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Is your mother-in-law really smart enough to be manipulative?

"He's such a manipulator."

"She's just trying to push your buttons."

We often accuse others of being manipulative, but do you know how hard it is to actually manipulate people?

It may seem like when your mother, or our mother-in-law, repeats the same subtle jabs over and over that she's doing it with the sole intent of making you feel a certain way. After all, her caustic comments feel like they are aimed directly at your heart.

But it actually takes quite a bit of strategy and skill to manipulate people. I've spent years as a sales and leadership coach, and another decade as a sales person myself, so trust me when I tell you, it's really hard to manipulate others.

You have to get inside their head, imagine how they feel right now, think about how you'd like them to feel after the conversation, and then choose the exact words and phrases that will illicit the response you're going for. You have to be three emotional steps ahead of other people if you really want to be good at it.

I've worked with super smart CEOs and six-figure sales reps and even they found it challenging to identify which words would get which response.

Your mother-in-law or boss may be Machiavellian genius. But it's more likely their annoying commentary is their own brain chatter, not some elaborately planned strategy to make you feel a certain way.

Frankly, I think we give people too much credit. I don't think most of us are smart enough or disciplined enough to manipulate others.

Yes, I know that some politicians do try to manipulate our thoughts, and many of them do it quite well. But they have speech writers, elaborate polling data and sometimes even behavior specialists and focus groups testing their messages before they start spinning them.

However, when your nosy neighbor starts rearranging your throw pillows, or your boss criticizes your font choice, they're probably very unaware of how their behavior is affecting you.

We've all been in situations where we felt like someone was purposefully trying to push our buttons, and who hasn't come back from a family gathering seethingly angry thinking, "I can't believe it, he or she did it to me again!"

We swore we wouldn't allow the other person to get to us, but it seemed like they knew exactly what to say to send us over the edge.

But try to imagine it from their end. Do you honestly think they sat down beforehand with a piece of paper, and said, "Let's make a list of all Betty or Bob's hot buttons, and then see if we can inflame them?

I can envision it now. The in-law strategy session where they map out their game plan on a white board. They post a picture of the target and then using an elaborate diagram of X's and O's they plan their attack. OK Herb, you take criticizing her cooking and I'll make snide remarks about his weight. Now Bill, don't forget to cover our flank with sarcastic comments about how they're raising the kids." Now on three, let's go manipulate these people. Ready, break!

Just because it pushes your hot buttons, doesn't mean they planned it. It's probably just their own unconscious baggage and negativity spewing out onto you.

As for all that perceived manipulation? Do you really think they're that clever?

Contact Lisa Earle McLeod at www.forgetperfect.com.