I think that most people would agree this word comes laden with all sorts of negative connotations. Personally, I use the word more loosely than that. But first let's look at what Dictionary.com has to say about the word:
to handle or use, esp with some skill, in a process or action: to manipulate a pair of scissors
to negotiate, control, or influence (something or someone) cleverly, skilfully, or deviously
to falsify (a bill, accounts, etc) for one's own advantage
(in physiotherapy) to examine or treat manually, as in loosening a joint
Now, feel free to discard my thoughts about the word manipulation itself, because I know and accept that I use the word differently than most people use, but I find it very useful. You see, I believe in positive and negative manipulation. Manipulating objects, for example, may or may not take skill. It's easier to manipulate a steering wheel to the desired result than to manipulate a violin to produce the sounds you want to hear.
Manipulation always involves some sort of end goal. The one nice thing about inanimate objects, of course, is that they tend to be very predictable and therefore are easier to manipulate than animate substances like people or animals. (The obvious exception to that statement is computers. They get moody.) I can easily manipulate a chair to move to the right simply by pushing it gently. Although manipulation gets a bad rap most of the time, it clearly doesn't apply to the manipulation of objects, since there are no negative connotations associated with that. In fact, if a person made it a point to never move any objects, they would find it very impractical.
Manipulating people is slightly harder, since they can actually make decisions and choices, and takes a lot more understanding, skill, and patience. Unlike the chair. I realize that “manipulating” people sounds bad. When I say “manipulation,”though, I am referring specifically to manipulation other people to act or think in a certain way. That concept scares people, because when people think of others trying to manipulate them, they usually think of salesman, con men, or pushy, passive-aggressive acquaintances.
"You can trust me completely."
The general feeling seems to be that “If someone is trying to manipulate you, it's sneaky, deceptive, and it's for their good and not yours.” That is one type of manipulation, but I would add that there are many other types of manipulation as well. Whether manipulation is good or not depends on the end goal. Quite simply, manipulation (when it comes to manipulating people) can be defined as follows:
Manipulation is making a certain choice easier for someone.
This definition certainly includes the above mentioned negative examples. If a conman lies to you, he is making it easier for you to make a bad decision which would benefit him. If a salesman offers a payment plan, he is making it easier for you to buy now (and pay later). If someone pressures you emotionally into giving them a ride somewhere, they made it easier for you to choose to just get it over with and drive them to their destination.
On the other hand, this definition also includes many positive interactions. If I hold the door open for someone, I am making it easier for them to decide to go ahead of me. If I offer to pay for dinner, I am making it easier for the other person to decide to have dinner with me. In fact, much of social etiquette is about acceptable manipulation. It is polite to say “come on in” when a guest arrives at your house, and that makes it easier for them to decide to come in. You could just walk toward your living room, and if they are your friend, they will probably know to follow, but that's just not as polite. Asking “would you like some help with that?” makes it easier for the other people to request assistance.
Now, there are also a couple other ways of achieving a goal that involves another person. Let us take for a given that you wish to change someone's behavior. In this instance, let us suppose that you wish for your best friend to go through the door before you do. Let us suppose also that you have a good motive; you think that having someone go first shows respect for them. Now, how can you achieve that goal of getting them to go first? I would say that you have three general options: Power, Influence, or Manipulation. Here are three ways it could go:
Power (force or command): “You need to go in first.”
Influence: “I think that you would enjoy going in first, so go ahead.”
Manipulation: (Opening the door for them)
Positive manipulation is usually referred to as “influence,” which has no negative connotations. However, I think that the word “manipulation” fits better to describe a skillful, subtle, and understated form of graciously making a choice easier for someone. Yes, I do think that positive manipulation is a lot like grace. I'll explain:
Temptation is bad manipulation - it makes it easier for a person to say yes to sin
Grace is good manipulation - it makes it easier for a person to say yes to God
To give another practical example, bad manipulation would be to manipulate you into giving me all your money; I gain, you lose. It's bad because of the end result that I'm shooting for. Good manipulation would be manipulating you into accepting money for food, when you're feeling too proud to accept help. Helping people is gracious. When a Christian confronts someone about sin, they are called to speak “graciously.” This doesn't mean avoiding the ugly truth, it simply means that we are to speak in a way that makes it easier for the other person to make a certain decision (repent).
Obviously, because manipulation is not control, though, people are always free to make the opposite decision. And this is where skill comes in. I mentioned previously that it's easier to manipulate some objects (like pans) to a certain goal than to manipulate other objects (like rockets). Manipulating people also takes a lot of skill. Suppose that you want to influence a person to accept help, but you don't know how. You would need the knowledge, skill, and even practice to make that process a smooth one. It's much easier to accidentally manipulate people to do the wrong thing, actually.
I would go as far as to say that most of the time, when we are around other people, we are unconsciously manipulating them in some way. The more conscious our goals and efforts are, though, the more likely it is to turn out in a positive fashion. We are always making this or that choice easier for people, and the question of whether that manipulation is good or bad must turn to the question of the end goal: Are we manipulating people to their disadvantage, or to their advantage?
Some people are very unpleasant, and behave rudely toward the people around them. They get to the end of the day and wonder “why is everyone always so mean to me?” It's very simple. It's because they accidentally manipulate everyone to be mean to them. I don't mean that being rude and unkind forces people to be rude and unkind to you, but it certainly does make that choice easier to make! On the other hand, those who are genuinely warm, helpful, and even humorous to the people around them sometimes manipulate all those people into a good mood. Most everyone likes to be around those who manipulate them right into a good mood!
Hugs usually manipulate me into feeling happy and cared for
If you want to manipulate someone into doing you a favor, sometimes it helps if you do favors for them when they ask it. If you want to manipulate someone into refusing to help you, all you have to do is sabotage their work a few times, and do them no favors. That will make it a lot easier for them to refuse to help you.
As for personal application, I believe that only certain types of manipulate are acceptable, and only certain types are actually helpful. Personally, I try to only manipulate people honestly, and for their own good. I wouldn't use deceit to make a choice easier for them, because that would be wrong and unloving. That would not be very trustworthy. Also, I don't think it would be right if I manipulated people into making choices that would benefit me and would not benefit them. If a choice is not best for them, then I would not try to manipulate them to make that choice. (Of course, I don't have a whole lot of skill at influencing people in a smooth fashion... but maybe someday my people skills will improve.)
Dimensions of Manipulation: