In my clinical practice, I have noticed one trait of narcissists that accounts in large part for why they can be so frustratingly troubling to partner with at work or to live with at home. To help couples to build a more satisfying marriage, I find it helpful to focus particularly on this characteristic pattern. What is that habit?
[Note in response to readers' excellent comments: This article focuses on the behaviors we refer to as narcissistic. People with extremes of this behavior may be diagnosable as having a narcissistic character disorder. While the main habit is the same, neither changes in a partner's behaviors nor psychological treatment are in these cases likely to have significant positive impacts.}
Narcissism is manifested in communication patterns that include habitual non-listening. Narcissists tend to do lots of talking and very little listening. The narcissist knows best, after all, so why bother listening to what others have to say?
Ever spoken with someone who responded dismissively to everything you said? Narcissists brush aside or deprecate what others say instead of truly listening. One tip-off is the word, "But..." But deletes whatever came before. "But a better way to look at it is..." Another tip-off is tone of voice. If the response sounds irritated or deprecating, that's the sound of an unwillingness to listen for what's valid in what you just said.
Why Don't Therapists Use Poor Listening to Assess 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, or pointing out what was wrong with it.
There's a further reason why therapists seldom note the narcissistic pattern of dismissive listening: the DSM. The DSM-5—also known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition—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—have historically 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 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, then add back your prior point.
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."
Narcissists Can Appear Attractive Initially
Many narcissistic individuals are good-looking, earn a good living, and are fun to be around. Some women are attracted to male narcissists because they seem so powerful, special, and self-confident. Some men are attracted to female narcissists who are strikingly beautiful or sexually appealing. 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.
If you have chosen a narcissist as a life partner, or you have to deal at work in an ongoing way with someone who has difficulty listening to you, begin by understanding 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.
Putting It In Practice
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. 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 from Jonathon, followed by anger if Gina tried to verbalize her views.
Gina felt great relief once she made a decision to no longer 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. Then she did it—multiple times.
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.
The moral of the story? In interacting with a mild to moderately severe narcissist, you need to stay strong. Not aggressive—just strong in self-confidence. Protect yourself. Upgrade your skills for cooperative dialogue to build your self-confidence. Then expect to be heard. You never know what might emerge. The most overlooked sign of narcissism may—or may not—melt away!