CYC-Online 26 MARCH 2001
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"Manipulative" or manipulative skills in residential practice

Charles Pragnell

Terms commonly heard in and around residential units are 'manipulate' or 'manipulative'. They are most often used by residential workers when they describe a particular client, sometimes in a derogatory sense, whose behaviour is difficult to control or monitor, and perhaps who presents a threat to the authority of the worker or the accepted social order in the unit. Such clients tend to be looked on with suspicion or apprehension.

And yet, manipulative skills are probably the most important skills any individual can possess. In order to exercise control over our immediate environment or at times, to survive in our social group, we all use manipulative skills as a constant part of communicating with other people.

Indeed some professions, such as politics or law, develop these skills to a superlative degree even, perhaps, to an art form. And rightly so, to persuade, cajole, or coerce others into the way we wish them to respond or behave is a significant part of establishing, maintaining and controlling social order at all levels “whether in small groups such as the family, or in wider society.

Our values and standards, our belief systems. are consistently under challenge and ever changing. Individuals manipulate others to achieve change or to resist change. Why then do residential workers become so apprehensive, even fearful, of individuals in care, particularly children, who they describe as manipulative?

Firstly, it may be that children are too obvious (or innocent) in their attempts to manipulate. Adults, having had considerably more practice, are able to be more subtle or secretive in their manipulation of others.

Secondly, many adults like to feel that they are in charge of a situation and, certainly, our work can so easily be the sinecure for the benevolent dictator. Such people invariably have considerable feelings of insecurity in themselves, and only by totally and autocratically controlling their social group, can they create their own security and cope with threats to their own functioning.

A child, therefore, who challenges this autocracy and displays manipulative skills too overtly, becomes a threat to the worker. The child has not necessarily behaved inappropriately but too naively. Yet the child himself is merely demonstrating his own insecurity, his inability to exercise some control over his environment in order that the environment more appropriately responds to, and meets, his needs.

Such environments within residential units, deny the child responsibility or participation in deciding the nature of the social order. Rules and regulations are set by adults both inside and outside the unit, and are rigidly enforced by sanctions. The child is a captive or prisoner to the rules of others, and then faces the choice of lapsing into helplessness and total dependency or he challenges the enforced social order.

If he chooses the former, he is in great danger of damage to his future development and the pattern of his life will be dependency on others and a lack of confidence and ability to make decisions for himself or cope with the daily stresses and demands of living.

If he chooses the latter, he will be in danger of being labelled difficult and deviant. His actions will be interpreted increasingly as a threat to others and his motives assessed as malevolent. The process of labelling as a deviant will then begin. Initially, he may be dismissed as unfortunate, and not really responsible for his actions because he “knows no better”.

If he persists in his behaviour, causing discomfort or annoyance to the adults around him, he will then be labelled mad (stupid, irresponsible) or bad (rebellious, truculent, etc).

If attempts to force him into conformity (complacency, apathy) should fail, he must ultimately escape from the oppression. Aggression, violence, and absconding will then be examples of the few behavioural options available to him.

This is how the game is played and although every occasion does not enfold in exactly the same way, the rules of the game invariably apply, and each player adopts an allotted role. In his book The Games People Play, Eric Berne1 highlighted how interactions between individuals follow certain patterns as in a game, and how manipulative skills are used by the players as they engage in tactical ploys leading to an inevitable end or result – dominance of one over the other.

If it is accepted that manipulative skills are a normal, acceptable part of human behaviour, this raises other questions for residential and day care staff.

Firstly, how can these skills be developed and improved as part of each client’s social skill development in order to improve that individual’s functioning in the social groups to which he belongs?

Secondly, what does it tell us about the social order which exists in the client’s environment? If that environment is not responding appropriately to meet the client’s needs, why is this and whose needs is the social order meeting?

These questions are important, as Berne's work further suggests that the client’s perception of the world is significantly affected in particular ways according to how the environment responds to, and meets, his needs for status and recognition.

The view we take of ourselves and of other people is formed at an early age and remains relatively unchanged unless positive action is taken to alter it.

Furthermore, we then live our lives in order to reinforce this view of ourselves and others, behaving in those ways by which we have successfully gained recognition in the past, whether this was for behaviour that was socially acceptable or unacceptable.

In considering whether behaviour and attitude change is a desirable objective for a client, we must examine how much our perception of that behaviour is affected by our own values, fears, biases, and prejudices and by the nature of the existing social order in that setting.

Should, perhaps, the change be in ourselves or the social structure we have created?

1. Berne, E., The Games People Play. Harmondsworth; Penguin 1966.

Social Work Today, 11(48)

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