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Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: The Facts of Manipulation

If it looks like a wolf and sounds like a wolf and smells like a wolf then….. it probably is a wolf. Such is the essential message of the revealing book ‘In Sheep’s Clothing – Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People’ by George Simon. Dr. Simon rejects the modern-day notion that behind covert-aggressive behaviour lies a wounded and insecure individual and proposes instead that behind covert-aggressive behaviour lies….well…..quite simply….a covert-aggressive person! Someone who, in his words, is always ‘fighting for what they want and seeking power over others in subtle, cunning and under-hand ways’. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

If we accept this notion then Dr. Simon suggests that we need to stop over-analysing the manipulator’s behaviour, guilt-tripping on our negative judgements of them and routinely giving in to unreasonable requests. Instead, we need to face the facts and wake up to the unfulfilling reality that exists, bravely confronting the manipulating wolves that stand in the way of the common good. When we do this we are not acting on our behalf alone, we are making a stand for all those in the system who have been manipulated in the past, are being manipulated right now and those unsuspecting innocents yet to come.

In Sheeps Clothing

Whether it be in a family, an organisation or a political institution, it seems that the wool can easily be pulled over our eyes. We doggedly resist reaching obvious yet unpalatable conclusions; that the wolves are among us, they are hiding in full view, they are master-manipulators and unless we learn how to challenge them effectively then the systems on which they prey become abusive and corrupt. In the UK, we have witnessed the most extreme examples of this degenerative cycle through the child abuse scandals of recent years. Seemingly unimpeachable institutions such as the Church, the BBC, the NHS and, now, The House of Commons have given safe harbour to master-manipulators who tricked their way through years of sickening sexual abuse. In essence, these people were wolves in sheep’s clothing and, like it or lump it, their supreme sheepish act conned us all for a very long time.

In challenging wolves it is tempting to become a wolf oneself. To turn the tables, seek revenge and use force to put the world to rights. However, in the words of Walter Wink ‘We must discern the spirituality that we oppose and be careful not to grant it victory within ourselves’. In other words, the means to over-turn a kingdom of wolves is not to become the biggest and baddest wolf of all. In his book ‘Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination’ Wink proposes an alternative path which he terms ‘non-violent resistance’. This is not a path of fight or flight but a third way that requires both wisdom and courage. Wink cites Ghandi as an inspiring proponent of ‘non-violent resistance’. In his book, he analyses Ghandi’s approach in detail drawing practical lessons as to how we might follow his example in our daily work and lives. One of my favourite quotes from Wink is ‘non-violence does not seek tranquility, it seeks conflict, it elicits conflict, it exacerbates conflict in order to bring it out into the open and lance its poisonous sores’.

In our work, Ian and I have proposed our own modest form of ‘non-violent resistance’ and termed it the FACTS coaching model – Feedback, Accountability, Courageous Goals, Tension and Systems Thinking. We have targeted this message at professional coaches and coaching leaders since we believe this is the tribe that has the opportunity, the will and the skills to expertly engage the powers that be. However, if the coaching tribe is to fulfil its potential as a catalyst for systemic change then we must guard against the abundant naivety in us that the wolves readily identify and exploit. We need to discern with clear eyes and from this discernment respond appropriately. A sheep is a sheep. A wolf is a wolf. Sheep require support, affirmation and empowerment. Wolves require challenge, limits and correction. As recent history shows, the gravest mistakes occur when we are duped into confusing the two. Thankfully, we are living in a time when, finally, we appear ready to face the FACTS.

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