Five things we say that might accidentally manipulate colleagues.

When talking with colleagues, many of us unwittingly nudge them toward our own desired outcome. It is a common form of accidental manipulation that is sometimes the result of our tone, the way we phrase requests, or a combination of both. This subtle, unconscious manipulation usually stems from our desire to maintain relationships and keep everything looking great, even when things are not.

Many of our manipulative interactions result from our desire to avoid making uncomfortable the person we are speaking with. However, that’s unfair to them because we unknowingly influence them and direct their thoughts toward a scenario devoid of reality when we behave in this way. Most of us tend to avoid making a person feel bad or coming off as too harsh, which drives this behavior.

The best way to avoid this behavior and become more mindful of unintentional manipulation is to pay attention to the way that you talk with people. This article will explore some of the most common unintentional manipulative phrases that we should watch for.

“We all think…”

Never speak as if everyone around you agrees with you because they don’t. It’s a fact.

Falling into the trap of false consensus is easy to do when working with people with whom you share common bonds. However, when you confuse your team’s wants and needs with your 0own personal preferences, you set yourself up for a dangerously manipulative situation.

Take, for example, the supervisor who declares that their team enjoys working remotely. That can be a completely false assumption, the truth of which may be revealed in a company survey.

Phrases such as “I am not the only person that thinks this” or “Everyone feels this way” selfishly gives weight to the words you choose and makes it appear as if you enjoy more support than you do. This language creates a culture of peer pressure that can send the message that different perspectives may place an individual at odds with others on the team.

“Do you have a minute?”

While it may seem like the polite way of approaching a colleague, you are just pouncing on them with no context and guilt-tripping them into saying yes, not just about taking their time, but to addressing whatever issue lies beneath your initial question. Since most colleagues will have a moment to spare, it will be hard for them to deny your request.

What’s manipulative about it is that you don’t want to know if they have a minute, as your question suggests. What you want is their help with something immediately. To avoid manipulation, ask them directly and get to your point.

Consider saying, “Hey, I can’t seem to figure out how to do X. Can you explain it to me? Should I get someone else to help me? Maybe we can chat when you have more time?”

“Isn’t this best?” or “Wouldn’t you agree?”

Regardless of what you think, these phrases do not invite disagreement or discussion. They are simply a way to coerce someone into agreeing with you. When a supervisor or a boss uses phrases like these, they may be putting an employee in an uncomfortable position where they feel a confrontation will ensue if they disagree.

Rather than opening the discussion with a manipulative phrase like these, consider asking open-ended questions like, “What is your perspective?” “Would this work?” “Would you do this differently?”

“I’m not saying you should do this, but…”

When you use this phrase, you say something but cover your tracks by saying that you’re not saying it. Almost everyone fails to hear the “not” in that statement which translates into, “You really should do this.” It’s an unconscious tactic meant to help the person avoid seeming bossy.

It is a manipulative tactic that offers an out. The person delivering the message avoids taking a stance, thereby avoiding accountability and distancing themselves from the outcome. It also provides the “I told you so” option for the person using the phrase if things don’t work out the way they should have. A similar expression is, “You do whatever you want to do, but…”

“Don’t spend the night working on this.”

While it may seem as if you’re looking out for the well-being of your colleague, you’re making a demand that usually has an immediate deadline that will require the person to spend all night on it.

These phrases are usually uttered by managers who fail to recognize just how long the task may take or fail to clarify what’s expected of the employee. Not only do these phrases ultimately ruin an employee’s weekend, but they can also make the manager look disingenuous and even sadistic.

Instead of using the phrase, communicate to staff precisely what the task is and how long you expect it will take to complete.

Words Matter

Far too often, our words, though well-intentioned, negatively affect our colleagues. We hurt morale and overall productivity when we allow unintentional manipulation to seep into the workplace. When you remove these five phrases, and phrases like them, from your workplace vocabulary, you’ll have a better shot at creating a more harmonious environment for everyone. 


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