- Highly narcissistic individuals often communicate with confusing, manipulative, or incendiary language.
- Being drawn into confusing conversations with narcissists can feel tedious, unsettling, insulting, or even abusive.
- To sidestep, defuse, or stand up to unhealthy narcissistic communication, pacify, stand your ground, and ask questions.
Narcissistic people often seek the upper hand in interactions by pressuring, misleading, blaming, and shaming others.
Narcissists—by which I mean individuals who meet the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder or who display especially strong narcissistic personality traits—were often wounded in childhood by overbearing or dismissive parenting. They proceed through life lacking empathy and feeling entitled to special treatment.
Narcissistic communication tends to be transactional, brusque, and often lacking a true connection to others. Narcissists often brush aside others’ feelings and viewpoints and misrepresent what others have said or done.
While we can empathize with anyone's wounds and limitations, it doesn't mean we should allow others to treat us inappropriately. Being the subject of a narcissist's manipulative and passive-aggressive comments may leave you feeling frustrated or demeaned. Listening to their fabrications and self-aggrandizement can be exhausting.
You need not feel held hostage or like a passive victim in the face of narcissistic tactics. You have a range of potentially effective responses from which to choose.
Here are six approaches to deflect, neutralize, or set limits with narcissists. Each successive approach is more assertive than the previous.
One option is to assuage a narcissist. Particularly if a narcissist holds power or leverages over you, you may wish to mollify them and move on. For example, if a narcissist seems agitated or aggressive, you can say things such as:
- “That makes sense to me.”
- “You’re right.”
- “I hear you.”
- “You make good points.”
- “I see how you feel.”
Temporarily appeasing a narcissist does not mean you are globally capitulating. Pacifying is a tool to de-escalate an exchange with little collateral damage, freeing you to fight another day.
2. Ask Questions
Narcissists frequently insist on being the center of attention. You can use their self-centeredness to direct the conversation. For example, if you know that a narcissistic person tends to devolve to intrusive comments or inappropriate questions eventually, choose a time when they are still speaking about a neutral topic and say:
- “I'd like to hear more of your views about that."
- "That’s interesting. Tell me more.”
- “How fascinating. Why do you feel this way?”
In so doing, you lead a narcissist to hold court on what is often their favorite topic: themselves. Given a bit of prompting, many narcissists can stay there for an entire evening, never venturing into rougher waters of badgering or insulting others.
Some narcissists seem defined by opposition, seeking to harangue, vilify, or subjugate others. If you are interacting with a narcissist who is spoiling for a fight or making provocative statements, you can say:
- “That is worth considering. I will think about that.”
- “We don’t see eye-to-eye about this, and that is okay with me.”
- “Let’s agree to disagree.”
Such responses can leave narcissists in a quandary. You aren’t directly opposing them, but you are also not giving them what they want. Sometimes narcissists don’t know how to respond to such messages. Meantime, take the opportunity to move on gracefully.
If a narcissist makes outrageous comments or seems to be trying to bait you, you can say in a neutral tone:
- “I see.”
- “I hear your viewpoint.”
- “Thank you for letting me know.”
Or you can change the subject. Or simply not respond at all. In the case of vindictive narcissists who will exact a price if you stand up to them, such non-committal responses sidestep conflict yet surrender nothing.
5. Stand Your Ground
Narcissists have poor interpersonal boundaries and carry a sense of entitlement, leading to disrespecting others. The more you allow someone to disrespect you, the more they may continue. Breaking this pattern may mean limiting a narcissist’s access to you, declining to participate in conversations or discuss certain topics, or asserting your rights and boundaries.
For example, if a narcissistic person criticizes something you said, you can say:
- “I am not open for discussion about that issue.”
- “I’m satisfied with my actions in this matter.”
- “I am confident of my position. It will not change.”
- “I’m sorry to hear you feel that way, but that is not my problem to solve.”
- “I’m not responsible for your upset. Those are your feelings, not mine.”
Some narcissists are used to getting away with inappropriate behavior because many people feel intimidated or exhausted in dealing with them. Like most bullies, they usually don’t back down unless they have no alternative.
Sometimes, then, you may need to give them no alternative. At times it is important to point out how a narcissist has crossed a line and what the consequences will be. For example, if a narcissist is inconsiderate or abusive, you can say:
- “You just interrupted me. Let me finish.”
- “That sounded like a put-down. Was it?”
- “I’ve responded to you already. I have no more to say.”
- “I’m not willing to engage in a conversation where you speak to me like this.”
- “You are being inappropriate. Please stop, or I will leave.”
- "I am going to leave now. We can resume this conversation when you can speak to me respectfully.”
As difficult as narcissists can be, you are not powerless. Exerting your power may mean appeasing or sidestepping narcissistic behavior in one situation while standing up for yourself or pushing back on a different occasion.
You get to choose when and how to be assertive with narcissists. To decide, ask yourself: What am I willing to tolerate? At what cost?
Malkin, Craig. (2016). Rethinking narcissism: The secret to recognizing and coping with a narcissist. HarperCollins Publishers.
Campbell, W. Keith, and Crist, Carolyn. (2020). The new science of narcissism: Understanding one of the greatest psychological challenges of our time―and what you can do about it. Sounds True.