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What’s the Best Way to Handle a Know-It-All?

What does a show-off really show?

Key points

  • A "know-it-all" may be trying to compensate for an underlying insecurity.
  • A "know-it-all" who has a fear of intimacy may try to instigate debate to feel a sense of connection without getting too close.
  • Dealing with a know-it-all does not require seeing them as they want to be seen, or catering to that need.

Geri* never met a problem she did not know how to solve. It didn’t matter if the difficulty was hers or someone else’s, Geri knew what needed to be done. It also didn’t matter if she didn’t know anything about the problem area. She still knew how to fix it.

Or at least that’s what she seemed to think. She was a smart woman, very hardworking, but she came to therapy because her life was not turning out the way she had expected. Despite knowing how to take care of everything and everyone else, she was suffering from a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. But she could not take in anything I said. If I empathized with how she was feeling, she told me that I had missed the point. And if I offered a suggestion about something, she told me that she had already tried it.

At a party sometime after I began working with Geri, I met Harry*, who also seemed to think he knew everything. After we exchanged pleasantries and he discovered that I was a psychotherapist, he started to lecture me about Freud. I am actually always interested to hear what other people think about the field and its theories, but after 20 minutes, I realized that he knew a lot less than he thought he did. As I politely disengaged from this one-sided conversation, I found myself wondering what he had wanted from me. Admiration? Applause? Maybe an argument? Was showing off a way of engaging with another person? Did he need to keep me—and I assumed others—at a distance?

I don’t make a practice of analyzing social acquaintances. First of all, what therapists understand about our clients comes only from a very focused and thoughtful exploration of their ideas and ways of thinking about things over time. And second, I learned very early in analytic training, when I eagerly tried to analyze all of my friends and family, that trying to figure out what’s going on in a loved one’s unconscious can create major disruptions in a perfectly good relationship! On the other hand, I did become a social worker and then a psychoanalyst because I have always been interested in what makes people tick—and since what we see is often not the whole of anyone’s actual story, I often find myself trying to puzzle out possible reasons for difficult or troubling behaviors.

Since I also saw some parallels between the way Harry had interacted with me and the difficulties I was having with Geri, I was actually trying to see if thinking about him might help me understand something about her. And in some ways it did. As I thought about Harry’s need to show me how much he knew, and his lack of interest in my own thoughts or reactions to his ideas, I thought about other people who I have labeled “know-it-alls” and some of the common threads in their behaviors and dynamics. And it occurred to me that the questions I had about Harry and Geri captured several important aspects of this particular characteristic.

  • Underlying insecurity: I never found out anything more about Harry, but with Geri, the longer I worked with her, the more I understood that she felt as though she was not enough – not good, smart, pretty, thin, classy, articulate, artistic, etc. enough. Although a successful businesswoman, attractive, and physically fit, she secretly always felt that she was a fake and was going to be found out. So she felt like she had to know everything and had to fend off any and all suggestions that might make it look like she was out of the loop or uneducated – even if she would have no reason for knowing it.
  • A genuine sense of superiority and grandiosity: Although this was not true of Geri, I have known a number of know-it-alls who genuinely believe that they know more about everything than anyone else could possibly know. They simply are not interested in what others might have to tell them, because they believe that they already have the information.
  • A combination of the two: Some grandiose individuals suffer from an underlying fear of being found out as fakes. Some supremely insecure people actually secretly believe that they are better than anyone else.
  • Difficulty with intimacy: There are a couple of different forms of this difficulty.

a) Often related to the other categories, the fear may be that if someone gets too close they will discover secret feelings of self-doubt or of superiority. So others are always kept at a distance.

b) A person may have gotten good feelings about him or herself from being praised indiscriminately throughout his (or her) childhood. As adults, they can only feel close to people who admire and praise them. This is not to suggest that I’m in agreement with the current trend to suggest we shouldn’t praise children; but it does speak to the idea that indiscriminate, constant, and unrealistic praise can indeed be harmful.

c) A person may be attempting to provoke his or her listeners. There are some people who, for a variety of reasons, become enlivened by an argument. It is often the best way for them to feel connected to others, perhaps because it provides a sense of energy and connection without being too close.

There are a number of ways to manage these individuals. What is most important in these interactions is to remember that we do not have to see the other person as they want to be seen, and we do not have to cater to that need unless we want to. (This theme has been a significant one in the wonderful comments on my post on dealing with people who talk too much).

In Harry’s case, I quietly told him that I had enjoyed listening to him but that I needed to speak to some other people at the party, shook his hand, and walked away. He tried to keep me engaged by telling me that he had something important to ask me, which I thought might mean he wanted a referral for therapy. I nodded and said that I would be happy to answer his question if I could, but that I could only stay with him for another couple of minutes since I was being rude to other friends and acquaintances. After he began lecturing again, without asking me anything, I said that I needed to leave but would be happy to answer his question. He looked surprised and puzzled, and I said that if he remembered what he wanted to ask, I’d be happy to try to answer it. And I left him and joined a group of friends.

In Geri’s case, I began to ask her questions instead of making suggestions. Even though she often answered with condescension, my shift in approach gradually made a difference in our relationship and therefore in the work we were doing together. I realized that she had taken my comments as criticisms. I was simply reinforcing her feeling that she was not smart enough and was not doing enough. Eventually, we were able to talk about it and to talk about how this might be going on in other relationships in her life. As Geri became more comfortable with the idea that she did not have to know everything, she became less argumentative with friends, colleagues, and relatives—and she became much more satisfied with her life.

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

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