How to Avoid Manipulation to Reduce Stress
Filled with frustration, I went running yesterday morning. Each time my foot landed on the pavement, it felt jarring to my whole body and rattled my brain. I embraced it. I wanted it to knock an elusive idea free. I always want anything I produce to be meaningful, but nothing I came up with yesterday worked for me.
Listening to my oldies playlist on my wireless earbuds, the thought finally came free when The Monkees played Daydream Believer inside of my head. “Cheer up sleepy Jean, Oh, what can it mean…” I really thought about that line. I don’t know why. What is the “it” in reference to? Is the “it” the meaning of life, or is it about the expectations society puts on us? Why is Jean sleepy? Is Jean representing all of the unfocused day dreamers out there? Are daydreamers trying to escape all that is expected of them?
How often do we find ourselves in forced moments of confusion, pressured to make a decision we are unsure of? Manipulation has become an art form. It is our mother’s way of making sure we all get together during the Holidays. It’s a sales person’s arsenal of weapons to get their commission. It’s our employers and others trying to force us into a decision we may not like or want. Are the sweet, naive daydreamers of the world just lambs for the pack of manipulative wolves to hunt down?
Not all manipulation is terrible. I think family should find a reason to get together. Without mom saying something like, "I never get to see you anymore," or "You know I won't be around forever," or "Don't you want my grand kids to know me," then maybe we never get around to making plans together. Everyone is a potential victim of bad manipulation though, so how do we identify when we are being manipulated? If we can learn to avoid it, perhaps we save ourselves from a great deal of the stress and anxiety that comes from the forced decisions we never really wanted to make in the first place.
Manipulation Isn’t New
People have been manipulating one another since people first thought to start using tools. The tactics have not changed either, only optimized. Manipulation is one of the biggest factors adding to the incredible amount of pressure, stress and anxiety we feel each and every day. It causes us to distrust nearly everything. Whether it is the pressure to buy more, make more money, get married, have kids, look perfect, get straight A’s or not to embrace the gender we truly identify with, being able to identify manipulation should allow us to avoid forced and bad decisions. How much of your time do you spend obsessing about poor decisions you made in the past?
I used to raise money for investment firms, which means I am very familiar with the art of manipulation. Let me take you back 15 years to a time where phone sales still dominated the financial sector and online discount brokers were inefficient and foreign to most people. It was a time where brokers could become giants and where you would find the greatest manipulators on the planet, with the exception being politicians of course. Perhaps then we can drill down on how to identify manipulative tactics by looking at it from the manipulator’s perspective.
15 Years Ago
“There are only so many objections out there,” Charlie explains to the room of sales people. “They will tell you they have to talk to their wife or husband first. They will tell you they are on a budget. They will tell you they are already fully invested. They’ll tell you they are busy and have no time to talk or that they have been doing this since you were a baby and do not need your help. These same objections will come each and every time you speak with a prospect, you’ll just get a different story line each time, but they all amount to the same objections.”
Charlie pauses for a moment to make sure everyone is paying attention. He suddenly snaps his fingers loudly towards one side of the room. Everyone flinches and their full focus is back on him. He looks up at me and makes direct eye contact. I stare right back at him. I know there will be consequences even for this subtle challenge, sometime down the road. He breaks eye contact and picks up a pile of printouts next to him and hands them to one of the nearby reps to distribute.
“It is your job to identify the objection,” he continues in his commanding voice. It is as if he has a megaphone lodged in his throat. “To do that you must listen! Write down everything the prospect says to help identify what the actual objection is, and also so that you can repeat back to them what they have told you. By repeating what they have said to you later in the conversation, you make the prospect feel like you are truly listening to what they are saying. It makes them feel as though they are important, in control of the conversation and that this was their idea all along.” He pauses a moment to make sure everyone is listening again. “What you are now receiving are flow charts that will tell you how to overcome each of those objections. I expect you to memorize it!”
Charlie always gives this speech to start the new year. As a rising star at the firm, I’ve heard it before. He uses my financial success at the firm as proof that his methods work so that he can maintain a staff of call flippers at a very small cost. Without asking for my permission, he will tell them how much I make in a month. He will talk about my high rise apartment on the beach. He will tell them how I am flying to Paris first class. He cosigned on a 7 series BMW lease for me, to go along with his Maserati, just to show every sales person what success looks like every morning they walk into the office. His vanity license plate reads, DFIU (Don’t **** It Up). He “gave” me a Rolex last year under the condition I wore it to work everyday.
The compliments, gifts and ego boosting really isn't for me, although he wants me to think it is. It is for him, so he can provide evidence to his sales staff that if they listen to him, then look at all they could get. I’m proof that his methods work. They are all indentured servants until one of them figures out how to close deals on their own, or leaves. Most of them will never figure out how to close, maybe 1 out of a hundred. It’s enough to make me want to throw up. I have never been a materialist. My career was supposed to be more than just making money, but that is all it is. I am not helping anyone. I’m not changing the world. I am just working the system in what feels like a deep gray area. Nobody has any patience for my complaints though.
I walk clients through opening an account with the clearing firm and help them transfer funds into that account. We then charge a management fee on that account. The company gets a part of that fee, Charlie gets a part of that fee and I get a part of that fee. What does the client get? While all of the investments are 100% legitimate, the truth is that the client is not getting much, but they don’t know that. Structured investments have been too complicated for far too long and people in the financial sector are trained to make them sound even more complicated than they are. The client concludes that if the investment is complicated, then that must mean it is sophisticated and that they better leave it to us, the professionals.
If that is not manipulation, I don’t know what is. It is a way of life for these people and the manipulation is so diabolically layered, it's staggering. I could go on, but you get the point. I scoured the financial sector comparing different companies and how they went about business. I went in for an interview with Merrill Lynch in 2007. The manager’s corner office overlooked all of Southern Florida. I eventually said to him that I thought the market was in jeopardy of crashing, which it ended up doing the next year. He laughed and said he thought the same thing and something about all those poor bastards. It meant that he was always reassuring his client's that everything would be fine and that they just needed to stay the course, even though he didn't really believe that. Merrill Lynch would have filed for bankruptcy the next year, except the government forced Bank of America to buy them.
While I learned a lot in the financial sector, it was not what I thought I would learn. I learned just how competitively ruthless business is. I learned why regulatory bodies are so very necessary. I also learned that most regulatory bodies are under funded and don’t have enough bandwidth to properly oversee the industries they are assigned to. It leaves plenty of wiggle room for bad players to do plenty of manipulating. You've heard the stories I am sure. That leaves it to you to understand when someone has an ulterior motive. Here are a few of the tactics used by any sort of manipulator.
The Fear of Missing Out/Scarcity
If you have ever seen the countdown timer when you are trying to buy tickets. If you have ever seen that there are only 5 left in stock. If you have ever been given a deadline for a promotion opportunity. If you have ever been told about some past investment that did really well and that there may never be another opportunity like the current one again. Those are all examples of being victim to the Fear of Missing Out or FOMO manipulation tactic. The scarcity of an item demonstrates that the product is in high demand and if you don’t buy now you may never get the opportunity to have this valuable item again. You look at those past investments that did so well for other people and you just can't help but think, oh, what could have been!
The Guilt Trip
Families are famous for the guilt trip. Whether they are judging you for not being more successful, not getting married, making grandkids, visiting enough or not losing weight, it seems to be their main go to strategy for manipulation to either get you to do what they want or make themselves feel better about themselves. Businesses do it as well. If a sales person is trying to befriend you, then the end sale is basically; How can you not buy? I thought we were friends! Suddenly the salesperson is the victim because you wasted their time and they need to make a living too.
The Bait and Switch
There is the super bold bait and switch, where a sales person has you buy something amazing and expensive, just to deliver something subpar. But then, there is the more subtle bait and switch. They will suggest something completely unreasonable, express some understanding about why it is unreasonable and then suggest what they really want, which seems like something much more reasonable relative to the first suggestion and something you can handle. Sometimes they will make you afraid of something and then offer you some relief.
There are obviously many more forms of manipulation out there. Manipulators know that people believe what they conclude. People think they are clever and smart for being able to manipulate other people. They feel pride for being smarter than you. If you can learn to see them for what they really are, then perhaps you will help yourself avoid something that could turn out to be a big source of future anxiety. Bad investment decisions have haunted people for hundreds of years. Anyone that you don’t know that is expressing a lot of interest in you, wants something. Sometimes you will want the same thing, but most of the time the exchange will only benefit the other person. The expression; if something seems too good to be true, it probably is, is a true piece of wisdom.
My morning run eventually got smoother. Near the end, Jimi Hendrix started playing in my head. And so castles made of sand, slip in the sea eventually. So much of our anxiety and stress is based on things that have very little substance. But, some of our worries have true substance. Bad decisions can lead to bad consequences. The key is not to make bad decisions and in order to do that you need to be able to identify when someone is trying to take advantage of you. Like castles made of sand, their offers have little substance. Make sure you ask questions and understand clearly what is being offered to you. Take control of conversations. Remember, you have something that they want, and as long as you possess it, then you have all the leverage.