The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Talking to a Narcissist

Is talking to a narcissist worthwhile?

All roads lead to Rome. In a similar vein, all conversations lead back to the narcissist. If you imagined an escape from the metropolis, think again. You will encounter some roadblocks artfully placed before you. The narcissist is Rome, of course. That is where all conversational routes begin and end.

Narcissism is currently classified as a personality disorder but is scheduled to be removed from the DSM 5 (in 2013). Whatever the DSM may choose to say in its different editions, narcissism is truly a disabling condition that interferes with developing normal friendships.

Despite their fundamental lack of empathy and insight into other people's feelings, narcissists can be very charming and persuasive. They do well in professions such as marketing, entertainment, and politics or any other field in which self-promotion is an advantage.

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Traits that are appealing in a political leader, or actor, may be a real pain in the neck in a companion or friend. No one wants to sit across the table from Charlton Heston's Moses and being the sole audience for a four-hour speech from Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is not exactly fun conversation.

How to talk to a narcissist
We all know narcissistic people and that can make for unsatisfactory interactions. Psychotherapist Bill Snow has come up with seven rules for talking to a narcissist that are offered as straight advice but sound like a parody.

1. Demand little. Expect little. [The narcissist sees you as a kind of gopher or aide-de-camp.]
2. Be willing to listen a lot and listen carefully.
3. Find ways to provide positive recognition frequently.
4. If at all possible to do so, be honest and sincere in your acknowledgement, praise, and recognition. [Otherwise, insincere flattery may suffice.]
5. Don't worry about making the narcissist become more self-centered. [It's impossible.]
6. Avoid challenging the narcissist's wishes or desires. [They hate that.]
7. Failing these, smile a lot and keep quiet.

Snow observes that you need patience, forbearance and focus to get through a conversation with a narcissist. "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." Given a choice, of course, most sane people would not associate with a narcissist and this gets to the heart of the disorder.

These rules of engagement are just for casual conversations. Snow also offers some ideas about conducting an intervention. "Narcissists need help, of course, though they are usually very reluctant to seek it. If you think that the narcissist in your life may want to alter his, or her, narcissistic outlook, consider making an intervention."

If only Saddam Hussein's friends had thought of this!.

 

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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