COMMUNICATING WITH A NARCISSIST
...When Listening A Lot Makes "Conversation"
Question from a psytalk reader:
How do you communicate with a narcissist?
Dear G. B.:
Let's begin with some basics.
My response to your question has four parts...
- Words of caution.
- A Narcissist's Characteristics.
- How To Talk To A Narcissist.
- 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.)
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.)
Be willing to listen a lot and listen carefully.
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.
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.
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
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
Avoid challenging the narcissist's wishes or desires. Narcissists
have a low tolerance for frustration or interference.
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
Be precise in what you want. (This is a good idea in all
situations, but it is often essential in dealing with a narcissist.)
Know what the narcissist wants. (This is also a good idea
in all situations, but, again, it can be essential in dealing with
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
(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.)
| Finding a Therapist
| Psychology of Everyday Living
Responses to Reader Requests
| Articles | Guest Page
About Bill Snow | Site Map
William W. Snow