Monday, June 7, 2010

Communicating with Narcissistic People: Avoid Direct Conflict!

As noted in previous posts, communicating with people who have traits of narcissism (those who suffer from certain personality disorders and often people in patriarchy) proves to be a difficult task. Narcissists feel very threatened whenever criticized in any way, and they have difficulties understanding how other people feel. Communicating with a narcissist can feel like a futile task, and they can be quite demeaning and angry in a conflict because they feel so threatened and fearful inside. And they go to great lengths to obscure and conceal these feelings from themselves and others.

In addition to the major considerations of the childlike nature of narcissism and the helpfulness of a strong internal locus of control, those who wish to effectively communicate with a narcissist must realize that direct confrontation rarely ever works! Confrontation triggers a survival response in the narcissist, and their anger will rapidly escalate. Potentially stressful topics must be approached indirectly.

Twenty years ago, I read in a Minerth Meier book that confronting an emotionally sensitive person who operates out of denial is much like dealing with a snake. In the book, the author asked why people rarely see snakes and promptly explained that snakes will hurry to slither out of the way as a means of survival. They hide and avoid all conflict. When they are cornered and have no means of escape, a snake will take a defensive posture and will defend themselves aggressively. They are definitely not assertive creatures.

I also had a professor who kept snakes, and he explained to me that they are very intelligent. They never go anywhere unless they have a plan of escape. They also do not make direct eye contact with one another, and looking at a snake from a head-on approach will provoke very defensive behavior. Snakes only make direct eye contact with prey, right as they get ready to strike and feed. They only like direct eye contact when they are in complete control and dominant.

This is a good analogy to keep in mind regarding the approach that should be taken with a narcissist. Another good analogy is that of a cornered, wounded wild animal. They are very hurt and frightened, and they do not trust human beings, even when we intend to help them. The do not understand anything except their consuming experience of fear, pain, and escape. Narcissists behave the way that they do in open and direct conflict for these same reasons. They strike when they get cornered and they bite when they feel terrified.

Focus on the Family offers a downloadable profile (LINK HERE) which discusses aspects of narcissism, giving helpful ideas about how to deal with someone with narcissism and how to discourage the trait in children. (Note: The statistics included in the article are quite dated, and they do not reflect newer research currently available.) The profile refers to Townsend and Cloud’s ideas about boundaries, the limits that you set for what you are willing to do in a relationship and what you will allow others to do for you. Stating boundaries as our desires for what we would like to see in a relationship set the standard for others, and we must defend those boundaries by following through with consequences when someone crosses our boundaries. (An undefended boundary is just a nice idea and is really no boundary at all.) Boundaries flow from a strong and internal locus of control, also something that the FOTF article discusses. It also notes that an indirect approach is essential for effective communication with a narcissist.

Randi Kreger, an author who specializes in Borderline Personality Disorder, recently wrote about narcissism on her blog. She recently featured author Bill Eddy’s writings on narcissism there, noting a section from his book on dealing with difficult people. Eddy also has a book about how to best go about divorcing a narcissist. In his book, “It's All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything,” he offers these and other helpful hints (which are reviewed in greater depth in the original post):
  • Find their strengths and regularly compliment them.
  • Prepare to set limits.
  • Resist the urge to “put them down.”
  • Don’t withhold your empathy, attention, and respect.
  • Keep a comfortable distance.
  • Don’t feel like you have to listen too long.
  • Use indirect reasons for changing behavior.
  • Explain the possible negative consequences of certain behavior.

Read the entire post HERE, and visit an entire blog dedicated to The Narcissism Epidemic for even more information on this subject of narcissism and NPD.

If you struggle to communicate effectively with the narcissist in your life, I hope that you will explore all of these resources more fully, finding new strategies so that you can build new bridges of trust with them.