7 little-known psychological tricks to outsmart a narcissist

Which industries would you say attract the most narcissists?

Well, according to a professor of psychology, Sam Vaknin, narcissists are almost certainly overrepresented in teaching, the priesthood, show business, corporate management, the medical professions, politics, and sports.

I’d always wondered why my time in corporate finance and education had brought me into contact with so many narcissistic individuals. I guess this is part of the reason. 

But why am I telling you this? 

Well, because I spent a decade dealing with narcissists day-in-day-out. Through this, I learned some tricks that work and many that don’t. I had to. 

Today, I share them with you. 

Let’s dive in. 

1) Leverage their desire for a good reputation

As widely acknowledged, narcissists often have a deep-seated desire to be viewed positively by others. As put in a Huffington Post article, they “are constantly concerned with how people regard them.” 

Knowing this is all well and good, but have you thought about using this to your advantage? 

You can. And it works. 

It’s about steering narcissists subtly in the direction you want by appealing to their desire for a good reputation. Asking questions like, “How do you think this will be viewed by your peers?” or “What would [a respected colleague or superior] think about this approach?” can effectively influence their decisions.

Additionally, by framing suggestions or feedback within the context of how it affects their image, you’re more likely to get a positive response.

For instance, if you need a narcissistic colleague to collaborate more effectively, you might say, “Working together on this project could really enhance how the team views your leadership skills.”

It’s about indirectly guiding them to consider the implications of their actions on their reputation, and trust me on this: it’s much more effective than telling them what they should do. 

It’s important to use this approach judiciously and ethically, however. The goal is not to manipulate but to channel their inherent desire for a good reputation into actions that are beneficial for everyone involved. 

2) Use subtle positive reinforcement

B.F Skinner. Does that name ring a bell? 

You may remember his famous experiment from your school days. If you don’t, here’s a quick reminder: by rewarding rats with food, Skinner effectively trained the rats to press a lever. 

But why am I telling you this? 

Positive reinforcement also works on narcissists (and Penny from The Big Bang Theory!). Well, basically, it can work on anyone when done well, but it’s a particularly good way to deal with narcissists who can react aggressively to criticism

Let me share an example with you. 

During my tenure as Academic Director of an adult language school, there was a particular teacher whose need for constant recognition often overshadowed team dynamics. Direct confrontation might have escalated the situation, so I employed a more understated strategy. 

Whenever he implemented a teaching method that was effective, I made sure to make a public comment like, “I’ve noticed your approach in class has been really effective, let’s all consider integrating similar techniques,”. 

This provided him the recognition he sought, and it subtly encouraged him to continue contributing positively. However, perhaps more importantly, it made him more open to feedback and seemed to reduce his need for constant attention in group meetings. 

The art of this strategy lies in its subtlety and sincerity. It’s about giving enough positive feedback to motivate desired behavior without overemphasizing it in a way that could inflate the narcissist’s ego or seem disingenuous. 

3) Use the ‘gray rock’ method

“Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.” 

The above quote is by former Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. And when he wrote it, he wasn’t exclusively referring to how to deal with a narcissist. But that’s how we will use it today. 

Sometimes, the best defense against a narcissist’s manipulations is to become uninteresting, or what’s known as the ‘Gray Rock’ method. This tactic involves making yourself emotionally non-reactive and unengaging, much like a dull, unremarkable gray rock or, as I like to imagine, a cliff that remains unmoved as waves attack it. 

This method is particularly effective in situations where you can’t avoid interaction but want to minimize the narcissist’s impact. It’s about becoming so uninteresting that the narcissist loses interest in trying to provoke you.

Imagine a scenario where a narcissistic colleague attempts to engage you in a gossip-filled conversation. Instead of participating or even actively disengaging, offer neutral, non-committal responses like “Oh, really?” or “I hadn’t noticed.” Keep your tone flat, your facial expressions minimal, and your answers brief.

By not providing the reaction or drama the narcissist seeks, you effectively remove yourself from their toxic emotional playground. 

4) Be a reflective listener

“We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know..” 

This insight from renowned psychologist Carl Rogers underlines a crucial technique in dealing with narcissists: reflective listening. It’s a skill that, once mastered, can turn the tables in your favor. Reflective listening involves really listening to the speaker and then reflecting back what you’ve heard. 

For instance, if a narcissistic person boasts about their achievements, instead of trying to counter or deflate their claims, you could say, “It sounds like you’re really proud of what you’ve accomplished.”

This approach acknowledges their feelings without feeding into their ego or starting a confrontation. It also gives you time to think and respond strategically.

It’s a subtle art – the goal is to acknowledge with empathy but without necessarily agreeing. In doing so, you create a space for more balanced and less confrontational dialogue. This method has been my go-to in countless interactions during my career, proving effective in disarming the often-charged atmosphere created by narcissistic personalities.

5) Focus on facts, not opinions

In my early twenties, while working in finance, I had a colleague who was skilled at twisting narratives and turning opinions into seemingly irrefutable facts. He would challenge the strategies I presented, asserting his opinions with such confidence that they sounded like facts. 

This is a tactic often used by narcissists designed to assert dominance and sow doubt. But we can reduce its impact by focusing steadfastly on facts.

In response to my colleague’s behavior, I learned that sticking to verifiable information was the way forward. I would calmly counter with, “The data shows a different trend,” or “Let’s look at the numbers together.” 

Often, as was the case with this colleague, they won’t have facts on hand to back up their fiction. The facts probably don’t exist. So what happens then? Nine times out of ten, the narcissist will back down because they want to protect one of the things they value most: their reputation. They will backtrack and make excuses, but almost always, they will back down. 

Yes, this is getting toward confrontation, but sometimes it’s necessary, especially in group meetings. None of us want to be seen as a pushover or let our hard work be discredited. 

But be careful. This method requires preparation and an understanding of the details. It can backfire when you don’t know your stuff. 

6) Keep them in the dark with regard to your personal life

Okay, so this isn’t so much a ‘trick’. Rather, it’s more of a protective measure, but I’ve included it here because of how crucial it really is. I learned this the hard way. 

You may have noticed that narcissists are adept at using personal information to manipulate or unsettle, often in subtle ways that can catch us off guard. It’s, therefore, critical to be selective about what you share. I’ll leave what that is up to you, but make sure to be mindful. 

This approach helps to maintain a professional boundary, protecting your privacy and preventing any personal details from being exploited. With narcissists, divulging less about your personal life often means protecting more of your professional integrity.

7) Know when to walk away (and do so)

This is the last point but by no means the least important. In fact, it’s one of the most important.  

Throughout my experiences, I’ve learned that sometimes the best course of action with a narcissist is to simply walk away

Narcissists thrive on attention and reaction. When you recognize that an interaction is going nowhere or is only serving to fuel their ego, stepping back is a wise move.

This could mean physically removing yourself from a conversation, declining to participate in a heated debate, or, in some cases, reevaluating your involvement in a project or relationship.

For instance, if a meeting with a narcissistic individual becomes unproductive and antagonistic, a calmly delivered statement like, “I think we’re not making progress here, let’s revisit this later” can be an effective way to exit the situation. It’s about asserting your agency and choosing not to engage in dynamics that are detrimental to your well-being and goals.

Disengaging is not defeat; it’s a strategic decision that can spare you unnecessary stress and conflict. Often, it’s necessary to maintain your sanity in environments where narcissistic behavior is prevalent.

The bottom line

So there you have it, folks. 

There are many ways to deal with a narcissist. We have covered lots of them here at Hack Spirit, but these are the ones I have personally found most effective. 

They might just work for you, too. 

I hope this post has provided you with some value, or at the very least, that it was enjoyable to read. 

Until next time. 

Mal James

Originally from Ireland, Mal is a content writer, entrepreneur, and teacher with a passion for self-development, productivity, relationships, and business.

As an avid reader, Mal delves into a diverse range of genres, expanding his knowledge and honing his writing skills to empower readers to embark on their own transformative journeys.

In his downtime, Mal can be found on the golf course or exploring the beautiful landscapes and diverse culture of Vietnam, where he is now based.

The top 10 qualities to look for in a life partner, according to psychology

If you display these 7 behaviors, you’re an introvert with high-level social skills