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Taming the Control Freak in Your Life

By Christopher Knippers, Ph.D.

Brandon is known as a “nice guy” around the office. He has a positive attitude, a ready smile, and is polite. He has a solid work ethic, and is a real team player. The trouble is, he gets pushed around by Janet, a co-worker with just a little more seniority. In fact, everyone gets their turn at being manipulated, controlled, or even bullied by Janet. It’s especially rough for the support staff. Unfortunately, some people have little recourse, because with Janet’s success record on the job, upper management doesn’t want to rock the boat. They might even feel a little intimidated by her aggressive nature, themselves. It is rumored that she has threatened a lawsuit on at least one occasion. There are even those for whom Janet’s personality is the perfect compliment to their own. Some people actually want to be told what to do. What makes things worse is that despite her unpleasant side, Janet can be very charming, and knows how and when to turn on the charm to her advantage.

Colleagues get together at lunch and complain about their most recent run-ins with Janet. Quite a few colorful nick-names for Janet have been used at these gatherings. These gripe sessions did seem to relieve a little tension for most people; but recently Brandon became tired of just sitting around complaining about her. He decided to take action. He decided to make a study of how to communicate with and thereby get along better with these controlling personality types. There were some in his personal life as well. He didn’t want to alter his own friendly personality just in order to try to control the control freaks. Then, they would have achieved the ultimate control over him . . . altering his very identity!  Surely, there must be a way to get along with these people without changing who you are, he thought. The following is what he discovered in his research, the plan he decided to implement, and the results of implementing his new approach to communication with Janet.

Brandon consulted with a counselor he had been seeing in order to deal with the recent loss of his father. The counselor was able to offer some valuable insight into controlling personality types. The counselor said that wanting some degree of control in one’s life is just basic human nature. Most people learn that there are some things that they can control in their lives and some things that they cannot control; and after unsuccessful attempts at controlling that which cannot be controlled, most people accept that they have no control of that person or situation and adjust their lives accordingly. Other people continue to escalate in their efforts to control others, and might achieve intermittent reinforcement for their efforts to control. This occasional success at control will cause them to continue to be controlling, even though they pay the consequence of alienating themselves from satisfying relationships. The counselor also said that there are two basic types of controlling people. The passive controller who may appear laid back or even a little shy on the surface, but who has learned to control through subtle manipulation that does not appear on the surface to be aggressive. Then there is the aggressive controller who is obvious in their attempts to manipulate and control. Janet is the aggressive type of controller.

The basic emotion that drives the controller is fear. They fear for their own relevance in life. The control freak has come to believe, through their own experiences and perceptions early in life, that in order to have any value in life at all, they must be in control of others and situations. The controller may even fear that their very safety in life depends on them being the one in control. It is possible that they were treated abusively by a parent, emotionally or physically; or that their primary caregiver was out of control in other ways (e.g. alcoholic or severely depressed), and the child learned that if they were going to be safe at all they needed to take control. Some controlling types simply had very rigid controlling parents themselves, and developed a drive for perfection in themselves and others around them. In any case, having control of others’ behaviors and emotions is like oxygen to these people. Deep in their psyche they believe they need to be in control in order to survive.

There are ways to effectively cope with controlling people with whom you must work. (It is much more difficult, though not impossible, to get along with a control freak at home.)  The best you can do is to assert yourself, thereby avoid being controlled all the time. You will not change these people. And, you certainly do not want to become controlling yourself in the process of trying to cope with them. Develop some thought processes and a communication style that will help you in your relationships with everyone, including the controllers. Confidence is the key to getting along with most anyone.  Start by having a calm, strong, confident, reassuring attitude and demeanor.

In order to maintain a calm, strong, confident, reassuring demeanor, you need to think in those ways.

  • In order to stay calm, remind yourself not to take anything too seriously in regard to this person, even if they do happen to get control of you or the situation occasionally (and, they will).

  • Remind yourself of your strengths, often.

  • Make sure you are presenting yourself in a confident (not arrogant) manner, as a person who does have strengths to offer in the workplace. (Some people are effective in presenting in a “quietly confident” manner . . . it’s all about a relaxed attitude.) 

  • At the same time, you can be “reassuring.”  Remember that a control freak is actually fearful. Fearful people, of any age, need reassurance. Your calm confidence is often reassuring; but you can do more by directly saying positive, affirming statements to the person (e.g., “I’m sure this will work;” or, “You will like this.”)  Look for, and point out any positive qualities you can find about the controller. There will be some; and most anyone feels reassured by acknowledgement of his/her strengths. Just make sure that you are sincere. A controller can spot insincerity a mile away.

Be assertive. Keep yourself from being psychologically controlled by trusting your own creative ideas, regardless of how they may be received. Even if people don’t initially respond positively to your ideas, persist in presenting creative solutions to problems, and coming up with ways to improve the workplace or duties.

Speak up if you think that someone is saying something that is inappropriate, or is something that is disrespectful to you.  Do it gently. Controllers are not used to people speaking up for themselves; but when someone does, others feel empowered to do the same. They cannot maintain control all the time when people become empowered.

Setting clear boundaries is related to speaking up. Controlling people will trample all over your boundaries unless you say something. We all need boundaries to define who and what we are to other people. Stating what you want, what you need, what you want to do, what you do not want to do, and setting limits on how your personal resources (your time, energy, and money) are used is necessary for getting along with anyone…especially a control freak. Take responsibility for getting your needs met.

When it comes to your job, you might not always get exactly what you want, but speaking up about it is still empowering to you, and will get you further towards your goals than saying nothing. Gently remind people what your boundaries are when someone does not appear to remember them. You don’t have to be forceful or demanding in setting your boundaries, but you do have to be clear, specific, flexible; and respectful of other people’s boundaries. Avoid defending your rationale for your boundaries. You don’t need to justify them. And, remember that, “No” is a complete sentence.

Stay focused when you are talking to the control freak. They often try to throw you off your point as a means of gaining control. They may interrupt, and change the subject; but you can come right back with the point you were trying to make, without responding in any way to what they just said to try to throw you off balance. Be persistent in getting your point across.

Sometimes the controller will be aggressive in pointing out your mistakes, will exaggerate your shortcomings, or even make up things to say against you. When this happens, it gets you nowhere to be defensive. The only way to effectively deal with this situation is to defuse the person’s aggression by really listening, and even asking for more feedback. This is a much less time-consuming approach than trying to argue with or one-up her. When someone points out a mistake, or even assumes a mistake, begin your response by asking for more specifics on what he saw wrong and how he would have done it differently. Thank him for his feedback, tell him you will think about it; then walk away. What you have shown this person that you are strong enough to take criticism; but you still have not necessarily caved in to it nor admitted any wrong-doing. You will actually appear strong in that situation. After a person’s aggression has been defused in that way, he or she is much more likely to listen to you in the future.

 Brandon took the information that he had gained and determined that he would implement some changes in his own behavior in order to try to get along better with Janet. These sounded like changes that would benefit his life in general. It was mostly a matter of changing the way he thinks about himself and his relationships, as well as being clear in his communication. Here is a summary of the points he would follow:

  • Maintain a confident attitude.

  • Be assertive and Set clear boundaries.

  • Stay focused when communicating.

  • Defuse aggression by being open and listening to the other person’s perspective.

Brandon worked on his own personal self-talk by changing the way he thought about himself. He substituted more confident thoughts for any negative thoughts he had about himself. He also practiced speaking up in his life outside of work, set boundaries in his personal life, and practiced clearer communication at home.

In a couple of weeks he was already beginning to notice that he was enjoying work more; and everyone was responding to him more positively. It was challenging; but he gradually began being more confident, assertive, and focused in his communication with Janet. He was surprised the first time he practiced just listening and asking for more feedback in response to her aggressive criticism of him one day. That was a turning point in their relationship. She has been treating him with more respect since that time. She is still aggressively controlling in general; but she and Brandon are working together effectively. Best of all, Brandon is enjoying work much more and feels empowered by his new confidence and clear communication.

Read other articles and learn more about Dr. Christopher Knippers.

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