18 July 2016

Manipulative Bastards


As a child and as an adolescent, I was far too busy being tossed about in my own emotional storms to think too much about what other people were feeling. As a result, I often failed to see trouble coming.

Furthermore, I have always had very strong opinions, which, in my youth, I saw no merit in concealing.

This combination of traits took a very real and probably measurable toll on my life, making academic and professional achievement difficult and causing problems on a social and personal level also.

The problem came to a head during my early years in advertising. Helpful bosses and co-workers advised me to pay more attention to other people and their feelings – as a means of getting everybody's working day to run more smoothly, as well as improving my own career prospects. Advertising, of course, is all about manipulating consumers’ emotions, but the people who told me this were more concerned about the emotional impact I was having on colleagues and clients.

I took their advice.

Psychology has fascinated me since a very early age, when I began reading far too much of it in an effort to figure out what was wrong with me. What I had learnt trying to help myself over the long difficult years of youth gave me insight into other people’s thoughts and feelings, too. Now, with my eyes turned outward rather than inward, I found it pretty easy to understand people and – as long as I was feeling fairly calm myself – persuade them to my point of view. It took some time, but I found I could do it so well that I eventually began getting work as a facilitator for planning workshops and seminars in the international development sector, managing the conflicting agendas of aid donors, recipient government representatives, different stakeholder groups and so on. In the communications business, too, I developed a good reputation as a presenter and trainer.

I continued to be thought of as a potentially difficult and even slightly dangerous character, but this was intentional; I had no desire to lose that edge, because it was useful to me. Instead, I learned to manage it and apply it judiciously, at moments when it would have the desired impact and achieve the end in view.

In my social life, however, I didn’t bother so much with emotional management. I preferred to take my friends and loved ones as they were, and to respond to them as naturally as I felt like doing. Except (sometimes) in very difficult, confrontational situations, I put my hard-earned psychological insight to one side, speaking and acting as the impulse took me. Of course, at times, particularly in intimate relationships, a certain consideration – and judicious self-control – are essential and expected. You end up walking a fine line between honesty and ‘naturalness’ on the one hand and the need to keep your partner calm, happy and interested on the other.

The reason I did not always deploy my hard-earned emotional and psychological insight was that I felt that in doing so I was being a bit of a fake, and certainly manipulative of others. I didn't feel like an honest man doing it.

I won’t say this is why I still have a reputation for being a bit ‘difficult’, though; I have no doubt that I am still genuinely clumsy and blind to people’s real thoughts and feelings most of the time. But nowadays, if I’m being a bit provocative or insistent upon a point or even downright rude, it’s usually because I mean to. When I do lose my self-control it’s usually over some trivial but annoying incident on the street. The chances of my being murdered in a road-rage incident or some such are really far too high for me to be writing about emotional intelligence at all. But I am a very different person from the one I used to be half a lifetime ago.

The point of all this self-revelation is simply this: while everybody kept telling me to be more insightful and accommodating of others’ feelings, I always thought of emotional insight as a double-edged sword. I thought I was all alone in this regard, however, until I read this article in the Atlantic. It’s about ‘the dark side of emotional intelligence’ and in it I learned that others, too, have come to the same conclusion as myself, and have begun studying the phenomenon, too. It’s a fascinating article about something we all experience, and I urge you to read it.

Of course, it may be that the author just manipulated me into thinking it’s good...