How to De-Escalate a Fight with a Narcissist
What you need to know to smooth things over and end the fight.
Posted Oct 10, 2017
Everyone who spends time in the company of Narcissists quickly learns how easily they can become offended. As a therapist who generally enjoys working with my intelligent and high functioning Narcissistic clients, I have found that despite my good intentions—and the fact that my Narcissistic clients have chosen to come to therapy with me, pay me to intervene, and generally like me—I still manage to annoy and offend many of them.
When this happens, I immediately shift gears and try to get things back on track. Here are some things that have worked for me, reworded in a form more suitable to relationships with romantic partners, family members, or close friends .
By the way, I am using the term "Narcissist" here as shorthand for someone who qualifies for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. For more information on this topic, please see my blog post "The Truth about Narcissistic Personality Disorder."
- Do Not Argue about Fight or Wrong
There is absolutely no good that can come from trying to figure out who is to blame. If you want to smooth things over, do not expect to do so by proving that the Narcissist is wrong. This is not about fairness, this is about feelings.
Narcissists generally cannot admit that they are ever wrong because they rely on defensive grandiosity—the unrealistic sense of being perfect and special—to support their shaky self-esteem. If they admit that they were wrong and believe it, they are likely to turn their overly harshly and punitive internal “judge” on themselves and feel unbearable shame and sink into a self-hating depression. Naturally, they would rather blame you!
- Empathize with Their Feelings
It is extremely soothing to Narcissists when you demonstrate that you understand and empathize with how they feel. But..do not insert anything about how the situation makes you feel, or anything about you at all unless it is an apology. They are not interested and may take it the wrong way.
I am not saying that this is fair, just that Narcissists usually find it soothing. And it can actually, eventually help them develop a greater capacity for empathy. I believe that: Empathy teaches empathy.
Do say: “You must have felt very disappointed (hurt, angry, etc. when I ….(fill in the blank). I can understand your feeling that way.”
Do not say: “I know you felt disappointed when I…..(fill in the blank) and that is just how I feel when you….(fill in the blank).”
- Take Responsibility for Your Part
Narcissists grew up in homes where admitting being at fault led to being devalued. I have found it useful to model how to take appropriate, non-defensive, responsibility.
Do say: “So sorry. I realize now that I could have phrased that better. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
Don’t say: “You always take what I say the wrong way!”
- Use “We” Language
Narcissists cannot accept blame, but many react well if you use “we” language and include yourself in the behavior. For example, imagine that you and your Narcissistic mate have just had a fight that he started, you defended yourself, and now the two of you are caught up in an escalating argument over something trivial and you would like to stop arguing. Start by saying something positive.
Do say: “I love you and you love me. The last thing I want to do is hurt you or argue with you. I think we both got off track somehow. Let’s kiss and make up.”
Don’t say: “I can’t believe you picked a fight with me over something so stupid.”
- The No-Fault Do-Over
As Narcissists do not usually have the ego strength to take responsibility for provoking a pointless fight over a trivial matter, I have invented the concept of the “No-Fault Do-Over.”
Do Say: “Well, this is not going very well. I am sure we can do better. Let’s take a “No-Fault Do-Over” and try again.”
Don’t say: “You can’t treat me this way. I expect an apology.” (You won’t get an apology during a fight, just a longer fight).
- Ask a Question about a Topic That Interests Them
Exhibitionistic Narcissists love to display their knowledge to an admiring audience. It is fairly easy to distract them by asking a question about a topic that interests them. For your own sake, try and pick one that interests you as well. Many Narcissists will happily go on talking for hours with minimal encouragement. You do not need much of a segway, just something simple as in the example below.
Example: “You know so much about (pick a topic), I was wondering about (x, y, or z) and I was sure you would know the answer.”
The Recipe: Flattering true statement + question
- Ask for Advice
This is a variation on the above suggestion. Narcissists love to give advice. Most will happily give you advice on almost any topic, even when they know less than you about it. The only warning here is that they are likely to take it personally if they find out that you did not follow their advice. I suggest that you think about your question in advance, choose a topic that they actually know more than you about, and ask something that you actually need advice about.
Example: “I have an important investment decision to make about what percentage of my retirement savings should be in stocks versus bonds. You know so much about that topic, and have done so well, would you mind giving me your opinion?”
- Tell Them Something True and Complimentary
Everyone has strengths and most people feel underappreciated. Narcissists are particularly hungry for positive feedback because they cannot internalize and hold onto the good feelings for very long.
Put aside for the moment, all the things that you now dislike about them and only pay attention to what you do like and admire about them. If possible, remember a specific instance when they displayed this good quality or talent and tell them about how great they were in as much detail as possible. Here is an example below to give you an idea of how to go about it. As you can see, you do not need to explain why you are suddenly changing the topic.
Do say: “I just remembered something that you did last week that I was so impressed by. Do you remember when we were out with friends and they wanted to go to this new hot club, but nobody could figure out how to get in. You got on the phone and talked to the manager and somehow convinced him to not only let us in, but to seat us in the VIP section where we all got free drinks! How did you ever manage that? No one but you could have pulled that off!”
Don’t say: “You are so talented that I don’t understand why you are so insecure.”
- Do Not Take the Bait
Many Narcissists say provocative and nasty things to get a response from you. Usually they do it because they feel angered or insulted by something you have done and want to start a fight. Or, they may be anxious or angry about something else entirely and are taking it out on you.
I have discovered that if I ignore their insult and do not rise to the bait, I can often avoid a pointless fight. If “your” Narcissist cannot stand simply being ignored and escalates, you can use one of the methods described earlier to shift their attention to something more pleasant.
Punchline: All of the above is focused on catering to the Narcissistic individual's needs. This is not about fairness or an opinion about how a relationship should work. These are simply tips that might help your relationship with a Narcissistic mate, friend, or family member go more smoothly or get back on track when things are rapidly degenerating into a pointless and exhausting fight.
This article appeared in Quora.com under the title: Can you share some of the ways to de-escalate and smooth things over with narcissists? (2/11/17)