The other day I received a phone call from a narcissist raging over something that just occurred. Within 30 minutes, the narcissist had completely calmed down, the situation had radically deescalated, and there was a clear path forward. Even I, as someone who works with narcissists regularly, was shocked by the dramatic turnaround.
Did I just get lucky or was there some method that could be duplicated? After much analysis and a quick refresher course from the book Thank You for Arguing (by Jay Heinrichs) on the persuasion tactics that were utilized, I stumbled on an effective formula.
Sidebar: Before discussing the formula, it is important to note that this narcissist is someone with whom I already have established a relationship of trust. Meaning, this is not a new relationship where the narcissist would most likely begin the conversation by persuading me with their skills of charm. Rather, they felt comfortable enough to get right to the point in an aggressive manner. While this can be intimidating at first, I choose to see this approach as an indication of mutual respect, even if the narcissist is not respectful in their choice of words or manner of speech.
Step 1: Change the mood. The narcissist opened the discussion with a personal attack directed at me about something that happened in the past. This blaming tactic is done to divert attention from the real frustration, fear, or insecurity. Ignoring it is likely to bring on more confrontation, so I chose to find some small part of responsibility that I could take. I did not however, take it personally or accept full blame; rather, I changed the mood by being empathetic. This immediately took the wind out of the narcissist’s sails and allowed me a small window to ask a question.
Step 2: Focus on the present. “What brought all of this up?” I asked in an effort to bring the conversation into the present instead of continuing to discuss the past. This was perhaps the bulk of our discussion as the narcissist explained the current circumstances followed by their intense frustration. Again there were several accusations towards me and others but instead of focusing on that, I chose to acknowledge the validity of their anger. “I would be angry about that too,” and “You are right about that,” allowed me to be on their side rather than against them.
Step 3: Listen for the insecurity. Behind every narcissistic rant is a deep-rooted insecurity such as fear of abandonment, not being good enough, or being out of the know. Think of it as a hidden gem that once discovered should be hidden away and not put on display. Displaying a narcissist’s insecurity is tantamount to mutiny and likely will be met with a severe backlash. Instead, recognize the current insecurity and speak to it without identifying it. “I can see how not knowing this information would make you upset,” is an example of how to acknowledge the insecurity without stating the narcissist’s vulnerability.
Step 4: Move to the future. This is the trickiest part of the steps. If done poorly or prematurely, the discussion will wind up at step one all over again. Timing is everything. Wait for a pause of realization before suggesting some future mutual action. By sharing responsibility in the plan going forward, I speak to the unspoken fear of abandonment. The narcissist wants to know that they will not be alone in taking action and instead have a team of people assisting them. This also speaks to their need to be in the center of attention. The use of the word “we” is very powerful. “Now that I understand your position, we can work on this by …” This statement should be followed with a couple of suggestions for proceeding forward but with limited choices. Too many options can increase rather than decrease frustration. Having no option doesn’t allow the narcissist to be in charge going forward.
Step 5: Quit while ahead. Once an agreement has been reached, end the conversation immediately. Don’t bring up another issue or try to explain how the opening attack was unfair. This will backfire and undo any accomplishment made thus far. It is better to let some time pass before addressing any additional issues.
Try these five steps the next time a narcissist makes a personal attack. You might find, as I did, just how to win over an angry narcissist.