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I have a colleague (from now on called C) that I voluntarily work with (in a non-corporate environment) because we could get some work done that could be generally beneficial, including to both of us (though to varying degrees).

Every once in a while, C will approach me with 'friendly advice', saying that it would be really good for me personally to do a certain thing. Without exception, if I were to take this friendly advice it would always benefit them at least equally, most often more, than it does me. I'm always annoyed, because (1) they are being underhanded, (2) it's condescending especially because it's so transparent, and (3) I'm happy doing the job I do, I'm good at it, and I enjoy doing something for other people if they appreciate it, so none of this awkwardness is really needed.

I should note that other coworkers, especially C's juniors, have similar experience. Also, there is no cultural divide between us, and this takes place in Western Europe.

I would like to have a smooth functioning (and loose) relationship with C but this is being hampered by their attempts at manipulation. Ideally I would also like to gain some insight into this person's thought processes because they seem so illogical to me. I would like to convince C to drop the act and pitch their ideas in a more honest way. I want to get some work done in this collaboration but I also want to discourage this manipulative behavior, so I've attempted various measures, all of which are counter-productive:

  • (repeatedly) Ignore C, delay a response, or remain overly vague about any commitment to the task.
  • (occasionally) Act dumb, thank them for the great idea but don't follow through.
  • (occasionally) Blatantly ask them to pitch their ideas in a more honest way, explaining my above objections. They will invariably double down, swearing that they only have my best interest at heart, that they personally don't really stand to gain all that much from me doing this thing because they are already so successful, and suggesting that I am being cynical for assuming the worst in people. The tone is generally placating, which feels off to me given my accusation. Even when offered a somewhat gracious way out, C will not take it. Because they seem concerned with image preservation above all else, this approach seems like a dead end to me, but I hope I'm wrong.

What else can I try to do to convince C that their way of engaging me and anyone else is counter-productive for everyone involved, and is actively against C's own self-interest? Several colleagues already refuse to work with this person. The world would be a better place if this person were more self-aware.

Even though this situation is merely annoying, any help would be much appreciated!

N.B.: A similar situation could presumably arise outside the workplace in a purely social setting too (e.g. a friend of a friend), hence me posting my question here.

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  • Hi user! I've given your question a pretty masssive edit, because 2 of your 3 questions here would be off-topic according to our help center. Whether you should give someone the benefit of the doubt is up to you, and only C can explain why they behave the way they do. Also, to be in line with this meta, I scratched the sentence where you described C using only labels. Like discussed in that meta post, just a description of the behavior is often enough.
    – Tinkeringbell
    Jan 9 at 10:35
  • @Tinkeringbell thank you for the edit. You are completely right, the question is much more to the point now.
    – user32158
    Jan 9 at 15:51
  • 1
    I don't see how the issue of how much they benefit is relevant. It seems rather petty and spiteful to refuse to do something that benefits you, simply because it benefits someone else more. Jan 9 at 18:23
  • @Accumulation That would indeed be very petty and spiteful. However, this is not the point and I think the question makes clear what the point is, also after Tinkeringbell's cleanup.
    – user32158
    Jan 9 at 23:51
  • @Acccumulation Sorry for my terse response earlier. I re-read my own post with fresh eyes and can see why you ask that question. To clarify: In principle there is not much wrong with trying to convince someone to do something by explaining them what's in it for them. However, in this case it falls into a broader and repeated pattern of manipulative behavior that might go undetected if one would not ask the question: what's in it for them? When in need, C will resort to more dubious tactics, e.g.: "it would not be good for you if you would not do this thing with some urgency."
    – user32158
    Jan 11 at 10:19
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If I understand correctly, this person repeatedly says things to you in this form:

You should do Action, because Reasons.

The actions and reasons vary, but you feel that consistently, Reasons are either false or are leaving out C's actual reasons for suggesting this action to you (or wanting you to take this action), hiding them behind reasons designed to appeal to you and make the suggestion appear entirely generous and altruistic. This deception irritates you and you'd like to respond to it or somehow stop it.

Some people have this as a pattern of expression that they have used for literally decades. Parents especially often ask their children to do something by telling the child "what's in it for the child" when it comes to doing that thing, and omitting what the parent will gain from the child doing it. I think your chances of changing this pattern are very small if it is a longtime habit and especially if you resemble (for example, in age) the people C is in the habit of doing this with.

I am saying that your goal "to discourage this manipulative behavior" is not one you are likely to be able to achieve. Your list of things you have tried appears to support this position. You may, however, be able to reduce it somewhat, and to reduce your frustration with it dramatically.

Step 1. When C says "You should do Action, because Reasons" have a simple response that focuses on Action and ignores Reason. For example, "Action? That sounds interesting" or "Action? That hadn't occurred to me" or even "Action? That doesn't seem like it is part of my plan here." These responses are not yes/no/maybe they are just things to say while you think a little and to focus attention on Action alone.

Step 2. If you think Action is a good idea, respond honestly and truthfully about that without addressing Reasons at all. Thank C for making the suggestion or pointing out the opportunity. If you think it's a terrible idea that you would never do, decline the opportunity, again without reference to Reasons at all -- whether they are true, whether they motivate you, whether you believe they are what motivates C. Decline politely and gratefully. "Thanks for thinking that is something I could take on. I don't believe I am ready to do that yet." or "I don't think that's an avenue I want to pursue." No "but maybe later", no "because MyOwnReasons", no apology. If you're not sure, then say that honestly and truthfully, focusing on yourself. "I will have to think that over" or "I might discuss that with OtherPerson in our meeting next week" or "That's worth considering."

Step 3. If C tries to rebut your decline or deferral with reference to Reasons again, do not respond to that part of the argument specifically (arguing about whether they are true, motivate you, etc.) "I understand you think this would be a great opportunity for me. I appreciate you telling me about it." And then again STOP. Don't add a "but" or some kind of "maybe later" or anything to indicate the topic is still being discussed. Don't even repeat your decision.

Most people who find themselves in unpleasant pseudo-arguments say a sentence or two too many. They give the other person something to argue with. Shorter responses give the impression of great confidence where reasons do not.

Example: "Hey, buddy, I've been thinking, you should totally join the Budget committee. They have the best catering at their meetings! Who can resist bagels and cream cheese, am I right?"

"Is there an opening?"

"You bet! Well, there will be tomorrow, Bill is leaving, and if you want on, I can make it happen, just say the word, you'll love it, most important committee we have."

"Thanks for thinking of me for that. I don't want to join the Budget Committee."

pause. beat. wait.

"Why not? It's the heart of the organization! You know everything that's going on if you join!"

"Thanks. I appreciate you letting me know it's a possibility."

"So you'll consider it?"

"No. I don't want to join the Budget Committee."

At this point C can only loop back to the failed "why not?". You have provided no new information to argue with. You haven't accepted, rebutted, or even acknowledged hearing Reasons. Here you smile and either leave (say the two of you were at the coffee machine together), or change the subject.

Of course, if you think Action is actually a good idea, you can go ahead and say so, but again ignore Reasons and especially ignore meta talk about whether C's motivation is Reasons or something else, whether doing this would benefit C, or all of that. Focus on yourself. Would you like to do that thing? If so, great! C's dishonesty hasn't tricked you, hasn't got you doing something you don't want to do. It hasn't worked. It's irrelevant. So C believes you can be tricked and manipulated? That's going to hurt C someday. It means nothing to you today.

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  • Thank you very much @KateGregory for your extensive answer! Your detailed explanation of how to effectively deal with this person is very helpful, though it also means that I will either have to better learn to swallow my pride (perhaps a useful quality), or alternatively re-evaluate my working relation with this person. Thanks again!
    – user32158
    Jan 11 at 10:00
  • +100 great answer! But it would be good to add a response to "why not". You cannot always escape this, especially not in writing. Jan 14 at 3:49
  • I generally resist answering "why not" unless I really care about the person and am worried they will be unhappy with my decision. For a lot of people, answering "why not" gives them something to argue with (no it won't! it's not like that! oh that wouldn't happen!) and simply prolongs the argument or in this case manipulation opportunity. In most cases when someone asks why not I simply ignore it and respond to something else or back up in the conversation eg thank them again for the suggestion. Jan 14 at 12:45
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You need your own formula.

The good news is that your Buddy has no power over you, other than the power you give away.

Prioritize what you can control — your response to a predictable scene.

Ignore what you cannot control — insecure Buddy with a repetition compulsion always at the ready to manipulate.

All you have to do in handling this perennial annoyance is to create a formulaic response. Such examples are, "Why, you may be right," or "Oh, there’s an idea!" Then you trot out the identical formula every time. Works like a charm in regaining self-control and announcing that you are not a willing target for manipulation. I've used it at the supermarket, I've use it with a manipulative parent, and I've used it as a parent. Eventually, the other party learns that you're not backing down.

No need to fine-tune Buddy's habits.

As for your secondary question on how to fine-tune Buddy's habits, you don’t care! It could happen eventually. Probably not. In the meantime you’ve taken total charge of this pattern of stupidity. You are the best! There's an idea. You may be right.

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  • Thank you for taking the time to answer @YosefBaskin! Though I was hoping for some perspective on truly resolving this issue, I think you're right that it's to some extent out of my control. I'm taking your advice to create a formulaic response to heart.
    – user32158
    Jan 9 at 15:55
  • Hey Yosef! You say you've used this approach before. The point of our citation expecations is not that you claim you used it before, but that you also describe the reactions you got. That way, people can see the actual results of using this approach. Like described in this blog post: Don't give a recipe, but let us know how the cookies turned out. Just saying you made cookies is not what we're after. Could you edit your post to include the responses you get to your approach?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Feb 24 at 10:55
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Imagining you are a passionate sandwich maker and your colleague approached you in a similar fashion:

What if instead of one you made yourself a couple of sandwiches? Wouldn't it be awesome ?

And you actually know he's planning to eat the remaining sandwich.

You explain that you tried the following responses:

  • ignores
  • Yea... you're right... do a single sandwich
  • Why can't you be honest and say you want to profit of my sandwich making skills?

I see various things to consider:

  • Perhaps your colleague have very weird ways to reclaiming sandwiches because he doesn't like to admit he's hungry. You will have trouble trying to change that
  • As long as you have enough food and time you could make the sandwiches, live your passion, and agree with not having him disclosing his need for sandwich
  • If however you don't, then you don't, and you don't need to make him explain he's hungry either, you can politely decline, you could blame the lack of salad, or you could just say you've better to do for now
  • All in all, it's probably none of your business he eats or not the sandwich you made if you are happy making them and you would have made them anyway.

In Non-Violent Communication, we would explain this person communication language is hiding requests through advice. Somehow, you seem aware of that fact. So the "solution" could be simply to ignore that person never used an improper request, in the same way you can still understand a word that is misspelled. Simply pretend you were asked a favor from the start, and react accordingly.

  • That's an idea! Thanks for suggesting! makes two sandwiches
  • I wish I could, you know how I'm so happy to slice bread, but I'm lacking salad, sorry makes a single sandwich

(We refer selective hearing of feeling and needs as putting on giraffe ears)

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  • Hi @arthur-hv. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. Your advice will be very useful when dealing with people in the future, but unfortunately in the mean time the person in question has changed their tone considerably and I will no longer be working with them. I would like to upvote your answer but I'll have to wait until an issue with my account is resolved.
    – user32158
    Feb 2 at 11:07

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