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...When Listening A Lot Makes "Conversation"


Question from a psytalk reader:

How do you communicate with a narcissist?

G. B.



Dear G. B.:

Let's begin with some basics.

My response to your question has four parts...

  1. Words of caution.
  2. A Narcissist's Characteristics.
  3. How To Talk To A Narcissist.
  4. How To Get What You Want From A Narcissist.


Words of caution.

Before proceeding with details about how to interact with a narcissist, take a look at what you want out of the engagement. If you are looking for equal treatment, acknowledgement, recognition, or significance in his or her eyes, you might be well advised to simply move on. Chances are very good that you will invest excessive amounts of energy, time, and perhaps money, in striving to get what you want. In reality, the possibility that you will succeed is minimal.

However, if you are in a position where you feel you have little choice but to interact with a narcissist, read on.


A Narcissist's Characteristics.

The reason for prefacing these comments with the foregoing precaution lies in the nature of the narcissist's personality.

A narcissist exhibits pervasive grandiosity -- sometimes through behavior, sometimes in fantasy. A narcissist needs to be admired and shows little or no empathy or concern for the problems, difficulties, or even the interests, of other people.

Narcissists hold (perhaps "embrace" would be a better term) an exaggerated sense of self-importance. They overrate the significance of their achievements and talents. And they expect to receive accolades for what they believe are outstanding personal attributes and accomplishments. They tend to be totally absorbed in fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty, and other achievements and qualities. They believe they are special; as a result, they believe they can only be understood and appreciated by people who are -- or organizations that are -- also special.

Consequently, narcissists have unreasonable expectations of people and situations. They feel they are entitled to favorable treatment and unquestioning compliance with their hopes and expectations. Other people are supposed to acquiesce to their wishes.

Further, they exploit friends, acquaintances, and associates, taking advantage of others to secure their own desires. They tend to be haughty and arrogant, convinced that others are, or should be, envious of them.

While every narcissist does not display each and every one of these characteristics, every narcissist exhibits enough of them to be difficult to deal with.

Despite the difficulties, from time to time we all find ourselves having to interact with a person who is afflicted with narcissism. It may be a member of the family, a neighbor, someone with whom we work, or someone we dearly love. In cases where we must deal with them, it is a good idea to understand how best to do so.


How To Talk To A Narcissist

Hopefully, the above discussion about the nature of narcissism sets the stage for what follows.

Here are some rules that will make things easier for you to interact with a narcissist. (The aim at this point is not to provide comfortable guidelines. Interacting with a narcissist may not be comfortable, but it doesn't always have to be a total loss.)

  1. Demand little. Expect little. You will find your role is one of support, acknowledgement, and recognition. The narcissist may see you as a kind of gopher or aide-de-camp. If that is acceptable to you, you should have little difficulty.

    (How to go about getting your wants and desires considered is discussed later in this commentary.)

  2. Be willing to listen a lot and listen carefully.

  3. Find ways to provide positive recognition frequently. It is important to check the narcissist's reaction to be sure you have understood what positive recognition he or she wants at the moment. If you are on the wrong track, that fact will probably be made abundantly clear to you fairly quickly.

  4. If it is at all possible to do so, be honest and sincere in your acknowledgement, praise, and recognition. Identify and note any and all of the narcissist's endeavors or achievements you genuinely admire. Use them to provide recognition and acknowledgement. Insincere flattery may be tolerated by the narcissist, but keep in mind that deep down the narcissist usually lacks well grounded self esteem. Therefore, the more credible you can be, the better.

  5. Don't worry about making the narcissist become more self- centered -- he or she became that way at a fairly early age and can't now stop. Narcissists need help, of course, though they are usually very reluctant to seek it. If you think the narcissist in your life may want to alter his or her narcissistic outlook, consider making an intervention.

    Used adroitly, an intervention can be a profound psychological experience for all concerned. It is a carefully planned event that can begin a process of healthy redirection and personal growth.

    (To learn more about how to effect an intervention, take a look at the two psytalk question-and-answer articles on that subject. One is about how to arrange a multi-person intervention. The other discusses solo intervention. Although those articles pertain to the problems of substance abuse, the process of intervention is basically the same.)

  6. Avoid challenging the narcissist's wishes or desires. Narcissists have a low tolerance for frustration or interference.

  7. Failing these, smile a lot and keep quiet. While this may not put you in especially good standing with the narcissist, it avoids the risk of attack and leaves you still in the picture after others falter, fail, or flee.

These guidelines call for several qualities, among them, patience, forbearance, and focus. Patience will enable you to hang in when others may drop out. Forbearance will enable you to overlook the narcissist's boorishness, selfishness, self- centeredness, and arrogance. Focus will enable you to keep in mind both what the narcissist wants from moment to moment and what your objectives are in associating with him or her.


How To Get What You Want From A Narcissist

This is a question of motivation. If there is something you want a narcissist to agree to or provide, the following principles will prove helpful.

  1. Be precise in what you want. (This is a good idea in all situations, but it is often essential in dealing with a narcissist.)

  2. Know what the narcissist wants. (This is also a good idea in all situations, but, again, it can be essential in dealing with a narcissist.)

  3. Persuade the narcissist that he or she will derive something significant from doing what you want.


It is important to determine whether the other person's narcissism is primarily invested in beauty, intelligence, strength (meaning power or influence), or independence. As a rule, one of these will be far more significant than the others.

Begin your request by finding a way to validate the narcissist. Admire his or her appearance, use of brain power, display of strength or control, or the adherence to principle. Make sure the narcissist has heard and accepted the compliment before proceeding.

Link what you want to the narcissist's preferred attribute. If, say, you want to go to a specific movie, you could offer persuasive observations such as the following...

"I understand all the beautiful people are rushing to see it."

(Implication: going to this movie will make you one of the special people of the day.)

"The reviewers call it 'a movie for quick minds'."

(Implication: going to this movie will make you one smart cookie.)

"It is supposed to expose the dynamics of social power."

(Implication: going to this movie is an opportunity to learn how to become more influential.)

"The story exposes the weakness of dependent people."

(Implication: going to this movie will reconfirm for you that being a force unto yourself is the best way to be.)

You may be somewhat uncomfortable at first using this approach. You have probably always tried to be either more straightforward than this or hoped the other person would read your thoughts and decide to provide what you want. If so, remember...this technique gets easier to use as you become familiar with it.

If you find this approach seems too calculating and manipulative, keep two things in mind.

First, the narcissist is manipulative -- often to the point of being downright coercive.

Second, you may have been taught to be passive, rather than assertive. If so, you are well advised to explore becoming more assertive. (See the psytalk article on assertiveness if you'd like to explore this consideration. Also, there are any number of good books on the subject. Keep in mind that psychological counseling usually encourages the development of an assertive outlook and assertive behaviors.)



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Copyright 1996-2006 William W. Snow



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