Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 48;   November 29, 2023: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II

Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II


Having off-putting interactions is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are five behavioral patterns that relate to off-putting interactions and how abusers employ them to distract conversation participants from the matter at hand.
A man with a beard. Not exactly a friendly visage.

A man with a beard. Not exactly a friendly visage. Image by Christopher Luther on Unsplash.

The act of connecting with others, or as Satir would say, making contact [Satir 1976], is "kryptonite" for conversational narcissists. They avoid it, and when they can't avoid making contact, they act to limit its duration and effects. They do engage in interpersonal interaction, but they limit its intimacy by engaging in ways that most would experience as off-putting.

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 When someone enters our personal space,
especially unexpectedly, we might fold our
arms. This is a defensive and comforting
stance that is an example of an adaptor.
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 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.)

Five patterns of conversational narcissism that are associated with distracting other participants

Guided by the work of Vangelisti, et al., I've collected 17 different patterns abusers use and which are associated with impersonal relationships. [Vangelisti 1990] Although Vangelisti, et al., use the term impersonal relationships to refer to this theme, I prefer off-putting interactions. My preference arises from my desire that the term be applicable not only to interactions between people who do have a working relationship of some kind, but also to interactions between people who don't have much of a 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 a previous post I described six off-putting behaviors abusers use to create and maintain distance between themselves and other conversation participants. Those patterns relate to the way abusers respond to the contributions of other conversation participants. In this post I describe five more patterns. These patterns relate to how abusers' behavior distracts other participants from the matter at hand.

Exhibiting distracting adaptors
When we're feeling uncomfortable in a situation, we tend to try to restore a sense of comfort. Among the tactics we use are those called adaptors. [Ekman 1969] Adaptors are non-verbal. For example, when someone enters our personal space, especially unexpectedly, we might fold our arms. This is a defensive and comforting stance. It's an example of an alter-adaptor, sometimes called an other-adaptor. The three types of adaptors — self-adaptors, alter-adaptors, and object-adaptors — all involve some kind of touching. Respectively, they're responses to something about oneself, another person, or an object. Adaptors don't communicate any particular message, and they usually occur outside the awareness of the people exhibiting them.
Along with the fidgeting movements that we interpret as signs of nervousness, we tend to "read" an abuser's adaptors as indicators of anxiety in the abuser. Making such interpretations can make us uncomfortable — they're off-putting. So an abuser who feels nervous or who feels uncomfortable because the group's focus is on someone else might resort to using adaptors, which, in turn, makes other conversation participants feel uncomfortable. This dynamic pulls the entire conversation away from its objective, with everyone feeling uncomfortable, until the abuser finds comfort either by turning the focus onto themselves or a topic more preferred, or by some other method, or by exiting the conversation.
Displaying impatience with others
When someone other than the abuser has the talking stick, the abuser regards the situation as a problem to be solved, because the talking stick is essential for controlling the conversation. There is no time for patience or courtesy. Displaying impatience is one way to demand the talking stick. But the display serves another purpose less obvious. Displaying impatience deters other conversation participants from reaching for the talking stick, because they realize that being next to speak invites open conflict with the abuser.
Scanning beyond the conversation
In a room that contains multiple simultaneous conversations, scanning behavior involves assessing other conversations from afar, usually one-by-one. For the abuser, the assessment can determine which conversations might be most vulnerable to being repointed into some direction more to the abuser's liking. A reliable assessment might require that the abuser process both visual and auditory samples. The consequence of such scanning is a change in the abuser's affect. Abusers engaged in scanning seem to be obviously inattentive to the conversation they're attached to. Other participants in that conversation, recognizing that the abuser is searching for more interesting ground, often take offense.
Chasing squirrels
One definition of squirrelly is, "inclined to rush this way and that unpredictably," a sense that has been in use for many decades. [Harper 2023] A tactic abusers might deploy is to "go squirrely," or as some say, "chase squirrels." It involves interjecting an irrelevant comment at what seems to be a random time. "Look! A rainbow!" Or, as in the Disney/Pixar film, Up!, calling out "Squirrel!." The effect is striking. The conversation almost certainly retargets itself to whatever the abuser evoked. Some participants resent this tactic, but many just follow along. In any case, the abuser will have taken over the conversation.
Interacting with devices
One form of distraction unavailable until more recently than the work of Vangelisti, et al., is the personal electronic device — smartphones, computers, tablets, and their much earlier audio-only predecessors. Abusers dissatisfied with the present conversation can easily tune it out and engage with their devices. More significant, perhaps, is the message they communicate to other conversation participants by doing so. Engaging with a personal device has an effect like some combination of scanning beyond the conversation and displaying impatience with others. And if the abuser uses the device to communicate with other conversation participants, the effect is enhanced, because it establishes a second e-conversation that competes with the face-to-face conversation.

Last words

These posts have been assuming, implicitly, that the conversation in question is a face-to-face conversation. But all the tactics described have virtual analogs. We can explore the possibilities by positing a virtual conversation, and devising descriptions of virtual conversational narcissistic tactics.

In next week's post I'll examine six more patterns abusers use to distance themselves from other conversation participants. Those patterns relate to how abusers use cameras and how they ask questions to control the behavior of other conversation participants. First in this series   Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: III  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Satir 1976]
Virginia Satir. Making Contact. Milbrae, California: Celestial Arts, 1976. Order from Amazon.com. Back
[Vangelisti 1990]
Anita L. Vangelisti, Mark L. Knapp, and John A. Daly. "Conversational narcissism." Communications Monographs 57:4 (1990), pp. 251-274. Available here. Retrieved 16 September 2023. Back
[Ekman 1969]
Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen. "The repertoire of nonverbal behavior: Categories, origins, usage, and coding," semiotica 1.1 (1969), pp. 49-98. Available here. Retrieved 10 November 2023. Back
[Harper 2023]
Douglas Harper. The Online Etymology Dictionary/Available here. Retrieved 11 November 2023. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

Elephants fightingHow to Waste Time in Meetings
Nearly everyone hates meetings. The main complaint: they're mostly a waste of time. The main cause: us. Here's a field manual for people who want to waste even more time.
Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: III
When we need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, we risk giving offense. Still, there are times when interrupting is in everyone's best interest. Here are some more techniques for interrupting in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process.
A dog playing catch with a discPlaying at Work
Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean.
The mural on the wall of the Cambridge firehouseThe Major Annoyance of Mini-Digressions
Digressions are expensive. They limit progress in meetings. They're most noticeable when they deflect the entire meeting from its stated purpose. There is another kind of digression that's less noticeable, more common, and just as costly.
The results of a crash testRed Team Reviews of Uphill Briefings
In preparing for uphill briefings, briefers can benefit from preliminary reviews. When we review the briefing early in development, the briefing team can address vulnerabilities and exploit opportunities. A Red Team review is one style of preliminary review.

See also Effective Meetings and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.