7 Subtle Signs of Manipulation, According to a Psychologist

When you hear the word “manipulation,” you may think of, uh, some particular contestants on Hannah Brown’s season of The Bachelorette. You might think of your friend’s ex who made her feel like a bad person for setting a boundary.

While manipulation can be obvious, it isn’t always—especially to the person experiencing it. People can manipulate others in hard-to-notice ways too. In fact, the manipulative person may not even realize they're engaging in it because they're so caught up in whatever need they're trying to meet. 

Knowing when you’re being manipulated can be helpful in several ways. It can let you know when someone is trying to make you do something you don’t want to do. It can be a red flag in a relationship you may not want to stay in. The list goes on.

Below, a psychologist digs deeper into the phenomenon of subtle manipulation. Why are people subtly manipulative? What are signs and specific examples of subtle manipulation to look out for? If you notice those signs, what are helpful next steps?

Related: 9 Subtle Signs of Gaslighting That Are Often Easy to Miss, According to Psychologists

Why Might Someone Be Subtle With Their Manipulation Tactics?

People aren’t necessarily conscious they're being manipulative, but that doesn’t mean the effects aren’t real or that their behavior is okay. “Subtle manipulation can include ‘harmless’ gestures that can ultimately create problems,” says Dr. Scott Lyons, PhD, a licensed holistic psychologist, podcast host of The Gently Used Human Podcast and author of the bestselling book Addicted to Drama: Healing Dependency on Crisis and Chaos in Yourself and Others.

Often, it’s just a case of trying to influence you without being aggressive. They may not have great or healthy communication skills ready to go. “They may be doing so as they don’t want you to think you’re trying to manipulate them,” he continues. “Often, subtle manipulation can be outside of someone’s complete conscious awareness—they have a need that is either expressed or not, and [are trying] to manage someone else’s feelings and behaviors to meet those needs without the full awareness that they are doing it or how they are doing it.”

Related: 11 Subtle Signs of Narcissism That Are Easy to Miss, According to Psychologists

7 Subtle Signs of Manipulation

1. Monopolizing a conversation

Similar to what social media users might call “yapping,” we have the act of completely taking over a conversation. You’ve probably experienced this before, in which someone talks and talks without letting you get a word in.

“Someone who does all the talking may be doing so in a manipulative way,” Dr. Lyons says. This might look like someone going out of their way to convince you they're right or not allowing you to share your thoughts.

Related: 6 Things Successful People *Always* Do in a Conversation, According to a Neuropsychotherapist

2. Comparing

More specifically, comparing you to someone else to sway or shift something about you, according to Dr. Lyons. For example, if you hear your partner talk about how their ex was willing to do something in bed that made them feel especially good, and how they aren’t happy with the sex life you two have, you may feel like you need to do whatever that ex did (regardless of how it makes you feel).

3. Flattery

While lots of compliments feel good—and can be genuine—it may be in your best interest to not take them at face value every time. Consider other factors, like if the person is sharing them to “butter you up” so you’ll do whatever they ask.

Dr. Lyons explains flattery may be used as leverage by someone who wants something in return. You know, the idea of “kissing up” to get what you want.

4. Love bombing

It’s kind of like flattery on steroids, to a much more serious and intense extent. “Love bombing”—often used by narcissists and abusers—is when someone gives an amount of affection that’s overkill and unrealistic to make the other person feel dependent or obligated to reciprocate. It can happen in the form of gift-giving or excessive expressions of love, for starters. Comedian Becca Bastos covers this well in a helpful and relatable way on TikTok.

Related: 10 Red Flags There’s a Narcissist in Your Family, According to Therapists

“Love bombing can be a subtle way of manipulating someone as it can feel good at first, but later diminish other feelings,” Dr. Lyons explains. If you’ve ever wanted to end things with a romantic interest—perhaps after a fight or a poor date—but then questioned yourself because they suddenly acted lovey-dovey after, you may have experienced this. And again, that example only scratches the surface of what love bombing can look like.

5. Blame

Maybe you’re having a conversation with your partner about how they hurt you, and all of a sudden, they're making you feel like you need to apologize. Basically, they don’t take any responsibility and make you feel at fault when you didn’t do anything wrong.

“When manipulating, a person may put blame on someone else to pin them as the ‘bad guy’ in a situation,” Dr. Lyons says.

In these moments, it’s important to hold to your truth tightly.

Related: 7 Direct Phrases to Shut Down Passive-Aggressive Behavior, According to a Psychologist

6. Guilt

Along the lines of blame, inducing guilt may be used to manipulate you or another person. Dr. Lyons says the manipulative person may use guilt as leverage. For example, if your partner really wants you to do something and you say no, they may make you feel like a bad person—with words, body language, etc.—until you give in.

Related: 11 Phrases to Respond to Guilt-Tripping and Why They Work, According to Psychologists

7. Recruiting

This can look like trying to get others on their side to reinforce their view as the “right” one, according to Dr. Lyons. It’s manipulative in that it can be a way of “ganging up on” someone, guilting them into agreeing with something or not allowing them to have their own belief.

What to Do If You Think Someone Is Trying to Manipulate You

If you’ve noticed these signs, Dr. Lyons has a few suggestions.

First, boundaries. “I always recommend making sure you set boundaries through clear and direct communication,” Dr. Lyons says. 

It’s also important to remember that you aren’t alone. Reach out to people you trust and let them know what you need. “Beyond that, always talk to someone if you feel like you’re in a situation where you’re being treated this way,” he continues. That someone could be a friend, family member, therapist or other loyal person in your life.

If the communication isn’t working or you see other red flags, you may want to rethink the relationship. Remember, you deserve a healthy, safe relationship in which you feel comfortable being yourself.

Next up: 8 Genius Comebacks for Dealing With a Manipulator, According to Psychologists