What is the one trait of narcissists that makes them so frustratingly troubling to deal with—to partner with at work or to live with 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.
Narcissists tend to do lots of talking and very little listening. The narcissist knows best, so why bother listening to what others have to say?
Ever spoken with someone who responded to everything you said dismissively? Narcissists brush aside or deprecate what others say instead of truly listening.
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.
Why do therapists tend not to include poor listening in their assessments of narcissism?
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 their therapist 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 therapists seldom note the narcissistic pattern of dismissive listening.
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 patterns like poor listening habits.
How can you deal 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. Then add back your prior point. Agree, then add your perspective.
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.
Many narcissistic individuals are good-looking, earn a good living, and are fun to be around. Women are attracted to male narcissists because they seem so powerful, special, and self-confident. Men are attracted to female narcissists who are strikingly beautiful or sexually appealing. See my post on Tall-Man Syndrome for more on how specialness can create narcissism.
It's only when narcissists begin to ignore their partner's concerns and dismiss what their partner says that the narcissistic listening disorder becomes a source of distress.
Remember, narcissists do listen to people who seem to more powerful or who have something that they want. So when they are courting, they listen very well.
What can you do if someone you work with or love has a narcissistic non-listening pattern?
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, begin by understand that narcissists are handicapped people. In spite of their charisma, they have a genuine listening deficit.
Aim next to ratchet up your self-confidence. You'll need to be able to speak in a way that conveys an inner sense of personal power.
Third, from that self-confidence stance, at least on matters of import to you, use strong collaborative dialogue skills. Show that you have heard your partner’s viewpoint and then persist until you have succeeding in conveying your viewpoint as well. Remind yourself that most 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 from my clinical practice.
Gina finally had had enough of the inability of her husband Jonathan to listen to her side of issues. When they first met, Jonathan seemed to be a great listener. They enjoyed long talks together. Gradually over time however Jonathan had become oppositional—"but.....", Eventually he began raging to block out Gina's voice when he had offered his perspective and she tried to add another.
Talking about political issues was the worst. Trying to discuss any upset that had occurred between them similarly led to a flood of but's followed by anger if Gina tried to verbalize her views.
Gina felt great relief once she made a decision to be free of having to interact with Jonathan when he went into his uninterested, unsympathetic, and increasingly angry mode. She chose a quiet time to explain to Jonathan her decision. Any time from this point forward that she was tactfully expressing her viewpoint, if Jonathan blocked her from voicing her concerns by getting dismissive or angry, she would quietly stand up and walk out of the room. And then she did it. Multiple times.
Then, who would have thought!
After several walkaways, Gina was stunned to see Jonathan return to courting mode. Gina now had the upper hand. Jonathan did not want his wife to abandon him when they were talking about issues of import to him.
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 far less 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. He even had begun, as when they first met, asking questions to elicit her perspectives. The word "But..." seemed to be dying out of his vocabulary. It was being replaced by "Yes..." and "What do you think about ....?"
The outcome? Gina and Jonathan have become best friends again. Gina can relax at home and enjoy Jonathan's charming sides. If Jonathan slips back into narcissistic dialogue mode, Gina exits the room Mostly though, Gina is happier and Jonathan seems happier as well. Phew.
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. Her interactive website, www.PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, teaches the skills for marriage success.
Dr. Heitler's most recent book, Prescriptions Without Pills, offers self-help strategies for dealing with the common colds of mental health: depression, anger, anxiety and addictions. See the book's website, prescriptionswithoutpills.com, for free videos and worksheets.