How to Spot and Respond to Conversational Narcissists: A Guide from a Harvard-Trained Behavioral Scientist

Signs of a Conversational Narcissist and How to Respond

Have you ever talked to someone who, every time you shared something, would twist the interaction around to make it all about them?

You may have encountered a “conversational narcissist.”

The term, coined by sociologist Charles Derber, describes a person who often dominates the conversation, with little regard for the viewpoints of others.

Hogging a conversation could reflect inflated self-esteem or even deep-rooted insecurities, and it can be draining to be on the other end.

As a Harvard-trained behavioral scientist, here’s exactly how I spot — and respond to — a conversational narcissist:

1. They don’t ask you questions.

You ask someone a question and they happily dive into a monologue about all that’s happening in their life. When they’re finished, rather than reciprocating, they move on to a new topic.

How to respond: Gently steer the conversation back to a more balanced dialogue. Use a technique called “conversational threading” to pick up on keywords or topics that they mentioned and incorporate them into your response.

For example, “That sounds like an action-packed weekend. Mine was similar…” This creates a natural segue for you to re-enter the conversation.

2. They’re oblivious to their excessive chattiness.

You’re talking to someone who is so passionate about what they’re speaking about that they seldom pause to gauge your reactions. You end up feeling like a convenient audience member for their latest monologue.

How to respond: Use tactful lines like, “I have a few thoughts on that, too,” or, “I’d love to share some of my own experiences.” This is an assertive but polite way to steer the conversation towards a more mutual exchange.

If that doesn’t work, prepare an exit strategy. It could be a pre-scheduled phone call or a meeting you need to get to that conveniently cuts the conversation short.

3. They always bring it back to their own interests.

The moment the conversation veers away from them, they find a way to redirect it. You share your excitement about an upcoming holiday to Spain, for example, but without fail, they bring up the trip they took to Italy three years ago.

How to respond: You could use the “I need advice” technique, which involves asking a direct question and prompts the other person to stay on topic.

For example, “It sounds like you had a great time in Italy. Do you have any travel tips for me to keep in mind as I prepare for Spain?”

Or, use the “acknowledge and segue” approach: “That sounds great! What I was trying to share about my own situation is…”

4. They constantly talk down to you.

A friend or colleague uses patronizing or condescending language — it may be unintentional, but sometimes that can be hard to gauge — and it feels like they want you to see that they are the most knowledgeable person in a room.

How to respond: Set clear boundaries and resist the urge to respond defensively. You could say, “I’m happy to continue this conversation as long as we keep it respectful.”

If you’re in a group setting, you could facilitate someone else to enter the conversation with something like, “Jess has experience in this area, too, right? What are your thoughts on it?”

5. They repeatedly one-up you.

Whenever you share an accomplishment, they counter with their own bigger and better win. You might share, “I finally got that promotion I’ve been working so hard for!” And they reply, “When I got promoted, it came with a corner office and a company car.”

How to respond: Confronting every instance of one-upmanship can be exhausting. But calling a narcissist out is often the most effective approach.

You could say, “I’ve noticed that whenever we talk our conversations turn into competitions. I’d really like it if we could share without trying to surpass one another.”

Remember, you’re never obligated to continue with a conversation that feels unfulfilling.

Shadé Zahrai is an award-winning behavioral strategist and Harvard-trained leadership coach. Recognized as one of the Top 50 Most Impactful People of LinkedIn, she runs Influenceo Global Inc., a leadership development and research firm that works with Fortune 500s across the globe including McDonald’s, Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble & JP Morgan. Follow her on LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.

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