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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Communicate Boundaries So You Can’t Be Manipulated—or Manipulate Others

Dear Crucial Skills,

I frequently find myself in Crucial Conversations with someone who is disrespectful and demeaning towards me. I have tried the strategy of apologizing for any wrongs I may have committed, but this person is only willing to talk if I take full responsibility for every wrong they feel I’ve committed and then do things exactly their way. This seems unfair. What can I do?


Dear Gaslighted,

Based on the information you’ve provided, I can interpret your situation in two ways: either this person is trying to hold you accountable (and failing), or they’re trying to manipulate you (and succeeding).

Because I don’t know the truth of your situation, I will share tips to help you respond in either case.

First, let’s assume things are as you say and this person is “demeaning,” “disrespectful,” and will only talk with you if you agree to “do things exactly their way.”

As you now know, acquiescing to demands is no sustainable way to resolve disagreement. You might avoid contention in the moment, but long term the relationship will suffer, and any results that depend on your cooperation will also suffer.

My first suggestion is don’t apologize if you don’t believe you’ve done wrong. Instead, have a conversation about facts.

A fact is observable—a truth about events as opposed to our interpretation of them. In your case, a “wrong” suggests there is a standard or expectation of behavior, which would be a fact. And there’s your actual behavior that supposedly didn’t meet the standard, which would also be a fact.

Next time this person asks you to take responsibility for some wrong and you believe you’ve done no wrong, start with facts.

For example, “Last month we agreed that I would compile all weekly reports and then send them to you on the last day of the month. Now you say you’re upset because you haven’t seen the reports on a weekly basis. How do you remember our last conversation?”

Perhaps the facts related to your situation are a little harder to delineate—perhaps they involve attitudes and words rather than policies and actions. Perhaps this is a marital partner or friend, not a work peer. Nonetheless, try to isolate precisely what this person expects and precisely how they believe you didn’t meet this expectation.

Make it clear you intend to stick to these facts. “Just so we’re clear, you expect me to do such-and-such. If in the future you think I haven’t met this expectation, I will expect you to cite evidence of how. That way we won’t get lost in misunderstanding. Does that seem reasonable to you?”

As you clarify expectations, you may discover you’re unwilling or unable to meet some of them. If so, don’t pretend otherwise. Try to find a mutually acceptable alternative. “I understand why you want me to do that, but I can’t agree to that and here’s why. However, I am willing and able to do this, and I think this will satisfy both our wants. What do you think?”

These Crucial Conversations skills should help you express your viewpoint rather than withhold it. You may struggle a bit at first, and this other person may be taken back by your frankness. If you meet resistance, stay respectful. And should this person try to avoid a discussion of facts, make that the topic of conversation. We have several articles here about discussing patterns of behavior.

But what if this person is merely trying to hold you accountable?

My suggestion is the same: start with facts.

Whenever we act irresponsibly or behave poorly and someone tries to hold us accountable, we tend to get defensive. In our defensiveness, we concoct all kinds of stories that paint the other person as villain and ourselves as victim.

Some of the wording in your question leads me to believe this is a plausible explanation for your situation. For example, you said you tried the “strategy of apologizing.” Perhaps that’s simply a poor choice of words, but if you meant what you said, I’m concerned that you see an apology as a strategy.

In other words, perhaps this person is demanding you take “full responsibility,” as you say, because so far you haven’t.

How can you know? Look in the mirror. Do you feel disgust or distrust when interacting with this person? Do you raise your voice? Do you feel like a victim? Is there anything you might have done to give this person cause to demand responsibility?

It is said that “The truth is hard to swallow,” and it may be you are struggling to hear what this person has to say.

It is also said “The truth shall set you free.” So, again, focus on facts. The demand for responsibility may be feedback. Don’t dismiss it because it’s difficult to embrace. This person may have perspective that can help you become a better version of yourself.

“Do you mind if we start over? Perhaps I haven’t been hearing you. I’m willing to take responsibility for the things I’ve done wrong, and it would help me to review the facts of the situation. I think it’s essential if I’m to improve and not make similar mistakes in the future.”

If you learn during a conversation that you did, in fact, fail to meet a clear expectation, apologize sincerely and quickly. Acknowledge the misdeed and specify what you will do to prevent it from happening in the future.

Finally, since we have talked so much about facts, I’d like to share one with you: While we are all connected in ways, it remains a psychological fact that I am me and you are you. Most of our interpersonal conflicts result from failing to respect where “I” end and “You” begin.

We often behave as though others are extensions of ourselves, employing various tactics to get them to behave as we wish they would—demands, threats, putdowns, sarcasm, silence, and so on. Sometimes we do this overtly, but usually we are subtle about it. And should we give in to manipulation, we’re prone to resentment and ineffective backlash. The relationship result is a muddled mixture of codependence.

Paradoxically, it is only through recognizing and respecting each other as separate, individual, autonomous human beings that we can create effective and meaningful connections.

I hope these suggestions help you better respect yourself and your boundaries—and others’—so you can connect and communicate more effectively.

Good luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

9 thoughts on “How to Communicate Boundaries So You Can’t Be Manipulated—or Manipulate Others”

  1. tdiym

    If this person is a partner and truly gaslighting the writer, there will be no point in trying to present her case to the person who keeps telling her she is the cause of all the problems. That’s what gaslighters do, and even if they agree to a mutual solution, the next time something happens, the writer will enter that same loop of having to apologize for everything. People who gaslight are not reasonable people and will not actually want to participate in mutual solutions because the whole goal of gaslighting is for the person doing the gaslighting to feel “superior” to the other person by putdowns and making the other person question their own rationality. There is no rational solution that will satisfy a gaslighter.

    1. Jeff Grigg

      Yes, I think we need to recognize that a substantial portion of our population does, unfortunately, often end up in this abusive “gaslighting” situation, through no fault of their own, just because that is the way our society operates. There are over-many individual battles to fight at this time. Fortunately, the given techniques can help. Substantially.

  2. Justin Hale

    Great article Ryan!

  3. Rhiannon

    Thank you for this article, Ryan! It is always helpful to be reminded to stick to the facts. Appreciate the comment that “the truth is hard to swallow”

  4. Wesley Jones

    Very insightful article! Thanks! I found it very helpful!

  5. Hoping this Helps You

    Well said Ryan.

    Gaslighted, I have some suggestions I hope may help. As soon as the disrespect / demeaning pattern starts, I suggest stopping the conversation to say I want to hear you and resolve this but right now I am feeling disrespected by xyz. When that happens I have difficulty hearing the rest of what you’re saying and then I lose focus on working through the issue with you. Can we start over, or would you please restate that? This is the first pattern that needs to change and I believe a very important one. Set the expectation of respectful communication and continue that throughout the conversation.

    A “strategy” of apologizing seems ingenuine. When I apologize, I mean it sincerely. Most people, even children, sense insincerity and feel manipulated and resentful. I suggest stopping that “tactic” immediately.

    “Every wrong they feel I have committed”. Perhaps they are assigning motive to your actions that does not line up with how you see yourself? Most of us don’t like someone telling us what we think, in particular when they are mistaken. This is a patterned behavior to address. “I would appreciate it if you would state what you are experiencing rather than what you believe my motives may be or what I am thinking.” Look past this behavior. Ryan is spot on when he suggests examining yourself. Perception is reality – for the person perceiving. If this person genuinely sees you in this light either they are seeing you for who you really are (and you are not) or they are viewing you through a distorted lens. You many learn something about yourself you did not know and determine to make some changes. Either way, any mind-reading needs to stop and you can respectfully set that boundary.

    “Every wrong they feel I’ve committed”. Leaving out any mind-reading, you are in a relationship with this person which means you either have to (i.e. work) or want to (personal) remain in relationship with them. When someone feels wronged by me I want to know about it so that I can apologize. Most people are sane and have a grasp on reality. If I did do something worth discussing I do. Then, when possible, I change my behavior. I don’t want to go around hurting others.

    “Do things exactly their way” is likely unreasonable. “When you ask me to xyz, I get the impression you are dictating how I should think/feel/behave in order for you to accept me/the outcome of xyz. I am unable to do that because I am not you. I respect you and want to have a positive relationship with you. That means that how I accomplish xyz may differ from how you would accomplish xyz. I believe we have the same goals to do xyz. I need to know that you will respect me and how I do xyz just like I will give you the same respect. Can you do that?

    Lastly, if this is about accomplishing yxz by ##/##/## date, follow up in a text or email. It is worth the moment of time it takes to do this. Then if this happens again, you can reference that written record and ask for specifics about what expectation was not met.

    I hope that this helps you moving forward with this person and in other relationships. It has helped me.

  6. bean q

    compelling writing: every step made sense!
    thank you

  7. Martha Rumschlag

    I have a question unrelated to this post. Are there any posts related to the appropriate use of group chats?

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Hi Martha, on the blog homepage there’s a search tool just below the featured post. If you search “virtual” you’ll find a number of posts. Perhaps one of those is pertinent. You might try other relevant search terms too.

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