Communication challenges abound. How you deal with people who are engaging in some communication habits that are frustrating can vary a lot depending on the person and the relationship. Once I saw an email from someone who had a friend who was constantly looking for compliments and cheerleading for behavior that she thought was pretty ordinary. She felt that her friend was manipulating her for compliments. She felt she was being manipulated for compliments and was growing resentful.
On this email thread, she received advice like, stop giving in to their manipulations, ignore them, wait til that friend disappeared from her life and tried to use someone else. Those suggestions didn’t look very helpful to me, so I offered some alternatives.
How you might deal with someone like this in your life will vary greatly depending upon how close you are to them. Are they occasional friends? A spouse? A boss? It also depends on how self-aware they are, and how much they might be willing to transform their behavior.
For context, I don’t enjoy being manipulated into compliments/ego strokes, and so I’m not advocating staying stuck in that dynamic in any way. What I’m advocating is finding out more information before something drastic like deleting someone from your life or your group, or worse, playing games with them by being passive-aggressive and ignoring their desires for a compliment without directly addressing them and having a conversation first.
The larger dynamic that is playing out.here is that we–humans–have basic needs. When I teach group dynamics as part of the Pagan community-building workshops I do, I have a model of group needs/individual needs that is based on astrology and comes out of Diana’s Grove. We have a need to be ourselves, our basic physical needs (shelter, food), needs for information, need to nurture and be nurtured, need for time alone, need to be seen and to shine, need for our work in the world to matter, need for friends and allies, need for sex and intimacy, need for power in our own lives….it goes on. Different people have different “weights” on the different needs depending on their personality.
Often in our society, we are not taught how to meet our needs. The Jungian concept of the Shadow comes from this–we have a genuine human need, but we’re taught by society that that need isn’t appropriate. Needing to speak up and be heard or wanting sex isn’t “ladylike,” needing emotion and intimacy isn’t “manly,” and so we take these needs and try to divorce them from ourselves.
As a kid, I, like many people, grew up knowing that it was bad to want to be in the spotlight. And yet, every day in books and magazines and television I see people who are rewarded for being seen, being shiny, being in that spotlight.
Whatever our unmet needs are, we learn that it’s not ok to ask for them to be met outright. We learn that we have to be sneaky and try to manipulate people into wanting to meet these needs for us without us asking. Largely this isn’t a conscious process, it’s a learned behavior.
I learned from women in my life, and from watching sitcoms and movies, that if I wanted a hug or a kiss or some physical intimacy from my partner, that I should look pouty or somehow make them pity me so that they’d want to give me that intimacy. I have since learned that this isn’t a good strategy for getting my need for physical touch/comfort met, since it’s unreliable and often left me frustrated. But, growing up, I didn’t even realize that I’d learned this behavior.
We aren’t taught to look at what a “normal” human need is, and how to address our strategies for getting that need met. A great deal of why people seek therapy is based out of not getting needs met.
Most people I work with in communities have various needs that aren’t getting met. They have jobs they don’t enjoy, they aren’t doing work they find meaningful, they aren’t in a relationship that is satisfying, they find community organizing challenging, they don’t feel like they are seen and valued by others.
Thusly, the behavior of fishing for compliments is a manipulation. But, it’s also a manipulation that’s probably based in a very genuine human need. Are these people using you to get kudos? Probably. Are they intending to be annoying or manipulative? Likely not.
So the question becomes, if you care about them and you care that they are getting your needs met, are you willing to have a challenging, direct conversation with them to help them find a more successful strategy that meets their needs?
If these were my friends or people in my community, I’d address things by communicating using Nonviolent communication. Which isn’t to say, “wimpy and ineffective” communication–the NVC tool is particularly useful at helping to unearth unmet needs in a way that makes others feel safe vs. threatened.
I might say, “So ABC, I notice that you are often looking for my approval,” (or asking me to be a cheerleader, or whatever you perceive here,) “And I find myself frustrated and confused ,” (or insert another emotion) “I like you a lot, and enjoy being with you,” (don’t say something that isn’t true, but an affirmation here of why you bother to spend time with them is useful here) “but I sometimes feel like you’re looking for something from me that I’m not able to give,” (try not to tell them what they are doing, only offer how you perceive it).
From there in the conversation, you might introduce them to the concept of human needs and that we all have them, and help them discover for themselves what needs they have that aren’t being met, and talk about how they could meet them. For instance, if your friend had a crappy day and really does need a hug or someone to say, “It’ll be ok,” then make it clear if they can ask you for that, and if you’re willing to do that. I have verbal agreements with lots of people about what they need and what I can offer.
For instance, if I have a friend who starts crying about a problem they have, my instinct used to be to try and “fix” it, but now I know that what they probably want is a hug and to be told it’s ok, and if they want me to help them fix things, they’ll ask for that because they know I’m happy to help in that area.
Some people aren’t going to be self-reflective enough to do this work.
Some will hit a big wall of issues and that’s when it might be your job–whether as a friend, lover, community member, or community leader–to help get them to a therapist or other professional who can handle the issue with more professional tools than you have as a friendly ear.
Some people will get really abusive and angry when confronted with their behavior. In other words, don’t do this if you’re working with someone who has those tendencies. I once dealt with someone who was bipolar and unmedicated, and while he wouldn’t have hurt me, he also would get angry and shout when I addressed some of the behaviors he engaged in.
Some people, you will be able to work with, and some aren’t going to change, and depending on who they are to you–friend, lover, community participant–that will probably change what actions you take, if you keep working with them, if you cut off the friendship. Or if their behavior violates your group’s agreements, asking them to leave the group.
It’s almost always worth having the conversation first. If it becomes really clear that their behavior isn’t going to change, and it’s not something that you can make space for, then you may need to terminate the relationship, or at least, create some pretty firm boundaries and limits. But being passive aggressive and making the other person get frustrated with you so that they do the “harder work” of breaking off a friendship or relationship isn’t really good communication; if you’re cutting yourself off from someone, they deserve to at least know what you’re doing.