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
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
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.
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
Remind yourself of your strengths, often.
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
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
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
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.
assertive and Set clear boundaries.
focused when communicating.
Defuse aggression by being open and listening to the other
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.
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