When People Try to Bribe Their Way Out of Difficult Conversations
In the past decade, I’ve gained so much respect and admiration for people who are forthcoming and transparent. People who, if they have an issue with you, will simply approach you and say, “Hey, can we sit down and talk this out?” and you do and your friendship with them emerges stronger than ever.
Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of that kind of adult communication. It’s scary for them because they might have to face the fact that their actions caused others discomfort or suffering. They might have to admit they were wrong. They might be expected to do better in the future.
Today, we’ll take a look at a tactic manipulative people use to stay out of those unwanted conversations. We’ll look at how they set it up so they can get off scot-free, and what their motivations are for doing so. Finally, we’ll take a look at how to turn their own manipulation back on them, so that you benefit while they accomplish nothing.
One sunny afternoon, I was hanging out in the pizza & cocktail lounge around the corner from my apartment. A guy I knew, Kirk (not his real name), came in with a few of his buddies. I cringed a bit at the thought of being in the same space as him.
Kirk and I, once upon a time, were good friends. However, when a woman started lying about me around the neighborhood, Kirk didn’t have my back, despite being one of my supposed good friends and knowing for a fact she was lying. Apparently, she hinted there might be a sexual opportunity for him if he went along with her claims. He seemed to regret betraying me, but not enough to man up and have a face-to-face conversation about the matter.
I was sitting in the middle of the lounge’s bar area. Kirk and his buddies went to the end, and Kirk told the bartender, “We’ll have four Joe shots,” ordering the lounge’s signature espresso shot for his group.
Then he glanced down the bar and saw me.
“Get Paul a Joe shot too, on me,” he told the bartender.
A couple of months after my encounter at the lounge, Kirk appeared at an outdoor bar about a mile away, where my good friend Sheila works. Kirk had at one point been interested in Sheila, but she had rejected his repeated advances. He got nasty in his responses, calling her some names via text message that I’ll not repeat here.
Needless to say, Kirk was not exactly Sheila’s favorite person. And now he’d shown up at her bar. Because Kirk was charming and outgoing, he was well-liked by management there. If she asked him to leave, he’d just go over her head and get her in trouble. So she sucked it up and handled it like a professional, serving Kirk and his friends.
After a few rounds, they asked for their tab. “I’ve got this,” waved Kirk as his friends started to get their wallets out. Sheila handed him the tab, which amounted to $65.
Making sure his friends were watching, he wrote “$400” on the tip line, and totaled the check out to $465.
(For those who don’t live in countries where tipping is customary: A normal tip on that bill would have been about $13, or 20% of the total. Kirk tipped 615%!)
“Uh… uh…,” Sheila stammered, looking at the check. “Are you sure you meant to do that?”
“What, is it not enough?” Kirk replied loudly, glancing around to see if his friends were paying attention.
Have you ever had a Kirk in your life? Someone who, if they really wanted to fix things and get back in your good graces, would sit down and have a deep and honest conversation with you. Instead, though, they try to buy their way out of the problem, whether it’s in the form of a small bribe (such as a $5 shot of the house liqueur) or a big one (a $400 tip on a check nowhere near that big).
The manipulator’s motivation
Kirk had a reputation for being friendly, generous, outgoing, and charming. He could have a conversation with you all day long about baseball standings, grilling out, his fantasy football team, New Year’s Eve plans. He was a fantastic talker — as long as the talk was superficial.
However, if the subject matter was one of substance and emotion, Kirk cowed from engaging those around him. This was particularly true if Kirk knew he was in the wrong — which he often was.
Kirk did have regret. He had expressed to mutual friends that he hated it that he and I were no longer buddies. He also hated it that he said mean things to Sheila when she wouldn’t give him what he wanted, commenting, “That was the alcohol talking, not me.”
Kirk’s bribes were an attempt to restore the relationships to their former glory without having to do any of the emotional heavy lifting. Apologizing, meaning it, and being a better person were too much work. He had a well-paying, extremely steady job, and chose to throw money at the problem instead.
The manipulation involved in the attempted bribes
Note that in both cases, Kirk was performing in front of an audience. This was not an accident. Kirk knew good and well that I hung out at the pizza lounge on Wednesday afternoons. He knew Sheila worked at the outdoor bar. He went to those venues on purpose, having stacked the deck in his favor by bringing his buddies along.
I certainly did not want the shot that Kirk ordered for me. But what would happen if I refused it? He’d turn to his friends and say, see, there’s proof that Paul is the difficult one. He’d win by invalidating me in front of other people. He had been at the lounge numerous times alone when I was also there. How come he didn’t attempt to buy me a shot on any of those occasions?
As for the $400 tip, I’m sure Sheila would have been thrilled — if it had come from anybody but Kirk. And again, he did it in front of a hand-picked audience. If Sheila did refuse the tip, no doubt Kirk would tell his buddies, see, I told you she was a crazy bitch as he left.
In both bribes, the implied message was, if you accept this, then things are okay between us, and no further discussion is warranted. No need for him to change. No need for him to work at being a better man.
Does this sound like someone do you know? Do you have someone in your life who uses token gestures of kindness to try to wiggle out of important conversations? Read on, because we’re going to learn how to handle these people.
How to respond and turn the tables back on the manipulator
Let’s review the dynamic at play here. There are 3 things going on:
- They’re putting on a public performance for an audience
- They’re forcing you to make a decision
- You run the risk of looking like the difficult, unstable one if you don’t go along with what they want you to do
We’re going to turn these dynamics back on them. We’re going to force them to make difficult decisions, and we’re going to force them to act — or, should I say, react — in front of their own audience.
Bonus: You get to keep the bribe.
Step 1: Ask to speak with them privately
Simply say to them, “Before I take this, can I talk to you over here for a second?” and motion for them to step away from their audience.
It’s a totally reasonable request. After all, this is not a stranger. This is someone you have a history with. This is someone who has expressed to others that they’d like to be back on good terms with you. If they refuse your request, then they’ve made themselves look like the unreasonable one.
Step 2: Tell them you know they are manipulating you — but allow them to save face
Make sure you’re out of earshot of the audience, then tell them, “Look. I’m going to accept your (shot / excessive tip / whatever the bribe is).”
Then continue, “But I want you to understand something. My acceptance of this does not mean that things are all right between us. That will require a one-on-one conversation without a bunch of other people around.”
Then say, loudly: “ALL RIGHT! Good talk! Let’s go rejoin our friends, shall we?”
Now they are backed into a corner, rather than you. They’re committed to carrying out their little stunt — and therefore you get to keep the bribe — but they’ve been told in no uncertain terms that it didn’t work.
To sum it up…
When someone makes a token gesture to make amends, but they do it in place of addressing the real, underlying issue, that’s manipulation.
If they make this gesture in front of other people, then you need to recognize that they are an actor on a stage, performing for an audience.
To turn the situation around, you need to separate them from the audience. Then you need to tell them you’re wise to their game. Let them finish their performance and save face, with the understanding that their bribe means nothing.
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