“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu
Many years ago I had a girlfriend who, when we broke up, relentlessly threatened to commit suicide for a number of weeks afterwards. Even one of her parents got in on the act. I was completely shattered and freaked out. What if she kills herself? How could I live with that? But this isn’t fair? I just wanted to get away. Eventually a friend saw I was completely neurotic, and after hearing what was going on arranged an appointment with a psychologist so that I could figure out some sort of strategy to deal with this. When I told the psychologist what was going on, she was quite non-plussed and said “Don’t worry, she won’t commit suicide.” She went on to explain that this was typical of behaviour where somebody wanted to achieve an objective through manipulation and emotional blackmail, and not someone who was depressed and wanted to end it all. “And in any case,” she went on, “if somebody does want to kill themselves it is a choice that they make. You aren’t holding a gun to their head. They can choose to do it, or not do it.”
That clinched it for me. I told the girl I was no longer going to allow myself to be affected by her behaviour, and she should go ahead and do what felt right to her. And the harassment ended.
But ever since that disturbing experience manipulation and emotional blackmail have been my hot buttons. It’s an absolutely selfish, disgusting and deplorable practice, which takes advantage of the goodwill and vulnerability of those who have placed their trust in the manipulator. It happens in politics, corporations, friendships and families. In schools it is easily recognisable, with the phrase that starts with “I won’t be your friend unless…..” And because it is so emotive, it leaves deep scars. When my daughter was growing up I used to be especially stern with her if any manipulative behaviour featured.
Why does it happen? The simple truth is that we allow it to happen. Whether we stand on the sidelines and watch it happen, or whether we allow ourselves to be manipulated for whatever reason, we are responsible for creating an environment where selfish manipulation works. And for those who are happy to manipulate, why change what works?
If we have a look at all the remarkable people that inspire us, what makes them remarkable is that they stood up and fought against manipulation and injustice, even though it cost them dearly. They are the people who said “No! I will not be manipulated.” Think of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, Mandela, Lincoln, Wilberforce, Churchill. Think also of those honest people in uniform, or the pupil who stands up for a friend, possibly against a teacher. Or a mother who protects a daughter against an abusive father. Or a child who stands up for himself. I would guess that’s exactly where the “famous” remarkable people honed their characters.
In the last few weeks we have seen much manipulation in our politics with the vote of no confidence in our president (lower-case p), and unfortunately the manipulators have won. Again.
Isn’t it time for all of us to stand up, take our integrity off the market and say farewell to manipulation?
Or is it time to realize that our manipulation of others is causing decay around us?
Next week’s blog will deal with how allowing manipulation affects our ability to lead. Don’t miss it. (Sign up to this blog here)
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