- The way you say No to a narcissist can make a big difference. It helps to be persistent and not waver once you have made your decision.
- It helps to be prepared for their possible insults, complaints, and specific objections, so you know what you want to say back.
- It helps to be calm and matter-of-fact, which can keep the narcissist more calm during a discussion.
- It helps to use the word "respect" in any conversation with a narcissist, but don't exaggerate or lie.
People with narcissistic personalities are identified in the DSM-5 diagnostic manual with a list of characteristics such as being arrogant, requiring excessive admiration, and having a grandiose sense of self-importance, among other things.1 What the list doesn’t include is that they are also very thin-skinned and can’t easily handle rejection or criticism. Instead, they may become furious and blaming.
Therefore, when saying “No,” it helps to consider the following four tips.
1. Be prepared: Anticipate that your No will be criticized or challenged, and that the narcissist may try to insult you when you do not do what they want. Try to think of all the reasons that the narcissist will argue with you to try to get you to change your opinion or decision. Sometimes it helps to role-play your anticipated conversation with a friend or family member. Have them say what you expect the narcissist to say to you when you say No. Then explain that your answer is still No. If you have a clear reason that isn’t personal to the narcissist, then say your reason. (“I have to do such-and-such on that day, so I can’t help you.” Or: “I don’t have the necessary skills or knowledge to perform that task.” Or whatever.) If your reason is because the narcissist is a difficult person, don’t say that! Just say you can’t do it without explanation. Pointing out their character flaws is much worse than saying nothing. You don’t have to give an explanation when you say No to anyone.
2. Be matter-of-fact: Being calm and matter-of-fact will help the narcissist become less outraged. Emotions are contagious, including positive and calm emotions. You can practice that as well in a role-play, such as described above. Narcissists are generally emotionally driven and will want to get you emotional as well to feel on common ground, especially if your No is upsetting to him or her. By being matter-of-fact, you communicate that there is nothing wrong with your No answer and its not a big deal for them or anyone else to get real upset about. Your tone of voice and body language can communicate this as well or better than any specific words that you use. This will show that you don’t believe that there is anything wrong with you saying No, and its just an ordinary part of life. (“I usually say No to such requests. That’s fine. You’ll find someone else. Now I’ve got to go.”)
3. Be respectful: Narcissists desperately want to be respected. (Remember what the DSM-5 says: “Requires excessive admiration.”) If you can, find something true that fits the situation for which you can say respectful words. They call it “feeding a narcissist.” (“I respect your efforts to get this done.” “Congratulations on your promotion.” “I respect your efforts to solve this problem.”) Be careful not to exaggerate or lie just to butter them up. Just matter-of-factly mention the word “respect” in your conversation. (“I respect the time you’ve taken to discuss this matter.” “I respect and appreciate that you asked me to help with this. Unfortunately, I will not be available because of a prior commitment.”) This will help you resist the urge to insult the narcissist and help you calmly respond to their insults to you when you say No.
4. Be persistent: Often a narcissist will push you to change your mind. Get comfortable with repeating your No calmly in a matter-of-fact manner once or twice, then make an effort to end the conversation or change the topic. Don't linger and give them an opportunity to argue or persuade you to change your mind. If your tone of voice and body language are not defensive, show confidence, and indicate that you are not changing your answer, the narcissist will eventually give up. After all, you have the right to say No to anyone. But recognize that there may be choices and consequences to deal with. If it’s not safe to say No, then get help or avoid the situation altogether. Usually, it’s okay to leave a conversation without the narcissist feeling good about your No. They will just have to live with it and they usually do.
You have the right to say No to a narcissist or anyone else. However, the way you say No can make a big difference. These four tips can help minimize the upset for a narcissist in hearing that you will not do what they want. By being prepared, it will help you stay calm and matter-of-fact, which will usually help the narcissist accept your No without getting as upset as they would if you insulted them or angrily told them No. By being respectful and persistent, you should be able to end the conversation and move on without changing your mind and giving in.
Of course, if your No will escalate the narcissist into dangerous behavior, physically, financially, reputationally, or otherwise, then get consultation or assistance from someone else such as a therapist, lawyer, mediator, or police. Narcissists have personalities that are very sensitive to rejection, criticism, and people not doing what they want or demand. Just do the best you can and be prepared.
1. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013, 669-670.