How to Handle a Narcissist

Years ago, I worked with a woman who scared me silly. And I’m not easily scared. What I found the most frightening was the way she would lie, steal, cheat, manipulate, control, charm and cajole to get what she wanted. Oh, and by the way, she had to be the center of attention at all times as well.

What twisted my brain (and got my undies in bunches) was not that she did all this, but that she managed to do it so skillfully — and get away with it.

She was a master at playing people off each other, telling one story to one person and a different version of that same story to another. She was charming when it suited her and calculating about who she charmed. The upshot of this strategy was that if one of her co-workers (including me) tried to call her on any of it — or bring the behavior to our bosses’ attention — she would put her hands up and innocently say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

This situation had a devastating effect on team morale and on our productivity, both as a group and as individuals. Problems that would normally have been handled with one quick conversation grew into gigantic group discussions. Decisions that were made and should have been followed with no argument by the whole team became undermined by her personal agenda. And the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

I tried every good management consulting strategy I knew, and each and every one of them failed. Stressed, unproductive, angry and with a tightness in my chest that I swore was going to give me a heart attack, I sought out the services of a specialist.

The first thing this top-of-the-line professional asked me to do was describe, without judgment or interpretation, exactly what had happened. As well as I could, I recounted the facts of my encounters with Ms. Personality.

Within five minutes, the therapist began laughing and said, “Ahh, I see what the problem is. You are dealing with a classic, textbook narcissist. Of course nothing you are doing is working; you’re not playing by the same rules.”

He then went on to explain that people who are truly narcissistic, as opposed to the occasional moments of narcissism we all have, are driven to be the center of attention at all times and under all circumstances — and will do just about anything to make that happen. Here is the official definition of a narcissist from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following: Has a grandiose sense of self-importance; is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love; believes that he or she is “special” and unique; requires excessive admiration; has a sense of entitlement; is interpersonally exploitative; lacks empathy; is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her and shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

OK, now’s the part where you should start thinking about the people in your life who might fit this bill.

Connie Dieken, author of the book “Talk Less, Say More,” says that if you’ve ever been the target of a narcissist’s anger or condemnation, their once-charming personality morphs into melt-down mode. They lob verbal grenades at you and howl at the moon. It’s painful to be on the receiving end of their demanding, demeaning behavior,” says Dieken.

So what’s a web worker to do if a client turns out to be a bona fide nasty narcissist that’s sucking your productivity dry, the way a dog sucks marrow out of a bone? Dieken offers these five tips:

  • Give them options. Beneath their bluster, narcissistic people fear being left out of the loop. They crave control. It’s far better to offer them options to choose from, rather than feeding them ready-made decisions. They’ll tear other people’s decisions to shreds. Giving them options helps them feel respected and in control. It also prevents nasty hissy fits.
  • Focus on solutions, not problems. When you explain a problem or a challenge to a narcissist, direct their attention to the solution. Don’t allow them to dissect the problem over and over again. Narcissists love drama and revel in the chaos. They’re easily agitated when frustrated. Define problems and present possible solutions, so they don’t smell blood in the water and tear you apart.
  • Make them the hero. Narcissists are preoccupied with power and truly believe they are special and unique. They live for attention and admiration. Want them to do something? Tell them how great they are at it and watch them perform. Better yet, praise their performance in front of others. Just keep it real, please.
  • Let them think it’s their idea. Narcissists often steal the credit for ideas that aren’t theirs. Why do they do that? Strangely, they truly believe that hijacked results are their own. Grabbing credit is a driving force for them. If this gets things done, I say learn to live with it. Over time, everyone will catch on — wink, wink. Meantime, graciously transferring credit for ideas to them makes things happen.
  • Manage their emotional blind spot. Egomaniacs lack empathy. They’re so caught up in their own world that it doesn’t occur to them to consider your feelings or viewpoints. It’s a huge blind spot. You must put your own feelings on the table, if you choose to do so. Just be smart about sharing feelings with a narcissist. Brace yourself for the guilt trips and disparaging criticism that narcissists often dole out when others explain how they feel.

For those of you reading this who have to deal with a narcissist gone wild, you have my empathy, but also my confidence. Knowing what I was dealing with and having some skills to work with, helped keep me sane. I never liked this woman, and I never trusted her, but I was able to quell my internal conflicts and get back to being productive — all while keeping one eye on my back.

Have you known a narcissist? What strategies have you used to handle them?

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