Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 49;   December 6, 2023: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: III

Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: III


Having off-putting interactions is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are six behavioral patterns that relate to off-putting interactions and how abusers use them to control conversations.
What a videoconference looks like when all participants have their cameras off

What a videoconference looks like when all participants have their cameras off. The possibility of human interaction is severely restricted.

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 of conversational narcissism 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 the conversation participants acknowledge them 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

Guided Conversational narcissism threatens organizational
wellbeing because it biases conversations in
ways preferred by individuals, and which might
not align with organizational interests
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 they use the term impersonal relationships to refer to this theme, I prefer off-putting interactions. My preference arises from my desire that the term cover 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 the previous post I described five patterns abusers employ to create distractions that insert distance between themselves and other participants. In this post I examine — briefly — the use of cameras in videoconferences, and then explore how abusers handle and use questions.

Camera off in videoconferences
Videoconferencing is increasingly common these days, even for teams whose members are all or almost all co-located. Partly driven by work-from-home, and partly by chaotic travel schedules, videoconferencing is the way of things now. In the context of conversational narcissism, videoconferencing compels us to address the question of camera usage. Shall we require cameras to be enabled? Shall we require live, full-motion views of every meeting participant? (Aside: These last two sentences are examples of rhetorical questions. See below.)
Abusers recognize the power of turning off their cameras. Out of sight of the participants, abusers are free to engage in text messaging conversations with anyone, including other participants. And "camera-off" communicates a message of, "I'm too important for the drivel of this conversation. I'll attend this meeting live if it turns to topics that matter." When abusers want to, they can activate their cameras and join the meeting. And when they do that, other participants take notice and await the abuser's next pronouncement.
Nevertheless, adopting a cameras-on policy carries risks. Unless you're prepared to enforce the policy, abusers who defy the policy will be able to create with their defiance even more distance between themselves and other participants.
Using questions as tools of detachment
We generally regard questions as honest requests for insight or information. Most questions actually are tools of enlightenment. For abusers, though, questions serve another purpose. They separate abusers from everyone else. Separation is accomplished in a variety of ways, but let me describe just one.
Suppose the conversation is about to enter the domain of another participant — someone whom the abuser regards as a competitor for attention. A well-timed question about a different, unrelated topic can prevent the conversation from entering the competitor's domain. And if the topic of the question is in the abuser's "wheelhouse," the question serves to bring the conversation into territory where the abuser is dominant.
Asking themselves questions aloud and answering them
This figure of speech is an old one. It has a Greek name: hypophora. Perhaps an illustration will explain it best: "Have I ever seen this technique in use in a real meeting? Yes, of course. Does it actually work for abusers? Well, it's most likely to work if the other participants haven't yet given it a name or recognized it. Are there no other reasons why it works? There are, indeed — the other participants let it work."
Avoiding questions that lead away
If someone asks the abuser a question, and the answer leads along a path the abuser would rather not follow, the abuser balks. Several strategies will serve the abuser's purpose: (a) Interpret the question in a way that avoids the disfavored path; (b) Duck the question with a plausible yet meaningless excuse such as, "We'll have to see," or, "We're looking into that but I can't say much at this point," or, "Intriguing possibility, of course, but it's too early to say;" (c) Ask himself or herself a question, answer it, then move to a new topic. See "Asking themselves questions aloud and answering them."
Asking questions that are off topic
Asking off-topic questions does derail the conversation. But the skilled abuser crafts questions that redirect the conversation along a path the abuser prefers. An example of such a path is one that leads the group to appreciate more fully the abuser's true talents.
Abusers avoid asking — or indeed, they avoid even entertaining — questions that lead the group to appreciate anyone else, or to explore any topic the abuser would rather not see explored. One example: clarifying questions. The abuser rarely asks questions that clarify ambiguous points, unless the issue relates to some aspect of the abuser's agenda.
Asking rhetorical questions
Although the rhetorical question is a legitimate question in the grammatical sense, its function is not interrogatory. Usually, the rhetorical question is a device for making a point in an interesting way. It serves to compel auditors to silently devise answers, and in so doing, it commands their attention. The rhetorical question is thus a device almost designed for the abuser.
Abusers can use rhetorical questions to direct the thoughts of auditors along the lines abusers prefer. Having accomplished that feat, the abuser can then show the auditors the next step using another rhetorical question, or any other suitable device. In effect, the rhetorical question mitigates the risk of losing the talking stick after making one's point.

Last words

Over the course of these nine posts, I might have left the impression that I regard the abuser as someone who intentionally and for evil purposes employs the tactics I've identified. That does occur. I've witnessed it myself. But I suspect that most examples of these tactics in the wild occur outside the awareness of the people who use them. In most cases, I believe (without evidence) that the behaviors in question are associated with habits of long standing. And they can be replaced by new habits that are more constructive for all concerned.

This series has explored a variety of tactics available to any participant in any conversation. My focus has been the kind of conversation that occurs in meetings at work. Although I have described over 50 such tactics, I'm certain there are many more. Two paths open from this point for further work. One is elaboration of the set of tactics so far included to describe them in greater detail, and to include other tactics where possible. A second and more important path is a collection of responses to the tactics identified. The most effective defense against conversational narcissism is for participants in workplace conversations to be prepared to deal with these tactics in the moment. In workplaces so prepared, abusers are more likely to be deterred. And that is the most effective response.

If you recognize some of these tactics and would like my thoughts about effective responses, contact me: ChacoCanyon.com. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[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

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