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Moral high ground technique: Frame your "no" as moral, frame the ASK as unfair

Sometimes, you will be in a position to deny someone who is asking for help.

Even though it's often a fair choice to deny something, if you do it poorly, you could look or be framed as heartless and cruel.

And that would harm your status and reputation.

The danger is far higher if the request is set up in a manipulative fashion that frames the request as "fair" and/or if it frames the requestor as "poor me".
So when you deny a "poor me" who's fielding a fair request, then you look like a total asshole who's abusing his power and cares nothing about others.

What to do, then?

This is all about understanding the dyanmics.
And the dynamics here are all about the "battle for the moral high ground".

You must gain the moral high ground, and to do so, you must frame your own refusal as the most morally upright thing to do.

One example is worth a million words.
First, look at the initial request:

The agent nudges me towards "cooperation" and frames it as "courtesy".
So, if I don't "cooperate", then it means I'm not being "courteous".

In my opinion, in this case, this was an annoyingly manipulative frame.
Everyone else could travel and move so the "no possibility" was either bogus, or exaggerated.

BUT if I leverage that, then:

  1. It becomes a question of proving / disproving whether it was possible to travel not, and I don't wanna get bogged on that for 20 Euros
  2. He keeps the moral high ground, and I look heartless

So now look at my answer:

My answer flips the fame.

Now it's asking for a refund and exception that is unfair.
Asking for an exception becomes the unfair shortcut in my new frame.

What's fair instead is to uphold the rule.

I stand for fairness towards all, and fairness towards all means that the policy applies to everyone.
Just like the law is -or should be- "equal for all".


This might be a "Machiavellian" strategy as well.

But the manipulation and Machiavellianism can be either in the ask, or in the defense -or, sometimes, a bit on both sides-.

So it all depends on the situation, and how you use it.

If the ask is Machiavellian and manipulative, then it's fair and smart to use this technique.

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John FreemanStefSam Wellingtonselffriend
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Keeping an image of "good" and "fair" is important in society.

And some value-taker of this world sometimes leverage that need to get more than their fair share.

For example:

  • Providing unrequested help: just the other day a random guy came up holding up his umbrella to me as I boarded a car. Then, he asked for money. Since he "helped" me, it would make me look bad if I didn't "pay back"
  • Targeting men who need to "prove" their morality: being seen as "pro-social" can be important for men in courtship. Some homeless guys can be good at spotting men who just approached a woman. The man then might feel the need "prove" himself kind by paying up the homeless
  • Targeting men who need to "make up" points in their moral standing:  I still remember my social psychology professor explaining that some homeless station around porn cinemas because they payout is higher there. Men who go out of there can feel "bad" and are somewhat embarrassed. So to get rid of the homeless and to regain some moral points, they're more likely to pay

All these situations can be addressed by taking the moral high ground.
First, within yourself, and then, if needed, by expressing it publicly to defend your status.

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Do you think it's okay to go with the heartless frame sometimes against manipulators?

I feel that being heartless is a form of power. And I could use it in full force against guilt trippers.

My friend once asked me for my list of companies that I am applying to in a manipulative manner.

Him: May I have your list of companies that you are applying to?

Me: We will be competing for the same role so no.

Him: Wow, you are so selfish.

Me: Indeed.

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Lucio BuffalmanoMatthew WhitewoodStef

Great question, and absolutely, sometimes you can.

And it's indeed a great power move showcasing your power by not being afraid of the negative label or repercussions.

This is a case of what evolutionary psychologists would call "handicap principle", such as: if you can bear the cost of a negative (social) label, then it means you must be powerful.
Furthermore, there is the raw honesty that is appealing: most people hide, but you're saying it straight up (there is an example in PU with Trump).

There are of course some drawbacks to it.

For example authors say, and I believe it to be true, that smoking and drinking in excess among men are also forms of handicap principles, it means that your body can "take" that abuse.

So while you're showing your power, you also must pay the costs.

So, I personally believe that in many occasions, you might be better off with the total honesty, while still avoiding the costs.
In your case (without entering in the merits of whether denying was fair or not):

Him: May I have your list of companies that you are applying to?

You: We will be competing for the same role so no.

Him: Wow, you are so selfish.

You: No, what's selfish is asking to free-ride on someone else's work without paying back anything. That's really selfish to me. If I had made you the same request, I'd first have asked myself how could have I given you back some value.

Equally honest, but you don't thread-expand on the "selfish" label, and are less likely to make an enemy who might go talking shit behind your back -ie. "man, Sam is so selfish, he didn't even wanna talk about his job search in fear that I might steal his job or something".

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John FreemanStefSam Wellington
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Thanks for showcasing how the principle can be applied to my situation!

Sounds like the best of both worlds. Getting the moral high ground and power on your side.

In my case, I had another friend beside me who was socially savvy enough to notice the manipulation.

He gave a laugh, and I could see from his facial expression that he was happy the guilt tripper got owned.

I think that, in the future especially in public settings or in front of many people, it is best to frame myself as morally superior.

In leadership roles, it is not wise to play up your selfish nature even though everyone is actually self-interested.

Though occasionally like you said, people sometimes like a leader who owns his self interests with radical honesty.

I guess it depends on context. If someone accuses a CEO to be greedy and money-minded, he could release a public statement portraying the moral high ground while owning his money-mindedness in private board meetings.

People want a leader who represents their own self-interests. Morality in a way is a representation of these self-interests.

This opens up possibilities for manipulation. Manipulators use this social pressure to advance their own interests. Though, if you play the game back, they most likely yield.

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Matthew Whitewood

Though occasionally like you said, people sometimes like a leader who owns his self interests with radical honesty.

Yes, as long as it's fair to have self-interest, to reject someone, and/or to be angry at someone, then it's OK.

Then the technique becomes less of taking the moral high ground, and more about "normalizing" the behavior.
For example:

Him: You only want to make for yourself.

CEO: No, I want to make for the company AND for myself as a consequence. That's normaly and healthy, and everyone should get something in it from them. I don't want to hire people who don't want to make money, because that would mean they don't care about anything, and people who don't care about anything are also terrible team players

That way, you own it, but reframe it as "normal" and frame the accusation of wanting to have your own return as nonsense and value-taking.

Otherwise, as you said, accepting a frame as 100% self-interested with zero considerations for the larger environment -be it society or other people- is especially bad for leaders.

And leadership is possibly the ultimate step of the social ladder -or, at least, good leadership-.

A leader who'd play up his selfish side will remain the leader as long as he has power in terms of authority/rank and coercive power, but he will start losing a lot of social capital and goodwill -the willingness of people to follow him-.

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