This exploration of conversational narcissism began with "Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I," Point Lookout for October 4, 2023, with some definitions and examples. Briefly, conversational narcissism is the set of behaviors a conversation participant uses to direct the focus of a conversation from the topic at hand onto that participant or along directions favored by that participant. Conversational narcissism is a threat to organizational wellbeing because it distorts the outcomes of discussions — biasing them in ways preferred by individuals whose personal agendas might not align with organizational interests.
The methods used can be categorized as emphasizing some combination of self-importance, exploitation of others, exhibitionism, and impersonal relationships. This post continues an exploration of the narcissistic behaviors that are most closely associated with exploiting other participants in the conversation.
A bit of terminology
In that When abusers use "I" statements that
ought properly to be "We" statements,
they seem to the uninitiated to be
leaders or experts when they are notfirst post of this series I introduced the term abuser as a shorthand for narcissistic conversation participant, because the term narcissist won't do — not all abusers are narcissists. In general, it's the behavior that is narcissistic, not the person exhibiting the behavior (though some who exhibit the behavior are narcissists).
In what follows, as in the previous posts in this series, I describe someone as "having the talking stick" if he or she is the person whom the conversation participants acknowledge as the current speaker. (The term speaker won't do, because someone else might be speaking too.)
Guided by the work of Vangelisti, et al., I've collected ten different patterns abusers use and which are associated with exploiting other conversation participants. [Vangelisti 1990] I described four patterns last time.
Seven more patterns of conversational narcissism that are associated with exploitation of others
In this post I describe six more patterns abusers use to exploit the other conversation participants. They include contributing aggressively, interrupting, overtalking, talking rapidly, talking continuously, acting as emcee, and using iceberg statements.
- Contributing aggressively
- When speaking, abusers can employ extended direct eye contact (glaring) to assert dominance over other conversation participants. [Toscano 2018] This behavior can be especially useful to the abuser who regards a particular participant as likely to seize the talking stick or to redirect the conversation.
- In face-to-face conversations, glaring at one participant while speaking can be a tool of intimidation. In video conferencing, the analogous tactic is looking into the camera and either prefacing a contribution with one participant's name, or naming that participant repeatedly during the contribution, or both.
- Wiemann and Knapp define an interruption as an "…attempt to assume the speaking role before it has been relinquished by the current speaker." [Wiemann 2017] Interrupting is a technique that accomplishes several possible goals of abusers. After acquiring the talking stick, they can filibuster, which helps them consume time, or they can engage in narcissistic questioning, or any number of other maneuvers. But the interruption itself is exploitative, in that it is a statement that the person interrupted is of lesser value than the abuser.
- An advanced form of interrupting is interrupting with deniability. To interrupt deniably, the abuser makes a contribution while another participant has merely paused for breath or punctuation. The abuser then presses on, even after the interrupted participant tries to resume after pausing. The interruption is deniable because it appears superficially to be an honest mistake — most participants and witnesses assume that the abuser simply failed to notice that he or she interrupted someone.
- Overtalking is the tactic of intentionally beginning to speak, or continuing to speak, to prevent others from speaking or to make them stop if they're already speaking. [Brenner 2013.2] Overtalking also happens when the target of an interruption decides to keep speaking. The interrupter then makes the same choice. Overtalking is another method of dismissing the target's speech as worthless.
- Overtalking is equivalent to prefacing a contribution with, "Whatever you're saying is of less value than what I have to say." Many experience overtalking as abuse or bullying.
- Abusers find this tactic extraordinarily useful not only for dominating conversations, but also for guiding conversations they don't yet utterly dominate.
- Talking rapidly
- Involuntary rapid speech is associated with various mental disorders. Talking rapidly, voluntarily, is something else again. It's a tactic abusers employ to create difficulty for auditors in two ways. First, talking rapidly tightens the abuser's hold on the talking stick by creating difficulty for other participants to begin speaking without interrupting the abuser. Second, a high tempo makes grasping the abuser's meaning more difficult, especially if the auditors are less than conversant in the topic. If the topic is arcane or specialized, or if it involves complex arguments, talking rapidly can compel auditors to ask for clarification or elaboration. It's exploitative because it compels auditors to admit that they aren't following. It's another tool of humiliation.
- Escalating volume is an option abusers can use to enhance the effect of talking rapidly. It's equivalent to verbal violence. By escalating voice volume when overtalking or talking rapidly, the abuser intends to prevent the target from speaking or even thinking.
- Talking continuously
- When speaking, many non-abusers pause for breath, or for the conversational equivalent of punctuation, such as commas, periods, or em dashes. To talk continuously, the abuser must master the art of avoiding these pauses and breaks, because they normally serve as cues to others to reach for the talking stick. Instead, abusers pause in mid-thought, which confounds those waiting to speak. Example: "I've never found the M1 highway to <pause> be busy at that hour."
- Acting as emcee
- Some abusers adopt the role of emcee, offering the talking stick to another participant (or a series of other participants). Example: "Mark, tell us about your trip to D.C." This behavior might be appropriate, even welcome, in some situations, and when executed with grace and generosity. One such situation is hosting a dinner party in which many of the guests aren't well known to each other.
- But in an ironic twist, in other circumstances this same behavior can be exploitative. Abusers sometimes recognize in a moment of clarity that they have been abusing the conversation and its participants. One option would be to begin supporting the conversation and its participants in whichever direction they choose. But often the abuser chooses to direct the attention of the participants to one of their number, as an emcee. Their calculation seems to be that directing the group's attention to someone other than themselves serves to acquit the abuser of the charge of abuse. The stratagem fails, because the abuser is now the emcee, which is a form of indirectly directing.
- Using iceberg statements
- The iceberg is a widely used metaphor for systems that have the property that only a small part of the whole is evident. In the self-help community, an "iceberg statement" is one that indicates that the speaker has a story to tell more significant than the statement itself. By listening for iceberg statements, so the theory goes, the auditor can be more adept at building relationships. [Yee 2013].
- Abusers can work this angle in reverse to exploit auditors. By devising iceberg statements, abusers can induce auditors to ask the questions that the abusers can use to steer or dominate the conversation. From the abuser's perspective, the techniques encouraged by the self-help community are free assistance.
When a skilled abuser deftly exploits other conversation participants, some (or all) of those participants might be unaware of what has occurred. The abuser is satisfied, and the other participants are unaware that they have served the abuser's purpose. But abusers must take care. Some who do recognize the pattern choose not to challenge their abusers. They might have answered in the negative two questions: First, "Is confrontation worth the effort and risk?" And second, "Is the likelihood of a mutually beneficial outcome to the confrontation great enough?" First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 6: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: III
- Having off-putting interactions is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are seven behavioral patterns that relate to off-putting interactions and how abusers use them to control conversations. Available here and by RSS on December 6.
- And on December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways requires, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
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