You know those people who always seem to talk about themselves and never let other people speak in conversation? There’s actually a word for that: a conversational narcissist.
To better understand this type of narcissism and how to know if you’re talking to one, mbg spoke with psychologists and clinical therapists. Here’s what they have to say about conversational narcissism.
What is a conversational narcissist?
A conversational narcissist is someone who constantly turns the conversation toward themselves and steps away when the conversation is no longer about them. They are generally uninterested in what other people have to say. In an mbg podcast episode, author and journalist Celeste Headlee describes it as “hogging the ball” in a conversation.
Remember, it’s possible—and actually much more common—to have traits of narcissism without actually being a narcissist. This is typically the case with conversational narcissism. “Conversational narcissists don’t necessarily meet the criteria for a formal diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD),” Wendy Behary, LCSW, tells mbg. “They’re usually somewhere on the spectrum, though.”
Those who aren’t clinically diagnosed narcissists are generally just agenda-driven, says licensed psychologist Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D. In a fast-paced world, they’re eager to get their point across quickly without making true connections.
“Some conversational narcissists may actually be very anxious,” Durvasula says, “so they bind their anxiety by talking about what is familiar to them—which may be themselves.”
Signs of conversational narcissism:
The conversation is one-sided.
Conversational narcissists can’t move away from their own agenda long enough to engage someone else in conversation, Behary says. “It’s never really interpersonal or interactive. It becomes more of a soliloquy or a monologue.”
They interrupt a lot.
Conversational narcissists will jump into the conversation while someone is midsentence, Behary says. “At first listen, it can sound like they’re being helpful or sharing a resource, but it quickly becomes clear that this conversation is no longer about you—it’s about them,” she says.
They don’t stop talking.
Since narcissists are constantly seeking approval and favor from their audience, Behary says their constant talking will sound more like a lecture than a conversation. “There’s so much showing off and wanting to appear to be very smart, special, knowledgeable, and intuitive,” she explains.
This is different from a chatty and extroverted person, who would likely be aware of, and even acknowledge, that they’re talking a lot, “whereas conversational narcissists are not even aware that they’ve hijacked the conversation and made it all about them,” Behary says.
They are not engaged with other people.
Unless the conversational narcissist is talking, or someone else is talking about them, they are not interested. According to Durvasula, they will appear visibly uncomfortable, bored, contemptuous, or distracted when other people are talking.
How to respond to a conversational narcissist.
If someone catches themselves talking to a conversational narcissist, these are a couple of different ways they could respond:
“When you know someone has this trait, set limits to your exposure to them,” Behary suggests. Trying to have meaningful interactions with someone who’s conversationally narcissistic can be lonely, she says.
If you do choose to engage in conversation with them, know what you’re getting into, Durvasula adds, and make sure to also cultivate more two-sided relationships.
Respond with empathic confrontation.
Those who are courageous enough can try what Behary calls empathic confrontation. For example, “I appreciate that you can understand what I’m going through, but I’m feeling the need to share a little more to get it out of my system.” Then she recommends instructing them to listen. “A real narcissist would be completely offended by that comment,” she says, but those with more mild narcissism may respond well in the moment.
Don’t take it personally.
Whether responding with distance or with confrontation, Durvasula says not to take the experience personally. “You won’t be the one to change them,” she says. “People with this pattern tend to not be particularly insightful.” Pointing it out to them may make them defensive, and they won’t always change their pattern.
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