Academic journal article Social Work

Managing Manipulative Behavior in the Helping Relationship

Academic journal article Social Work

Managing Manipulative Behavior in the Helping Relationship

Article excerpt

Theorists and researchers agree that a positive relationship between helping professional and client is critical to effectiveness. The literature is replete with publications devoted to factors that foster effective helping relationships, as well as factors that threaten helping relationships. However, a major threat that has received sparse attention is manipulative behavior by clients aimed at maneuvering a therapist in ways that undermine the helping process. (For the sake of brevity, the term "therapist" is used generically in this article to refer to social workers or helping professionals from allied disciplines. Use of the term is not intended to be limited to psychotherapists.)

Therapists frequently encounter manipulative behaviors, and failure to discern their often subtle manifestations may lead to counterproductive responses that inhibit growth and contribute to a client's loss of confidence in and respect for the therapist. Thus, the purposes of this article are to define manipulative behavior and explain its potential detrimental impact on the helping process, briefly discuss concepts from communication-interaction theory that have implications for manipulation in helping relationships, identify and discuss common manipulative behaviors, and recommend and illustrate approaches for clinically managing these behaviors.

Defining Manipulative Behaviors

Constructive Manipulation

My own synthesis of several definitions of the term manipulate is "to manage or influence by artful skill for the purpose of suiting one's purpose or advantage." Artful skill in manipulating others can be an essential and highly valuable personality asset. Successful leaders, politicians, coaches, and salespeople, for example, must possess verbal and interpersonal skills that enable them to persuade and influence others to follow and support their leadership, accept their views, perform at higher levels, buy their products, and so forth.

Even effective therapists are manipulative in that they use artful skills in influencing clients to make constructive changes consistent with mutually negotiated goals. Furthermore, empowering clients often entails enabling them to manipulate their environments in ways that generate policies and resources that meet their needs and enhance their well-being. Tactics of advocacy and social action are also highly manipulative in that they embody various types of leverage to influence key people and groups to change laws, policies, and resources allocation for the benefit of people in need. Widespread in human relationships, manipulation thus serves constructive purposes when legitimate means, motivated by altruistic intentions, are used to serve the common good.

Self-serving Manipulation

As used in the helping professions, manipulation more commonly refers to artful skill used to influence or exploit others for self-serving purposes. Hamilton, Decker, and Rumbart (1986) thus defined manipulation as "deliberately influencing or controlling the behavior of others to one's own advantage by using charm, persuasion, seduction, deceit, guilt induction, or coercion". Other forms of leverage commonly encountered include making glib promises to change and exploiting a therapist's vulnerability.

Dealing with clients who use self-serving manipulation poses a problem for many social workers, whose training has equipped them to relate with empathy and warmth and to demonstrate care and emotional support; they may not be prepared to deal with clients who are adept at manipulating others.

Control in Helping Relationships

In the context of helping relationships, clients who manipulate do so more to gain control over the relationship and the process than to exploit the therapist. According to an eminent communication-interaction theorist (Haley, 1963), maneuvers by clients to gain control of the definition of a relationship (that is, to control how participants relate to one another) should not be viewed as dysfunctional. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.