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Conversational narcissism: 5 signs and what you can do about it

Image credit: Shutterstock - By Dmytro Zinkevych

Long, deep conversations can be a magical thing. They bring people closer together and make people feel connected to one another.

But if one person is hogging the spotlight and doing all the talking, it can make the other person feel alienated, unwanted, and unappreciated.

Unfortunately, you might be the person causing those unpleasant feelings if you are a conversational narcissist.

According to sociologist Charles Derber, author of The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life, a conversational narcissist is someone who has the tendency to take control of conversations in an effort to turn the focus of exchange on themselves.

You might suspect you are like this if you are someone who needs a lot of attention, can’t seem to stop talking, or you seek out people just to tell them how great you are doing.

It’s not an easy thing to admit, but if you think you’re a conversational narcissist, you might be right.

Here are five things you might be doing to prove yourself right and what you can do about it:

1) You are doing all the talking.

There’s no doubt that conversation is engaging and fun and it’s great to talk to new people.

If, however, you are the only one doing all the talking, you might need to revisit your communication skills and consider a new approach to getting to know people.

According to Cherlyn Chong, a professional life coach, a conversational narcissist “takes over most of the talking about makes it about them.”

What’s worse is that the people who are “doing the shifting are unaware it is even occurring.”

If you never hear from them again or they walk away after a few minutes, it’s probably because you didn’t take any interest in them at all and were preoccupied with saying as much as you could without interruption.

What to do instead: 

The number one rule to follow if you want to avoid conversational narcissism is to listen to your conversation partner instead of talking about yourself.

The easiest way to derail your efforts is to launch into talking about yourself without even asking how the other person has been since you’ve seen them last.

If you have just met, a friendly bit of back-and-forth is appropriate, but if you want to really make an impression, be sure to listen to your partner fully before getting into anything about yourself.

Of course, listening isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s skill, and like any skill, it’s something that needs to be worked on.

In fact, one study conducted by Faye Doell (2003) showed that there are two different types of listening: “listening to understand” and “listening to respond”. Those who “listen to understand” have greater success in their interpersonal relationships than others.

So here are some tips so you can “listen to understand”:

– Avoid making assumptions or judgments.
– Focus on taking in their message – rather than thinking about what you’re going to say.
– Put yourself in the shoes of the speaker. Think about what they’re saying from their perspective- not from yours.
– Don’t lose eye contact, and acknowledge that you’re listening with yeps and uh-huhs.

2) You don’t ask questions of the other person.

A classic sign of narcissism is that you don’t take any interest in the person you are talking to.

You might think you are interested in them because you are offering them advice or telling them what they should do about a particular situation, but the truth is that you are still just talking and taking up space with your words.

This isn’t because you’re self-centered per se. According to author Celeste Headlee, author of the book We Need to Talk, in conversation, “people don’t know what to say…and the most familiar topic – the most comfortable topic for all of us – is ourselves and our own experiences.”

What to do instead:

If you want to have better communication skills and stop being a narcissist who rules the conversation, you are going to have to start asking questions of others in order to engage them and make them want to talk to you more than they are currently.

After you’ve set the groundwork for a great conversation by signaling to your conversation partner that you are interested in what they have to say, keep the conversation going by asking them questions and listening to their answers.

It’s also a good idea to ask follow-up questions so that they know you are continuing to listen.

Also, keep in mind that you may want to ask questions to get people to talk about themselves.

According to research, when people talk about themselves, it triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money.

No wonder you’re struggling with conversational narcissism!

FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke says a great conversational strategy is to seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them:

“Seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them. People do not want to be judged in any thought or opinion that they have or in any action that they take. It doesn’t mean you agree with someone. Validation is taking the time to understand what their needs, wants, dreams and aspirations are.”

3) You launch into your story without any introduction or banter.

A good test for conversational narcissism is if you show up at a party and need all the attention and the spotlight needs to be on you: you launch into a story or start talking about something that happened to you without even saying hello to people.

It might just seem like “the way you are” but improved communication skills would provide a better introduction to your conversations, make people want to talk to you, and provide space for you to be invited to the conversation instead of monopolizing it.

According to author Celeste Headlee, you can usually tell you’re a conversational narcissist if you’re giving passive “uh-uhs” and “yeps” while listening to someone because you’re simply waiting for them to finish talking so you can start.

What to do instead:

Whenever the person you are talking to offers you some insight into their lives, don’t try to outdo them.

A classic example of this is when your friend or colleague tells you that they are buying a new house and you burst into how you bought your house and all the troubles you had in buying your place the first time around.

They wanted to talk about their experience.

It’s hard to refrain from launching into a detailed account of your experience, but if you want to be a good conversationalist, you’ll wait until they ask about your experiences.

According to Christine Schoenwald in Psych Central, you may want to focus on how you respond when someone begins talking about something they’re interested in.

You can either respond with the shift-response (as in shifting the attention back to yourself), or the support- response (keeping the attention on the speaker and topic they introduced).

Sociologist Charles Derber says that a skilled narcissist combines the shift-response with the support-response through temporary responsive concessions before turning the conversation back to themselves.

Don’t be like that. Focus on the message that the speaker is talking about and only that.

The minute you start thinking about talking about your experiences, stop yourself and focus on the topic at hand.

4) You interrupt people who are already talking.

Whether you just arrived on the scene or you’ve been at the party for hours, if you interrupt people when they talk, you are a conversational narcissist.

You might not like the term, but it’s true: you need to wait your turn and be invited to take part in a conversation that you were not originally a part of.

Nobody likes someone who seeks attention and tries to rule the floor.

Even if you are used to getting your own way and having things focused on you, it’s important to let people finish their thoughts before you break into song about whatever it is you want to say.

And really, how important is it that you say it in the first place? There’s no need to try to take over if the conversation is already running smoothly. You might be complicating things for no reason.

What to do instead:

Ask for an opportunity to give advice, don’t sling it.

If someone is sharing something with you, they aren’t looking for advice. Generally, they are looking for a listening ear and a comforting environment.

It’s human nature to want to fix people and help people through tough times, but unless you’ve been asked about your advice or insight into a situation, don’t offer it.

There’s nothing that upsets the status quo of a conversation quite like unsolicited advice. Don’t let yourself give into the urge to take over the conversation.

And letting someone give their advice will actually work out for you.

According to Scientific American:

“When you ask for advice, people do not think less of you, they actually think you’re smarter. By asking someone to share his or her personal wisdom, advice-seekers stroke the advisor’s ego and can gain valuable insights.”

5) You tell people they are wrong in their opinions or experiences.

If you are trying to tell people they are wrong during your conversations, you’re going to run into some trouble in your conversational relationships.

This is especially true if you just met someone and you disagree with their opinions. It’s perfectly okay for someone to have a different view than you; it’s not okay for you to tell them they are wrong.

What to do instead: 

A better approach would be to ask them why they feel the way they do and ask questions to learn about their perspective in a meaningful way.

Regardless of how you feel about their opinion, a good conversationalist will take the time to ask where the insight is coming from and respect the opinion for what it is: not a fact, but something based on experience and belief.

Another thing you can do to be a better conversationalist and do avoid taking over the conversation, you want to avoid correcting people during your chats.

There’s a polite way to correct someone without making them feel like you are trying to take over: ask questions for clarification.

Don’t tell someone they are wrong. Offer your insight and understanding and ask them what they think.

This is a great way to keep the conversation going and it keeps you looking like a great conversationalist without taking over things.

keep in mind that you want to be a know-it-all!

Harriet Swain in The Guardian explains the key difference between being a know-it-all and well-informed:

“Being well-informed is not the same as being a know-all. The former is about being able to ask intelligent questions in seminars, engage in debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and realise that two of your tutors are having an affair. The latter is about passing on information on all of these subjects to everyone you know, even if you are not entirely sure the information is true.”

In Conclusion

Good conversation shouldn’t be this hard, but it often is difficult for a lot of people. If you have narcissistic tendencies in your conversations, you can avoid being like that by paying attention to how you show up for talks with people.

There’s no need to be in the spotlight all the time. You can allow other people to talk about their needs and concerns and then chime in when the time is right.

When is the time right? When your conversation partner has stopped talking and invites your opinion or insight.

Don’t just bark orders at people or decide that they need to know what you know.

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Lachlan Brown

Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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