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.
As noted in earlier posts, 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 impersonal relationships.
A bit of terminology
Following the pattern of previous posts in this series, I begin with some introductory information, repeated here for convenience. If you recall those earlier posts well enough, you can skip this next bit.
In the first 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's narcissistic, not the person exhibiting the behavior (though some who exhibit the behavior are narcissists).
In these posts, I describe someone as "having the talking stick" if they are the person whom the conversation participants acknowledge as the current speaker. (The term speaker won't do, because someone else might be speaking too.)
Six patterns of conversational narcissism that are associated with impersonal relationships
The term off-putting interactions refers to the kinds of interactions abusers use to create obstacles for other conversation participants as they try to connect with the abuser in the context of the conversation. Sometimes the obstacle is an indirect result of the abuser's behavior; sometimes it's the actual goal. But the effect is the same. The behavior is off-putting.
Guided When abusers no longer see any point in
exerting the effort required to remain
connected to the conversation, glazing
over can be the result of "powering down"by the work of Vangelisti, et al., I've collected 17 different patterns abusers use and which are associated with the theme of impersonal relationships. [Vangelisti 1990] Although they use the term impersonal relationships to refer to this theme, I prefer off-putting interactions. My preference arises from my desire for a term that includes interactions between people who don't have much of a personal relationship beyond the incident at hand. This might occur, for example, in the (relatively common) case of a cross-functional team or task force comprised of people who work together only rarely. Another example: making a case to a governance panel for a waiver of policy.
In this post I describe six patterns abusers use to create and maintain distance between themselves and other conversation participants. These first six patterns all relate to the abuser's failure to honor what might be called the responsiveness contract. The responsiveness contract is a (usually) unspoken and unwritten agreement among the conversation participants. It governs the form, content, and timing of the participants' responses to each other's contributions. Abusers have a variety of techniques for violating this contract, described below.
- Glazing over when others speak
- Abusers have little interest in others' contributions, except perhaps as vehicles for steering the conversation in abusers' favored directions. Once it becomes clear that a particular contribution is unlikely to serve the abuser's purpose, the abuser might glaze over. When abusers no longer see any point in exerting the effort required to remain connected to the conversation, glazing over is the result of "powering down." In extreme cases, glazing over occurs before the other participant's contribution is clear — the fact that someone other than the abuser is speaking is trigger enough.
- Not really listening to others
- Abusers do listen to others' contributions, but they don't listen for meaning, as other do. Instead, they listen for opportunity. They seek opportunities to use others' contributions to satisfy their preconceived agenda. They want to determine how or how easily they can use anyone else's contribution to steer the conversation in the direction they prefer. As a result, the abuser doesn't actually grasp the meaning of the contribution. To others the abuser seems not to be really listening.
- Responding tersely
- The abuser's response to another's contribution might seem curt, abrupt, or disrespectful. That it might be. But one other possibility is the abuser's desire not to reveal how little of the other's contribution they actually understood. The abuser seeks not to understand others' contributions, but to exploit them, and for that reason, the abuser's grasp of the meaning of others' contributions tends to be limited. Terseness provides cover for this limited understanding of what others have said.
- Responding after delay
- In some situations, the abuser is expected to respond to the contribution of another. Examples include being asked a direct question, or being expected to respond to a comment about one of the abuser's comments. Occasionally, a long pause occurs before the abuser begins speaking. Other participants might be mystified by the pause, especially if the abuser has contributed energetically up to this point. This can happen if the abuser has powered down, having concluded that the conversation has entered a domain that doesn't serve the abuser's purpose, or if the abuser has hit on another course to reach the objective, or another more attractive objective. Delayed responses can also occur as the abuser replays in their head the last minute or so of whatever anyone has said.
- Responding inappropriately
- When a response is called for, but the abuser wants the conversation to move in a different direction, the abuser might respond in a way that seems inappropriate for the context. This can happen when the abuser tries to respond but hasn't really grasped the meaning of the latest comments.
- An inappropriate response can also occur when the abuser decides to respond, but chooses to use the response to re-orient the conversation toward a more preferred objective. What might seem to be an inappropriate response given the context is in fact appropriate relative to the abuser's new objective.
- Not responding
- Sometimes an abuser declines to respond when expected to respond. Reasons vary. The abuser might be distracted, unaware that a response is expected. Or the abuser might be intentionally plopping the other participant's contribution. Or the abuser might be one who is confident that the participants will wait politely for the abuser's response while the clock ticks. There are many possibilities.
In next week's post I'll examine five more patterns abusers use to distance themselves from other conversation participants. The patterns of next week's post relate to how abusers employ their demeanor to distract other conversation participants. 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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