You might be a conversational narcissist and not even know it.
The term “conversational narcissist” comes from sociologist Charles Derber’s 1979 book The Pursuit of Attention. In his book, Derber shared the results of a study done on face-to-face interactions. He observed over 1500 conversations and recorded how people interacted.
His conclusion: Most people – despite their good intentions and typically without being aware of it – struggled with what he called “conversational narcissism”. That is, they repeatedly attempted to steer conversations towards themselves.
Despite how common it is, conversational narcissism will hinder your ability to build relationships, gain knowledge, offer support, pick up on subtle messages, and make a good impression.
Once you become aware of it, you’ll begin to notice when you do it, and that’s the first step to changing it. Read on to discover why conversational narcissism is so common and how to avoid it for better conversations and better relationships.
Why is Conversational Narcissism So Common?
Steering a conversation towards yourself happens for three reasons:
- You are comfortable talking about yourself and your own experiences.
- Relating another person’s experience to your own is perceived as a way to connect, understand, and relate to them.
- You are using the conversation to gratify your own needs.
Here’s an example:
You: Hi Jim. How are you?
Jim: I’m good. Starting a new job next week.
You: Congrats! Where are you working?
Jim: Amazon. I’m really excited but also a little nervous.
You: Yeah, I know what you mean. I remember when I started my last job. I was really nervous about meeting my boss. She’s well-known in my industry for being really tough to work for, but she’s really fair. It took me some time to warm up but once I got used to her style, it was great. I’m sure you’ll be fine just give yourself a few weeks to get used to it.
In the example, you might think you’re relating to Jim’s story, but you’re really missing an opportunity to find out more and give Jim’s confession about being nervous the attention it warrants.
This is likely for one of the three reasons above. It’s easy to steer the conversation towards yourself without even thinking about it, and it’s so common, the other person might not even notice. However, when you don’t do it, you’re opening the door for a better conversation and better relationship.
How Can You Have Better Conversations?
- Converse, Don’t Compete. A good conversation requires cooperation from the parties involved. It should be about seeking to learn from and understand each other. Unfortunately, as Gerber pointed out, people often use conversations as an opportunity to get attention. They’re competing with others, rather than conversing with them.
- Stop Thinking About What You’re Going to Say Next. It’s easy to start thinking about what you want to say next before the other person is done talking. When you do this, it’s impossible to actively listen to them. If you’re on a phone or video call, write down a quick note and turn your attention back to the speaker, so you can continue to listen. You don’t have the luxury of jotting notes during an in-person conversation, so try not to think of how you want to respond at all until the end. What you wanted to say before they were done speaking may not be as relevant or important at the end if you listen the whole time.
- Don’t Give Advice Unless You’re Asked. As advice columnist Amy Dickinson said, “Unsolicited advice is always self serving.” Professor of Psychology and Marketing Dr. Art Markman conducted 4 separate studies and summarized his findings in Psychology Today: people give advice because it gives them a sense of power. When you give unsolicited advice, you’re not really listening to the other person, and you’re sending them a message that they can’t figure it out on their own. Unless they specifically ask for it, people don’t want your advice, they want you to listen.
- Ask Supportive Questions. Shift your brain from thinking, “how does this story relate to me” to “I’d like to know more about this.” Instead of thinking of ways to compare, relate or give advice, think about how you can learn more. Passive conversational narcissism occurs when someone repeatedly withholds support responses – verbal and nonverbal confirmation they’re listening – or doesn’t ask follow-up questions. Instead of injecting and steering the conversation, they are trying to more passively shut down the person talking so the conversation returns to them.
- Wait for Them to Ask You Questions Before You Talk About Yourself. Assume if the other parties aren’t asking you questions, they don’t want to know about you. Take the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about them or the topic. However, if the conversation remains one-sided, it’s likely you’re conversing with conversational narcissists. If that’s the case, feel free to exit the conversation whenever you get bored without the least bit of guilt.
Conversational narcissism occurs often, and we’re likely all guilty of doing it from time to time. Being aware of it allows you to recognize it in yourself and others and change course if the conversation is heading that way. Knowing how to engage others in cooperative conversations will enable you to build better relationships with more people. While you might give up some power and attention, you’ll gain so much more.