secrets for long—and never discuss your self-doubts or fears with them. If you do, they’ll just use them against you.

The Passive-Aggressive Controller

Perhaps you know someone who displays several of the seven signs of passive aggression. This type of person …

  1. Repeatedly promises to do things and then “forgets.”
  2. Continually finds seemingly plausible excuses to delay taking action.
  3. Says they wish they could do what you ask, but claims they are just not capable.
  4. Withholds important information (or sometimes money or other resources) so that you are unable to take necessary actions when you need to.
  5. Evades direct questions by offering vague or ambiguous responses.
  6. Sometimes sulks and plays “poor me.”
  7. Expends extreme effort to maintain a friendly, cooperative persona.

You are dealing with a person who controls by saying yes when they mean no, by stonewalling, or by playing the victim. If it makes you feel better, you are hardly alone in your frustrations. Passive aggression is a very common style.

Like any controlling style, passive aggression masks a great deal of anxiety. But the passive-aggressive person’s anxiety is of a particular nature. This type of person, although determined to get what they want, dreads confrontation and conflict. If they say what they want, that would put them at risk of being questioned or challenged. Instead they devise diversionary tactics.

Understanding the passive-aggressive’s motivation doesn’t make their behavior any more excusable or any less hurtful. But it does give you a clue as to why they so often leave you feeling baffled, insecure, and perhaps even guilty. They’re exceptionally adept at making you feel as though you’re the problem. If you buy their spin, you’ll end up apologizing to them.

Consider Why You Comply

If you feel as though your strings are being pulled, think about who’s pulling them and how they’re doing it. Now look at any possible role you may be playing in perpetuating the situation:

If you discover that you’ve been, to some extent, colluding with a controller, don’t beat yourself up over it. Simply acknowledge your role. Doing so will help you unravel the situation.

Believe in Your Abilities

Controlling types are only too happy to help undermine your confidence. People who lack self-confidence rarely feel entitled to question the authority of those who claim it. You don’t have to become a public braggart, but you do need to remind yourself of your accomplishments and your strengths:

If you feel you lack some skill that you consider crucial, don’t throw up your hands. Make it your business to work on attaining it. That will give you not only new skills, but also a better self-image. The more you feel you deserve to be heard, the more you will find a way to make this happen.

Don’t Be a Blabbermouth

Knowledge is power. Be careful what you tell controlling types about your desires and your plans. If what you want doesn’t dovetail with what they want, they’ll begin to make your life difficult.

Be especially careful what you reveal to covert controllers. And because we all reveal things both verbally and nonverbally, practice your poker face.

Control Is an Illusion—Be an Illusionist

No one can control everything all the time. Even controlling types know this deep down. They just don’t want to be reminded of it. They want to maintain the illusion of control. If you can help them to hang on to this illusion, you can often get things to go your way. The skill in doing this lies in convincing controllers that one of these things is true:

Maybe you can convince them of all three! Be diplomatic when preserving an illusion. Use nonthreatening language to make your points. Say “we” instead of “I” whenever possible. And try phrasing your idea in question form, as in, “What do you think would happen if we tried …?”

Use Last Resorts Last

Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. When all else fails, how do you out-control a controller?

One way, of course, is to go ahead and do what you want in spite of them. After all, unless someone is holding a gun to your head, they can’t really force you to do anything, can they? But if defiance is what you choose, you must always ask yourself what the fallout will be and if you are willing to pay the price.

A second way is to appropriate their style. You can attempt to out-deceive a deceiver or be more passive-aggressive than a passive-aggressive type. But beware here, too, for these folks have had lots of practice. Since this is the only way they know how to do things, they’re playing for keeps. A novice might have trouble beating them at their own game, and if you’re not exceptionally skillful, you might just dig yourself into a deeper hole.

Sometimes a viable way to out-control a controller is to invoke the power of numbers. It is sometimes easier to stand up to a controller as part of a group, the members of which can unite and press for change.

As always, use your psychological smarts where you can. Before you deploy fire, consider whether less drastic measures will serve you just as well, if not better. Get control of yourself, and you will be well along your way to preventing others from controlling you.

From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coping with Difficult People by Arlene Matthews Uhl