Learning to confront --or disconnect from-- control freaks

August 23, 1991|By Orlando Sentinel

He's your pushy parent, your dictatorial boss, your manipulative friend.

BHe's a control freak. And for years he (or she) has placed himself at the center of the universe as if somebody died and made him Boss.

But Gerald Piaget has news for you. You don't have to put up with it anymore. You don't have to accommodate the control freak's chutzpah. You don't have to fall into the control trap.

But you have to possess the right tools, says the psychologist and author of "Control Freaks: Who They Are and How to Stop Them From Running Your Life." You have to arm yourself. You have to go on the offense.

"Even if the controllers in your life do not change one iota, you can change enough to keep them from getting to you as easily or as often," said Dr. Piaget, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Dr. Piaget's book tour has taken him to Boston, Seattle, Toronto. He's been on "The Sally Jessy Raphael Show," for gosh sake. And once Sally, Oprah or Phil takes up your topic, it's a legitimatepop phenomenon.

This control thing is a hot subject, which comes up every decade, Dr. Piaget says, because the question of how to effectively deal with control freaks has never been answered.

Despite the assertiveness movement of the early '80s and all the psychobabble about dealing with difficult people, the public still doesn't understand how to go head-on with the controller -- and win.

"The key is to do more than merely label the control freak," Dr. Piaget said. "You've got to focus on particular tactics to ward him or her off."

You can try to fight it out; when the control freak pushes, push him back.

"There are usually better alternatives available than fighting," he says, "but not always. The stand-up comic deals with audience hecklers by heckling right back. An overworked teacher tells the class cutup to sit down, get to work or take a two-hour detention. They fight fire with fire."

But sometimes it's best just to disconnect, he adds, and that's the second strategy on his list.

"Nowhere is it written that when a controller makes his move, you have to participate in the process," Dr. Piaget said. "You can leave, either physically or psychologically. You can avoid by anticipating a control move and then eluding it in some way. Or, you can ignore the control move by recognizing it and then choosing not to respond."

You can also level with the control freak. That's tactic No. 3.

"Leveling is being honest," Dr. Piaget said. "It's like, 'Look, this is what I want and this is what I don't want. I'm going to be honest with you on this one.' You are reasoning with the person."

those three strategies don't work, do what Dr. Piaget really recommends. Use the Aikido Alternative.

"Think about being behind the wheel of a car when it hits a patch of ice and starts to skid. The car veers to the right and your immediate inclination is to turn the steering wheel to the left. But you can actually regain control of the car more quickly if you steer into the skid. Turn the wheel in the direction the car is already sliding."

So what's that got to do with the ancient Japanese art of Aikido?

"In Aikido, you don't try to beat the attacker, you don't even fight back, really. Rather, you look at the attacker as someone who is not balanced and therefore in need of assistance."

According to Dr. Piaget's approach, you provide the assistance in a way that neutralizes the attack and does as little harm as possible to everyone involved.

For instance, he writes, say your husband arrives home in a horrible mood, ready to bite your head off. Ask yourself: "OK, what does Joe need to get from me in order for him to be more pleasant to be around?" Help him "balance" his mood by sitting down to talk about his day or making his special meal.

"Sound too simple?" Dr. Piaget asked. "Well, we've been trying all this complex stuff for years and none of that stuff has worked at all."

Dr. Piaget has taught the control strategies -- with an emphasis on the Aikido Alternative -- to corporate executives in California's Silicon Valley for the past three years.

There are a lot of heavy-duty controllers and controllees in the Silicon Valley, he says. "They know this approach works."

So does Dr. Piaget's wife, Joan, a family therapist.

She remembers her husband's behavior before he became "enlightened." Both husband and wife admit the good doctor was a first-class control freak.

But not all control freaks are bad, Mrs. Piaget says. "You need them sometimes," she says. "Like in a crisis. You want someone to be forceful and powerful."

But that's about the only time she wants to be controlled.

Aikido has mellowed her husband out. But what does Joan Piaget do when Dr. Piaget turns into Mr. Hyde?

She disconnects.

"I've been to all of his [Gerald's] seminars and I've read all the books. I know exactly how to control the control freak in our house."

Are you a control freak?

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