How Not to Control People

By Greg Baer M.D.

December 17, 2014

Attempting to Control the Unpleasant Behaviors of Others

It is simply the nature of people that we all have different interests, needs, agendas, and more, so it is unavoidable that other people will sometimes inconvenience us—with their preferences, behaviors, and feelings.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of “inconvenient behaviors”:

  1. When other drivers behave badly, your wife honks her horn, drives faster, gestures obscenely at them, and eliminates all sense of peace that might have existed in your car.
  2.  Your husband frequently snores loudly, which either makes it difficult for you to fall asleep or to stay that way or both.

It is only natural that you would prefer either of these behaviors to stop. They both affect your well-being, both physically and emotionally. The more they affect you, the more you would want them to stop and the more likely that you would engage in behaviors designed to MAKE them stop—in other words, to control them. Attempting to control the unpleasant behaviors of others is certainly a natural reaction, but it also tends to lead to conflict, because most people don’t like to be controlled.

So what can you do when faced with an unpleasant behavior or situation, without trying to control people or things? Because the unpleasantness is generated by the OTHER PERSON, there is a natural tendency to control the other person. Logical enough, but it doesn’t work, because—again—other people don’t like to be controlled.

Decisions You Can Make Instead of Trying to Control

But what if you focused instead on yourself? Why not consider what decisions YOU could make in unpleasant situations, rather than requiring that other people change their choices? To illustrate, let’s look at the two situations we already mentioned.

First Situation: Your wife often goes crazy while driving.

You could try controlling her. You could yell at her, tell her that you’re sick of her behavior, and even grab hold of the wheel, but the probability of a happy outcome would be zero.

So what could YOU do here that would involve no controlling of your wife? Your first choice is the most important. You could choose to be calm, with no tone of impatience or irritation whatever. Although usually unintentional, most of us control other people with our tone nearly every time we speak. With a tone that is demanding, critical, insistent, fearful, imploring, apologetic, and more we get people to respond to us in ways we want.

So the first step is to simply eliminate every tone other than calm and accepting. No matter what else you do, if you have that manipulative tone, you’ll be controlling and ruin your potentially loving interaction.

Now what? Describe what YOU will do, without requiring anything from your partner. You might say something like this: “I would love to go places WITH you, but I cannot be in a car where the atmosphere is consumed with anger when you don't like how things are going. I can't do it. I won't. So here's how it will go from now on. I'll travel with you in the car, but if you get angry, I will insist that you pull the car over, I’ll get out, and I'll get a taxi or call a friend to get me where I want. If you refuse to pull over, I’ll wait until you stop for a light, and then I’ll get out of the car.

"I will not stay in the car with you anymore while you're angry. I've tried to talk to you about this, but you've ignored me. So you can keep getting angry in the car—I want to emphasize that I'm NOT controlling you—but I get to make MY choice about what I'll do and where I'll be, and I won't be in the car while you're angry. Do you have any questions?"

If she argues with you at all—justifies, rationalizes, makes promises, whatever—then you only need to repeat what you just said. Do not argue with her.

Now, let me emphasize what you’re doing this with approach:

  1. You’re describing what YOU will be doing. You have a right to do that.
  2. You are NOT controlling what your wife does.

Second Situation: Your husband snores loudly.

You could try shaming him, yelling at him, and complaining that you can’t sleep, but none of these approaches makes sense—despite how often we use them. You can’t control his snoring, but you can describe the choices that YOU will make. Following is just ONE example of how you could handle this:

You: Sweetie, I know you don’t intend to snore, but you do—loudly, and I can’t sleep. I have trouble getting to sleep when you snore, and if I do get to sleep, your snoring often wakes me up.

Him: It’s not like I can help it.

You: We’ll talk about that in a minute. Right now I want you to know that I love you. A lot, and I don’t love you less because you snore. But I can’t keep sleeping badly. It makes me cranky all day, and it affects the way I treat you too. So I HAVE to get my sleep. That has to be guaranteed. So first I’ll try to go to sleep with you. I like sleeping next to you. But if you start snoring before I fall asleep, I’ll just quietly get out of bed and sleep in the next room. I will do the same if you snore after I’ve fallen asleep, and you wake me up.

Him: But I don’t like it when you sleep in the next room.

You: I understand. I don’t like it either, but I do need my sleep.

Him: I feel like I have no choice here.

Your husband is claiming—whether he means to or not—to be controlled here, but that is not true. We like to have equal input in decisions that affect us, and when we don’t, we tend to believe we’re being controlled. But that is often not the case. You are simply choosing what YOU will do, and your husband feels controlled because he can’t CONTROL YOU, which is what he’d like to do. But your refusing to be controlled is not the same as controlling him. Not at all.

Now, there are some things you could SUGGEST to your husband if he’d like to have more input here. There are many over-the-counter devices that sometimes help snoring. Breathing machines (CPAP) can help, especially where sleep apnea is involved. And surgical procedures can help snoring (see your otolaryngologist). But you can only OFFER these, not require them. There is no controlling here, except over your own decisions.


When somebody is behaving in a way that affects you negatively, remember some simple guidelines:

  1. Describe how YOU are affected (anger in the car is intolerably disturbing, you can’t sleep with snoring, and so on).
  2. Describe what YOU will do, NOT what your partner has to do.

If you do this, the outcome tends to be far better than if you are controlling, although it must be recognized that in some circumstances your partner will be annoyed no matter what you do.

Don't know where to start?

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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