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How do I get my control freak friend to dial it back? Add to ...

The question: I have a friend who is a bit of a control freak. Whenever we’re making plans, she needs to organize. How do I get her to loosen her grip and allow other people to have input and make decisions?

The answer: None of us have the power to make anyone else do something or become someone they’re not. So the goal of having her “loosen her grip” is likely going to fail if you target that directly. What we all can do is be mindful of our own limits and boundaries and behave in a way that demonstrates behaviours consistent with how we want to live, and do not inadvertently (or directly) reinforce behaviours in others that we do not want to see.

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Start by reflecting on what it is that you mean when you say she’s a “control freak.” Global and judgmental phrases (even if they are limited to what you are saying in your own head) are often unhelpful and rarely lead to productive solutions to interpersonal behaviours. Shifting the language we use when we speak to ourselves is much more than just semantics – it has a strong impact on how we view others and, more importantly, shapes our behaviour.

What is your friend doing that makes you view her as a control freak? Be specific. Does she want to take the lead in planning where you go? Do things have to be on her schedule? Is she unwilling to entertain others’ suggestions? Imagine that you videotaped your friend’s interactions and were describing only what you could see her doing or saying that makes you think she has a high need for control. This is key: You want to describe her behaviour without being clouded by your assumptions (which may be inaccurate) of what you think her motives are.

Also pay attention to what you may be doing to reinforce her behaviour. Do you tend to acquiesce to her suggestions? Do you defer taking the lead in suggesting things to do? Does she take the lead in planning because you are leaving plans until the last minute?

Once you’ve examined what she is doing that bothers you and what your contribution may be, articulate for yourself what it is that you would like to see done differently. Write these things down. We get an objectivity when we write things that is different than just letting thoughts swim in our head. Use statements that are focused on things within your control (“I would like to meet for dinner at restaurants that I choose at least half of the time we get together.”).

When you have articulated what changes you would like to see, start to shift your behaviour to facilitate this happening. For example, the next time you make plans to get together, suggest where you would like to go and what you would like to do. If she pushes back or tries to convince you otherwise, give her gentle yet respectful feedback (“The last number of times we got together I went to the places you chose, and I’d really love it for us to go to a place I choose this time.”). If she continues to push back, you may need to provide stronger feedback (“I feel frustrated that our plans are almost always what you want to do. It’s really important to me to make sure we both have a say in what we do when we get together. Would it be okay if I made our plans this time?”).

Let her know your friendship is important to you and you want the two of you to find a balance that works for both. Ask her for her input as to how she thinks both of you could have your needs met. And involve her in the problem-solving process (“How do you think we can arrive at something that works for both of us?”) as this is more likely to contribute to her level of engagement. Remain respectful yet assertive.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail’s Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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