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Emotions 101: Emotional Manipulation

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

Let's put some stipulations on emotional manipulations

Stings leading to the fingers of a puppet master
What if our client's were the masters of their own lives?

This week, Certified Life Coaching Institute turns their focus on emotional manipulation, the act of using the emotions of someone for your personal gain. But it's more than that…

It's also what’s at play when we:

  • Take a friend to their favorite café for a conversation that has the potential to be tense.

  • Appeal to another's sense of guilt when we seek justice or so that they can act more ethically in the future

  • Use positive self-talk and visualization techniques on ourselves when we want to motivate ourselves.

While emotional manipulation may have a bad connotation, it's a complicated topic that coaches need to deal with when a client's emotions are at play.

Join us at CLCI Live while Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Jerome LeDuff Jr (MCLC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Lisa Finck (PCC), and Jen Long (MCPC) discuss the many facets of emotional manipulation and how we as coaches can use emotional manipulation (as weird as that sounds) for the benefit of our client.

The meaning of Manipulation

Manipulate is a verb with many meanings. Consider that one will manipulate their pen or pencil, just as they might manipulate the settings of their smartphone. The same word is used to describe someone manipulating a family member into doing a chore for them when they don't want to.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary breaks this down further. To manipulate could mean operating something, managing/utilizing something “skillfully”, or “to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage.”

When we consider emotional manipulation, we most often think of that last definition- specifically, the more self-serving and/or malicious nature that one could use to control/prey upon another’s emotions.

But ‘manipulation’ of all these natures is a verb- an action. A tool that is operated, managed, utilized.

And tools are, by their nature, neutral concepts. How they are used is what they must be judged on. And by extension, we must consider the intent of the user.

Everyday Emotional Manipulation

Business People Meeting Eating Discussion Cuisine Party
Can you spot the emotional manipulator? That's right...ALL OF THEM

We are emotionally manipulated on the daily by both ourselves and our surrounding environment.

Don't believe us?

What about when we watch a gripping movie or TV show? Or the advertisements that constantly surround us? A good book can emotionally manipulate us, whether it be fiction or an inspirational autobiography. Inspirational speeches from leaders and motivators cannot work without a touch of emotional manipulation. Clickbait titles on articles might prime us for an emotional reaction so that we are almost obligated to click the article.

Now even consider the following… The interior design of a children’s doctor’s office. The picture of an athletic model on the front of a magazine. The colors chosen for a candy bar wrapper. The layout of a grocery store where the very last thing you see in line are the candy bars. All of these things are in some part meant to manipulate the emotions of those who see them.

Outside the manipulations of the environment, what about people? What about those malicious, self-serving narcissists that we may be envisioning after hearing the words ‘emotional manipulator’?

Every human engages in emotional manipulation of two manners.

First, we manipulate our own emotions. We manage, we self-motivate, we lie, we avoid, we reward. All these things we (un)knowingly do to ourselves in response to our own emotions.

Second, we might play upon the emotions of others. This could be self-serving or could also be a neutral, accidental thing. Emotional manipulation can be direct and indirect.

A 2021 correlational study concluded that

“ [the] use of emotional manipulation is associated with a direct increase in psychological well-being; however, indirect emotional manipulation decreases psychological well-being”.

Of note in this study, multiple variables were being measured. While some varied in different groups, ages, genders, and more, emotional manipulation was the variable that was not significantly different between genders in all ages aside from adolescents. What does it mean? We all use emotional manipulation. Directly or indirectly, it is an inevitability- and direct use of emotional manipulation is correlated with better wellbeing, rather than the decreased wellbeing of indirect emotional manipulation.

An Inevitability In Coaching

Indirect emotional manipulation is more likely to cause harm than good in a session. But direct, intentional emotional manipulation is practically a part of coaching.

Let us elaborate.

Coaches could be called out for emotional manipulation for anything from their marketing to the mirroring they use with clients in a session. Clients have some goal they want, and there may be emotions motivating this goal that they may know or may be denying, masking, or unaware of. The client will be creating their own plan tailored to them and emotions will play its role in that.

Emotions determine the motivational patterns of a person. Emotions help to incentivize us to go forward or they are ones of fear and disappointment, convincing us not to try. As a coach, you might help coax the strongest emotions out of a client and that, in turn, will influence their decision on what they actually want or don’t want to do. Changing how someone feels towards something will in turn affect their outward behaviors, such as whether they will follow through with a plan or not.

But, coaches shouldn’t manipulate a client towards only their most positive emotions. Validating may manage to make the client feel happy, but they won’t be experiencing that emotion in the long run when they continue facing the issues that went unaddressed. A coach will manipulate the emotions that are more likely to see the client going forward in prioritizing their goal, rather than just trying to validate.

Emotional manipulation can be a direct part of framing and re-framing for a client. While the coach may prompt the client with a questions and will not be doing that reframing for them, the client will become more aware of their own emotions & hopes, and better decide what they want to prioritize over other emotions and plans.

Consider New Year's Resolutions. (I know, I know, how many of us actually manage to keep ours into February?)

A resolution is often based in emotions. We may decide to become regulars at the gym. Why? For better health? To change our appearances? Our reasons why have to feel strong enough to outweigh our emotions against going to the gym. We’re too tired today—we can go tomorrow. It’s hot and smelly at the gym and we don’t want to shower today. We don’t have the stamina and it’s miserable to go. All these reasons to break a goal will pile up against our will and drive to pursue it. So we reframe our emotions back to our goal.

All around us are inescapable primers. We’re primed by advertisements for a fast food joint to feel hungry- and likely crave something on the greasier side. We’re primed by pictures in the gym of muscular, smiling people of all ages and genders lifting weights and doing squats. If they can smile while doing this, then is it really miserable? Is it?

Consider again a New Year’s Resolution. Any one. A goal to exercise, a diet decision, a resolution to decrease alcohol intake, even a broad, vague goal to be ‘happier’. All of these will need to be framed in a way that makes us acknowledge and then throw away the negative emotions that try to make us stop.

And now consider how many times in coaching, we have a client that wants to keep or even to make a goal for themselves, just like a resolution. They try to decide in the session if this goal is really one that they value enough to want to pursue.

It might not be. They might actually prefer to prioritize something else. All it takes is a little reframing, a little more investigating, a little more listening to one emotion and less to another. By doing this we bring to the surface the emotions that lie underneath and encourage our clients to really analyze and see them for what they are and how they relate to their goals.

It’s the manipulation of emotions so that the client can use them.

The Question of Marketing

As mentioned above, advertisements are all culprits of emotional manipulation. The best ads, in fact, are those that manipulate their audience’s emotions the most effectively. Consider these examples: The contrast in these three advertisements for presidential candidates over the years. Now consider these advertisements for restaurants and fast food chains, that play on emotions from comfort in familiarity, nostalgia, celebrity appeal, attraction, appetite, and more. Which ads were the most enticing? Which are memorable? What really sells the product for you? Emotional manipulation is inescapable. Even the worst ads will still have played or tried to play with an emotion.

The marketing you may do as a coach is no exception. But the idea of manipulation again stings. It’s always self-serving, isn’t it? It’s about benefiting the coach by getting paying clients? It can’t be right…right?

Alright. Let’s hit the brakes for a moment.

Thinking in terms of wrong and right put a level of perceived moral obligation on this subject that does not need to be there. False advertising is unfair, whatever the company or product being advertised, from a president to a meal to what a life coach can give you. So be fair in how you market yourself. Don’t make promises that are outlandish. Keep the interests of clients in mind and lead with the benefits coaching with you brings.

And go out there to advertise yourself.

Because emotional manipulation is like any other neutral tool: it can be used for positive or negative, for all involved parties. The intentions behind it can be good or bad. And it will be a part of the coaching life whether we like it or not.


Thank you,

Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Jerome LeDuff Jr (MCLC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Lisa Finck (PCC), and Jen Long (MCPC)!

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Billi Jean
Billi Jean
May 28, 2023

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