Relationships often go wrong because of our earnest and misguided efforts to manipulate others toward what is for us acceptable behaviour.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been given a book by someone who didn’t really like me, accompanied with this bit of encouragement: “I really think you need to hear this message…”. And who hasn’t heard, at a church prayer meeting, something like this: “I think we should pray for all the people who have been waiting on a visit from the minister…”.
We have all experienced manipulation in one way or another, and I can safely say we have all dished it out too. Sooner or later, because none of us is perfect, our faults and shortcomings will emerge and become obvious to those around us, and sooner or later one of those people will find the situation unbearable and take some course of action – well intended, no doubt – to try and improve us….or remove us.
Manipulation occurs when we presume for ourselves a position of authority to judge the motivation and actions of another, and we try – indirectly – to influence those actions to seek an outcome which gratifies us. It is not enough that the offender is at ease with him or herself, that they have a clear conscience; they have made us feel uncomfortable, and some method must be found to change their behaviour.
Manipulation is indirect, and so does not deal with real issues. What was it Jesus said? “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one,”(Matt 5:37) and he adds, “Ask, and it will be given you.” The problem with manipulation is that it tries to maximise change while minimising genuine involvement in the life of another. Someone’s behaviour is questionable so we attempt to bring an atmospheric change around them, hoping the new conditions will spawn awareness or shame, and eventually the desired change. How much easier to hand over a book, withhold a benefit, or promise to “pray for them”, than to go to the individual directly and say: “It might just be me, but I’m having a hard time understanding where you’re coming from, and I wonder if you can help me understand…”
Dallas Willard shares some insight into manipulation in his book, The Divine Conspiracy. He talks about the “dynamic of request”: “The most important element in the transformation is this: As long as I am condemning my friends and relatives, or pushing my “pearls” (of wisdom and knowledge) on them I am their problem. They have to respond to me, and that usually leads to their “judging” me right back, or “biting” me, as Jesus said. But once I back away, maintaining a sensitive and non-manipulative presence, I am no longer their problem. As I listen they do not have to protect themselves from me, and they begin to open up…Because I am no longer trying to drive them, genuine communication, real sharing of hearts, becomes an attractive possibility. The healing dynamic of the request comes naturally into play. When we stand thus in the kingdom, our approach to influencing others, for their good as well as ours, will be simply to ask: to ask them to change, and to help them in any way they ask us…Asking is indeed the great law of the spiritual world through which things are accomplished in co-operation with God and yet in harmony with the freedom and worth of every individual” (The Divine Conspiracy, pg. 231ff).
Willard adds, “Kingdom rightness respects the soul need of human beings to make their judgments and decisions solely from what they have concluded is best…We do not thrive, nor does our character develop well, when this need is not respected, and this thwarts the purpose of God in our creation.”
Unfortunately, in many families (and in many church families), manipulation quickly becomes the entrenched mode by which we seek to influence the other and see their behaviour changed. Many parents do not know how to relate to their children except by manipulation. “C.S. Lewis notes that he has ‘been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parent.’ Parents are seen to treat their children with ‘an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance.’ They are dogmatic on matters the children understand and the elders don’t, they impose ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously, and make insulting references to their friends. This provides an easy explanation to the questions, ‘Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?’ ‘Who,’ Lewis inquires, ‘does not prefer civility to barbarism?’.” (Divine Conspiracy, p. 219)
If someone’s behaviour has offended you in some way, go to them directly, without prejudging them. Maybe they are completely unaware that they have upset you. Ask. Don’t simmer in your anger and hurt, trying to manipulate them into better behaviour. Do as the Gospels tell us over and over again: make use of the dynamic of the direct request. And if the answer is “no”, trust them and move on.