Mark Goulston M.D., F.A.P.A.

Just Listen

Know Any Opinionated People?

How to deal with the three kinds of know-it-alls

Posted Oct 13, 2015

With the recent publication of my book, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life, I wanted to help you with one of the people that most often drive you crazy: the opinionated know-it-all. Got any of those?

As I explained in The Nine Most Common M.O.s of Irrational People, regarding know-it-all's (which also applies to opinionated people):

Know-it-alls like being the only expert on any topic, even if they’ve never “been there” or “done that.” They will find cracks in any idea you offer, even if it’s correct.  They know that if they can make you feel stupid, you’ll lose confidence and often back off and become submissive. Their M.O. is to belittle, mock or condescend to you.

And your immediate reaction?

These people may make you feel small, insignificant, not good enough, and sometimes ashamed—as well as resentful.

In reality, there are three kinds of opinionated people. The first two are truly offensive, whereas the third is just obnoxious:

  1. The opinionated know-it-all who doesn’t know what he’s talking about is a jerk
  2. The opinionated know-it-all who knows what he’s talking about is a prick
  3. The opinionated blunt person is just out of touch with how much he turns people off

To make sure I am an equal gender offender:

  1. The opinionated know-it-all who doesn’t know what she’s talking about is crazy
  2. The opinionated know-it-all who knows what she’s talking about is obnoxious
  3. The opinionated blunt person is just out of touch with how much she turns people off

The opinionated know-it-all who doesn’t know what he/she is talking about is unaware of how he/she's acting. The opinionated know-it-all who knows what he/she is talking about, is aware of how he/she is acting and doesn’t care. The opinionated blunt person may feel like a know-it-all to you if you are oversensitive to anyone voicing a strong opinion. This person is often unaware of how he/she is acting, but because he/she has the best of intentions, he doesn't know why people aren’t happy to hear what he/she has to say.

Why do offensive opinionated people act this way?

Offensive opinionated people are all about being in control and never losing that control. By talking down to you they will do one of two things that keep them in control of you. Either they will intimidate you to the point that you become submissive, or they will so infuriate you that they hijack your ability to think clearly and respond rationally. That’s because you’re using all your energy to keep a lid on wanting to rip their throat out.

There are many ways to deal with these people. What follows is a single tactic for each of the three kinds of opinionated people.

1. The opinionated know-it-all who doesn’t know what they’re talking about

For the jerk/crazy, know who they are ahead of time and never expect them not to act that way. Instead, hold a part of yourself back and when they say or do their over-the-top jerky or crazy behavior, don’t interrupt them. Instead, look at them intently (not intensely) and unflinchingly in the eye, let them finish, do not avert your gaze and then pause for 2-4 seconds. That will signal to them that their behavior didn’t succeed in provoking you.  Stay quiet until, because of their anxiety at being found out, they blurt out at you, “What are you staring at!” 

Then keep looking and simply say calmly and firmly, “What was that about?” (drawing attention to the “that” in a way that communicates how ridiculous they were). Watch them escalate and let them vent whatever they have to say and then respond with, “And that too? What the heck was that about?” Next, let them continue to say whatever they want and finally respond with, “Well I can see that I’m not going to be of much use here, so I’ll check back with you later.” Then get up and leave.

If they chase after you, repeat firmly and definitively, but not angrily, “As I said, ‘I can see that I’m not going to be of much use here, so I will check back with you later!’” Then leave.

2. The opinionated know-it-all who knows what they’re talking about

For the obnoxious person, apply the same mindset as above with regard to knowing who they are ahead of time and not expecting them to act any differently.

After they finish condescending to you, try the “Butter Up” tactic. It is the last thing you want to do, because it’s a case in which you flatter them about something they’re "so smart" about. You do it, because it’s completely disarming. 

To use it, look them in the eye as they’re talking down to you or even scornfully at you. Let them finish. Then pause until, like the jerk/crazy, they become nervous that you might be on to them and they say to you, “What are you staring at!” 

Then say without sarcasm, “I was just thinking how amazingly smart (or clever or brilliant) what you just said was. How the heck did you come up with that and can you say more about it?” 

What you will then notice is a state of confusion and not knowing what to say. In all likelihood they will react with, “Huh?” or “What?” At that point, pause and calmly repeat: “I really was just thinking how amazingly smart (or clever or brilliant) what you just said was. How did you come up with that and can you say more about it?”

They will continue not to know what to say. If they become tongue-tied, say to them, “Well, if you don’t know what to say now, please let me know when you do, because I really would like to know how you came up with that and for you to tell me more. But for now, you'll need to excuse me because I have things to do.” Then get up and leave.

3. The opinionated blunt person who is out of touch

The opinionated blunt person is often neither a jerk/crazy nor a prick/obnoxious. Instead, he or she suffers from low emotional intelligence. He or she also suffers unconsciously from “anticipatory pushback” which causes him or her to come off as controlling rather than condescending.

They have little awareness of how they’re coming off or how others are emotionally reacting to them. Often they have the best of intentions to help whomever they’re speaking to and can’t understand why the other person isn’t happy to hear what they have to say.

What is out of their awareness (which is why they don’t stop it), are the many past experiences of truly wanting to help someone and having their unsolicited input reacted to as uninvited, unwanted, unvalued, and resented. As a result, before they talk they are already anticipating pushback and rejection from the other person. This causes them to feel resentful before they even say anything and causes their tone to be strident or aggressive.

Since these people are often very decent and actually do have the best intentions, it’s important to not react to them as you would to the offensive opinionated know-it-all's above.

However, similar to the above two categories of opinionated people, don’t expect them not to act that way. And, as above, when they give you their unsolicited advice, look them in the eye and let them finish. Say to yourself in your head—and you may need to scream it to avert your taking what they say the wrong way—“He or she is not your enemy! He or she is not trying to upset or hurt you! He or she just doesn’t know any better!”

Then pause for 2-4 seconds and say, “You want what’s best for me, correct? What you’re saying is really because you care, right? Well then, I need your help with something. When you say what you say the way you say it, it triggers a flashback of people in my life who talked to me like I was stupid or foolish or who even bullied me. It causes me to overreact to hearing you. That makes me unable to realize that you’re actually trying to be helpful.

"To prevent my knee-jerk and childish reaction, it would help me, and I would appreciate it, if you were to say, ‘I just noticed something, can I say something or make a suggestion?’ Just doing that would go a long way in preventing me from becoming defensive and I am likely to be more receptive to what you say and even do it, since I know you only want what’s best for me. Also it would help if I knew that I could politely tell you that I'd rather not hear.

"You may say, ‘Why do I need to walk on eggshells if you’re the one who’s oversensitive?’ And to be honest, I don’t have a good response, other than I think you’ll get me to cooperate and be appreciative if your tone feels more like honey than vinegar to me.”

Who is being oversensitive?

Something else that you should keep in mind is whether these people are really offensive/obnoxious or whether you're thin skinned about conversations with anyone who is very direct. If you are, it's likely that you may have been bullied or talked down to earlier in your life and that you were unable to defend yourself. If that was the case, you may have unconsciously told yourself that you weren't going to put up with it when you became older.

If this is the case, you'd do well to not take things personally that aren't meant personally and are actually an attempt to help you, even if the style is not completely to your liking.

The last thing you want is a situation in which people who care for you in your present life (direct though they may be), die for the sins of people who didn't care for you in the past.