It’s one of the unfortunate realities of interpersonal communication: The way that you talk to people in healthy situations will cause major problems when you’re trying to talk to someone stuck in unhealthy dynamics. That’s because manipulative people with toxic personalities will hijack normal conversational maxims and norms and exploit them to their own ends.
It’s typically best if at all possible to limit your exposure to a person who is difficult in this way. But if for some reason you can’t, if they’re a coworker, someone you share custody of a child with, a close family member you can’t cut ties with, or they’re linked to someone else of great importance in your life (who you are unwilling to cut out of your life), there are a number of strategies to cope.
In previous articles, I covered the gray rock method (being pleasant but bland and boring) and staying medium chill (interacting in a way that no emotional “heat” is generated) as potential tools when you’re forced in a situation where you have to interact with a manipulative person.
Today I’d like to talk about a set of guidelines that focuses less on what you should do around a manipulative person and more on what you shouldn’t do.
Whatever You Do, Don’t JADE When Dealing with a Manipulative Person
When dealing with a difficult person, whatever you do, don’t JADE.
What does it mean to JADE? It’s a handy acronym, which stands for:
Healthy people in a healthy interpersonal dynamic can have healthy disagreements. In a healthy interpersonal situation, when one person disagrees with the other, it’s entirely appropriate for the person whose position is challenged to justify, argue, defend, or explain their reasoning.
In those healthy situations, the other party might come closer to the other person’s point of view. Or they might justify, argue, defend, or explain their own reasoning and convince the other party. Or perhaps both parties will see the truth in the other’s point of view and come to some kind of compromise. And in still other situations, perhaps neither party is moved, but they can come to a sort of truce on the issue, where they “agree to disagree.”
But disagreement often takes an entirely different course with particularly manipulative or difficult people. When they openly disapprove of your choices, it can be easy to fall into endless arguments. Not only will they not be satisfied until you come around entirely to their point of view, but they’ll take great offense to your disagreeing with them, perceiving it as an attack on them.
How to Avoid JADE-ing Using Conversational Killers
Clearly state your position once. You can answer what sounds like an earnest request for clarification — if someone asks you about something they find confusing. But the moment it turns into a situation where the other person is trying to set you up in a conversational trap where you must justify, argue, defend, or explain, resist using conversational killers.
Here are some basic resistance tactics for each.
How to Not Justify
If someone asks, “Well, why would you do XYZ?” in an attempt to have you justify your choices, you can respond with one of the following:
- “I wanted to.”
- “I knew it was the best choice for me.”
How to Not Argue
When you feel an argument coming on, stop it dead in its tracks with one of the following:
- “Let’s agree to disagree.”
- “I don’t want to argue about this.”
How to Not Defend
When you start feeling defensive because of attacks from others, make it clear that you’d like a change in topic (again without explaining why or giving emotional ammunition). Here are a few things you can say:
- “Let’s change the subject.”
- “I don’t want to talk about this.”
How to Not Explain
If a difficult person starts questioning you beyond simple clarification, they might start asking about your motives, trying to glean more information so that they can attack and put you on the defensive. As with defending, you can avoid explaining by changing the topic.
- “Let’s talk about something else.”
- “This is a bad topic for us. Let’s discuss a more neutral one.”
Note: These techniques are only intended for situations where you have to tolerate a difficult person’s presence and wish to escape with as little fallout as possible. They are not to be employed in healthy close relationships. Even when it comes to using them with a difficult person, it’s better to limit contact with that person or even avoid them completely if possible.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.