How To Deal When The Person You’re Talking To Has an Annoying Case of ‘Conversational Narcissism’

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There are few things more annoying at a party than someone who just dominates conversations. They talk about themselves constantly. If the discussion switches to someone else, they switch it back. They don’t ask other people any questions or seem to care. They're prone to “one-up” others. If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably run head-first into what’s known as “conversational narcissism.”

“A conversational narcissist has an excessive focus on the self and will continually turn a discussion towards themselves so that they can aggrandize themselves or their opinions,” says Brian Tierney, PhD, a neuroscience professor and private practice psychotherapist who’s known as The Somatic Doctor.

Experts In This Article

The “narcissist” part may make you think of narcissism personality disorder (NPD), which is a mental health diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But remember, NPD is different from having narcissistic tendencies—personality traits that skew toward being self-centered and insecure—which is what we’re talking about here. Conversational narcissism is on the narcissism spectrum. Therefore, Dr. Tierney says, it’s not a diagnosable mental health disorder, but rather a pattern of behavior.

"The speaker tends to dominate the conversation, often ignoring social cues that the listener might be disinterested or attempting to contribute." —Brian Tierney, PhD

“It seems more like a behavior or a trait as opposed to a syndrome in and of itself,” agrees Ben Bernstein, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the acting director of the Argent Assessment Program at Silver Hill Hospital. He notes sociologist Charles Derber coined the term in 1979 in his book The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life

Conversational narcissism and NPD have other key differences, too. For one, people with NPD must meet five of nine criteria listed in the DSM to be diagnosed, and a conversational narcissist doesn’t meet one core criterion. “They fall in the egotistic region of Millon’s spectrum [the spectrum of traits used to understand narcissism], but do not exhibit the pervasive grandiosity that someone with NPD does,” Dr. Tierney explains.

What are examples of conversational narcissism?

Simply put, a conversational narcissist tends to be self-focused when talking to others. “Conversational narcissists talk about themselves a lot,” Dr. Tierney says. “If they enter therapy, entire sessions can go by without the therapist contributing much to the discussion.”

Conversational narcissism can show up in many ways. Some signs someone is a conversational narcissist include:

  • Losing interest when you’re sharing
  • Feeling compelled to redirect the flow of conversation towards themselves
  • Regularly offering unsolicited advice
  • Sharing endless diatribes about their life
  • Rarely asking the listener any questions or having genuine curiosity
  • Not taking time to create genuine connections
  • The listener feels numb and bored
  • Constantly interrupting others
  • Trying to “one-up” other people often
  • Breaking someone’s boundaries during a conversation, like asking intrusive questions
  • Having difficulty understanding other people’s perspectives

“The conversational narcissist will have this type of behavior in multiple types of settings, including the workplace [and] with family and friends,” adds Kate Danley, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks in Tampa who specializes in relationships, self-esteem, and stress. (Yep, that includes a narcissistic parent!)

While this kind of behavior may seem obvious to you, it probably won’t seem obvious to them. “Remember that these individuals do not think that anything is wrong with their behaviors or their thought processes,” Danley continues. “If they do come to my practice, it is because they are having relationship issues or they potentially are being court-ordered to do some type of family therapy with their children.”

What is narcissistic monologuing?

“Narcissistic monologuing is when a conversational narcissist will ask a person an open-ended question to engage you in a conversation, and then will continue on a sort of rant about themselves,” Danley says.

Like other narcissistic behaviors, this monologuing is driven by a desire to have all the attention. “In narcissistic monologuing, the speaker tends to dominate the conversation, often ignoring social cues that the listener might be disinterested or attempting to contribute,” Dr. Tierney adds.

You can identify narcissistic monologuing by assessing how you feel on the receiving end. “When I am talking with someone and the other person continues to talk without wondering how I experience them, I feel disconnected from them and become numb, as if I don’t have any feelings,” Dr. Bernstein says.

Why does someone become a conversational narcissist?

Generally, Danley believes conversational narcissism stems from needing attention to boost their ego—although there’s not one path to a person becoming one. It could be rooted in anxiety and not knowing what to talk about, having a specific agenda, or something else entirely.

As with many ways of being, childhood experiences can be a contributing factor. If children don’t get their needs met at key developmental stages, “then a child may become what I call a ‘faster’ or ‘feaster,’” he says. “Conversational narcissists are ‘feasters.’”

For example, if a child only gets love and attention when they're sick or talking about their pain, Dr. Tierney says, they may later become a vulnerable narcissist or victim narcissist, or at least play that role. (Side note: Nine types of narcissists exist!) So as an adult, they might constantly talk about their aches and pains in order to continue to get that attention.

Conversation narcissism can also be an unconscious way of preventing intimacy, according to Dr. Bernstein. The person might have been hurt in the past and is using this as a way to feel safe and have control over where the conversation goes.

“They fear a mutual relationship where they might truly know and be truly known by the other person,” Dr. Bernstein says. “Perhaps in their earlier life, they were in very toxic, even abusive relationships with people who should have been trustworthy.” Having some compassion and understanding for these folks can be noble. A bad experience doesn’t excuse a behavior but can explain it.

Dr. Tierney points out that trying to get a need met, or wanting attention or praise, isn’t inherently a bad thing, either. In fact, having a little “main character energy” is usually innocuous.

How does conversational narcissism affect a relationship?

Conversational narcissism can breed codependent relationships, Dr. Tierney says.

“Feasters and fasters regularly pair up in relationships,” Dr. Tierney says. “The secret of this painful game is that the feaster is dependent on the faster for adoration, and the faster is dependent on the feaster to hold a function of confidence and worthiness for them.”

While this sounds like a symbiotic relationship, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy, beneficial, or going to last in reality. “Ultimately, these relationships tend to implode, either when the narcissistic partner looks for a different audience or when the other partner decides they want real intimacy,” Dr. Bernstein says.

Danley adds other negative consequences, like how the person speaking to the conversational narcissist may not feel heard or good enough. She notes that those kinds of feelings may extend to the person’s social interactions and other relationships, too.

“It can also be embarrassing in social situations if they dominate the conversations with everyone you are talking to,” she says. “Others may not want to be around you and your partner. This could start to feel isolating.”

How to respond to a conversational narcissist

Redirect the conversation

In this case, it’s okay to turn the discussion back to yourself! For example, if they're going on and on about their weekend, Danley encourages saying something like, “Wow you had a busy one; here’s what I was up to.”

Be explicit and direct

This can come in handy if your redirects aren’t working (aka the other person keeps turning it back to themselves).

“If I'm feeling bold, I might say, “Can I get a word in at some point in this conversation?’” Dr. Bernstein says. “At worst, they will be shocked and end the conversation—not a bad outcome, in a sense. At best, they will laugh, we will recognize together that the conversation has been one-sided, and our relationship will bloom.”

Implement the ‘grey rock method’

In many cases, a narcissist wants some sort of reaction out of you, or at least your rapt attention. By not giving them that, they’ll likely lose interest and move on to someone else.

This is essentially the “grey rock method,” or not engaging and instead being unresponsive to the other person (like a rock). It can be especially helpful in cases of narcissistic abuse.

Plan ahead

Only have a few minutes to talk? Or don’t have the energy to listen to them drone on and on? Danley suggests letting the person know ahead of time that you only have a few free minutes to chat.

Set boundaries

While this one can be difficult, it’s so important, especially when the person is being condescending. “Let them know that you will be happy to keep talking if they keep it respectful,” Danley says. “And if they are unable to, end the conversation.”

Know when it’s time to leave

If positive change isn’t happening, don’t blame yourself, feel like the onus is on you, or put more into the relationship than you have the space for. You are allowed to step away. That doesn’t make you a “bad” person. “Sometimes the effort is just not worth it,” Dr. Tierney says, “and it is best to just leave the conversation as soon as possible.”

Regardless of the situation, remember to practice self-care. Lean on loved ones you can trust, try to get enough sleep, engage in hobbies that make you feel good, that kind of thing. Dealing with a conversational narcissist can be exhausting and difficult, in which you may feel powerless. What you do have control over, though, is how you treat yourself.

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