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Manipulation Shouldn’t be a Dirty Word

We think nothing of manipulating a joint or massaging a muscle when they freeze. In fact, as a nation, we spent vast sums on acquiring the professional services of masseuses, physios and chiropractors to do just that. But when it comes to modifying our behaviour to achieve a better relationship with a colleague, the word ‘manipulation’ assumes a much less savoury reputation. Why is this the case?

As a child, I was brought up to follow the principle that I should treat people the way I wanted to be treated. I quickly realised, that this approach failed to achieve the results I wanted and was more likely to land me in hot water. Part of reaching this realisation was discovering that people are not like me. They don’t want the same things; they don’t respond to the same things; and they don’t appreciate being treated as if they are part of a homogenous group. This was the point I started to adopt a different approach: to treat people they way they want to be treated.

This inevitably means that my behaviour shifts according to who I am with. It would be an act of supreme arrogance to expect them to ‘accommodate’ my foibles whilst I stubbornly refuse to modify my behaviour.

This issue was brought to light recently whilst I was facilitating a client session on Belbin’s Team Roles. The use of the word ‘manipulative’ in one of the reports set the cat among the pigeons. It is clearly a provocative word and caused some upset for one of the team members who felt vilified by the reference.

However, the process of manipulation is not an inherently bad thing, despite being commandeered occasionally by the unscrupulous for nefarious means. Instead, it is a necessary adjustment that enables us to connect with people at a level they feel comfortable with. And we do not have to lose ourselves in the process. We may play many roles throughout the day, depending on who we are interacting with, but each role remains part of who we are. Like a diamond that we pivot to view from different angles, humans are multi-faceted. Each side is valid and potentially beautiful.

As with most things, intention is everything. If you are consciously modifying your behaviour to open up a positive relationship and enable a level of communication that satisfies both parties, you are demonstrating respect and empathy for your counterpart. So let us not automatically jump to the conclusion that manipulation is a terrible thing. You’ll be grateful for it the next time you get a frozen shoulder.

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