What is the one trait of narcissists that can make them so frustratingly troubling to deal with—to partner with at work or at home? As a therapist who specializes in helping couples to build more satisfying marriages, I focus on this trait in particular. What is that habit?
Narcissism is manifest in communication patterns that include habitual non-listening.
The narcissist knows best, so why bother listening to what others have to say? So narcissists tend to do lots of talking and very little listening? Ever spoken with someone who responded to everything you said dismissively? Odds are that that person was narcissistically inclined.
One tip-off is "But..." But deletes whatever came before. "But a better way to look at it is ..."
Another tip-off is voice tone. If the response sounds irritated or deprecating, that's the sound of unwillingness to listen for what's valid in what you just said.
Most psychologists work with individual clients rather than with couples. Narcissistic individuals do tend to listen to someone they see as higher in power than themselves. If those with narcissistic habits respect their therapists, their listening can appear to be quite normal.
If the therapist, by contrast, were to see that same client interacting with his or her spouse or employees, the listening patterns would most likely be glaringly different: dismissive, ignoring altogether, minimizing the importance of the point that the spouse or employee just made, disagreeing with it, and pointing out what was wrong with it.
There's a further reason why Dr. Malkin may have mentioned without stressing the narcissistic pattern of dismissive listening in his excellent blogpost.
The DSM lists the factors that therapists use for diagnosing emotional problems and problematic personality patterns. Alas, this manual makes no mention of listening deficiencies as a diagnostic factor for narcissism.
Again, psychology in general and even more so the psychiatrists who write the DSM manual historically have focused primarily on individuals rather than on what those individuals do when they are interacting with others.
Therapists tend to see what we have been taught to look for. Our diagnostic manual omits teaching us to look at communication habits in general, and in particular at listening habits.
How can you deal with narcissistic dismissive listening in your life?
If someone you know talks with minimal listening, first and foremost do not take it personally. Dismissing what you say as wrong or irrelevant says more about that person than it does about you or what you have said. Just as you would not take personally the limited hearing ability of someone with partial deafness, realize that your narcissistic friend, coworker or loved one has a genuine disability.
Second, just as you would repeat, perhaps more loudly, what you were trying to say to a deaf person, find ways to repeat more effectively the message that you were trying to communicate.
A good formula for doing this is to agree very cooperatively with what the narcissist has said and then add back your prior point. Agree, then add back.
You: The walls in this room are an unusual color of green.
The narcissist: No they're not. They're yellow.
You: Yes, they are yellowish, and with a lot of green in the yellow, rather like a lime color.
In sum, beware of choosing a narcissist!
Narcissists seem like bullies because of their habit of not listening to you, insisting instead that only their view is correct. If they are highly effective talkers, their bullying may come across as charisma. Over time, however, it is likely to lose its shine.
If you have chosen a narcissist as a life partner, or you have to deal at work in an on-going way with someone who has difficulty listening to you, ratchet up your self-confidence. You'll need to be able to speak in a way that conveys an inner sense of personal power. From that stance, at least on matters of import to you, show that you have heard your partner’s viewpoint and then persist until you have succeeding in conveying your viewpoint as well.
And, a surprise ...
Some narcissists can and do listen, even with empathy, when they experience the person with whom they are talking as having greater power. Here's an example.
Gina finally divorced her husband Jonathan. She had had enough of his ignoring her, frequent raging at her, and being unable to listen supportively to her when she wanted his help.
After the protracted and arduous divorce process had ended, while Gina still admired Jonathan's good sides, she felt great relief to be free of having to live with such an unsatisfying, unsympathetic and often hurtful partner.
Who would have thought! After the divorce, Jonathan returned to courting mode. Gina now had the upper hand. With his wife now the pack leader, Jonathan settled down. He listened to Gina as he had when they had first been courting. He did zero negating of whatever she said. He ended his former insistence that he always was right and she was wrong. Now, Jonathan showed his wife only his charming best self.
The outcome? Gina and Jonathan have become best friends. While Gina will never remarry, or even move back in to share a home with Jonathan, she did, last week, invite him to join her for a vacation cruise next week!
The moral of the story: Interacting with a narcissist, you need to stay strong. Not aggressive; just strong in self-confidence. Protect yourself. Expect to be heard. And you never know what might emerge. The most overlooked sign of narcissism may—or may not—melt away!
Psychologist Dr. Susan Heitler focuses on helping couples in her books The Power of Two and The Power of Two Workbook, and her interactive website, www.PowerOfTWoMarriage.com, where couples learn the secrets to marriage success.