The big question everyone has once they figure out they are working with a narcissist is - what now? Most people think the only two options are to quit or for the narcissist to be fired. Unfortunately, in the real world in which we work, these aren’t always viable. There are other options.
Your options fall within two realms: personal strategies and practical strategies. The tactics shared here are for you to consider and try. They may not apply to all situations; pick and choose what seems appropriate for you and your circumstances. Try different tactics and see how they work - adopt the ones that are effective and let go of the ones that are not. Readers here on LinkedIn may have additional useful, professionally appropriate suggestions. What follows are some tried and true tactics used by people who found themselves working with, for, or alongside a narcissist.
- Understand how to recognize narcissism in action. For the basics, look at this post entitled How to Recognize a Narcissist http://tinyurl.com/kfrajvo
- Accept the reality of the situation. A narcissist has a different internal framework from the majority of people and is limited in emotional awareness and social skills. Rather than talking trash in your head about the narcissist at work, use your skills to take care of you.
- Grasp that a narcissist does not know you exist - this is the secret to not taking it personally. Once you truly get this, you are equipped to know that a narcissist would do this to anyone, it is not personal, it is not about you. Due to early childhood experience (to the best of our current knowledge), a narcissist did not individuate, and so is enmeshed with those around him (or her). In all situations, she seeks to have her needs met and is unaware of the social imperative to balance the needs of others - because she simply is not aware that others are not her.
- Be aware that, for those on the receiving side of a narcissist’s behaviors, a common trigger is feeling unacknowledged (disrespected, disregarded, demeaned, dismissed, unheard, and unappreciated). This happens because the narcissist lacks empathy, is enmeshed with others, unaware they exist as separate beings with needs and ideas of their own. To a narcissist, your purpose is to do for the narcissist - this is the unconscious mental framework from which a narcissist operates. Since you know you exist, it is beyond aggravating to be treated as if you don’t. Oddly, it can be helpful to learn that a narcissist is not disrespecting you - because to disrespect you would be to know you exist. Feeling invisible is intolerable to most of us. Reminding yourself that this is the trigger and that you are visible to others can help relieve your aggravation.
- Know that a narcissist needs attention in order to be validated as existing. Just like all people, a narcissist prefers positive attention. A narcissist will resort to provoking negative attention if positive attention falls short. A narcissist who receives positive attention is easier to predict than a narcissist given negative attention. Conflicts can be painful, unproductive, and unpredictable for you. They can have residual emotional and practical effects on you. You’re better off choosing to provide as much positive attention as you can muster.
- Grow your confidence. You are capable, resourceful and can create options for yourself. Focus on the fact that, ultimately, you are going to be fine no matter what happens with the narcissist. After reading the Steve Jobs autobiography, I’ve named this the Tim Cook Defense. I do not know either person, but it seems that Tim Cook would calmly present his thoughts and let the chips fall where they may, seeming to know that he was okay no matter what Steve Jobs said or did. This is true for you, too. You may feel threatened and uncertain in the particular moment, but at the core, you are capable and resourceful and will figure out how to make things in your life work no matter what. Narcissists are calmed in the presence of confidence, and can be difficult in the presence of lack of confidence.
- Keep your story and emotional reactions to yourself. A narcissist will use them against you if the need arises.
- Prepare before interactions with the narcissist. Remind yourself of the narcissist’s framework and patterns, remember what you can expect, consider which tools you want to use in the upcoming interaction. Remind yourself that your way of being in the world is just different from the narcissist's and that you since you now have some insight into the narcissist's world you can therefore have some idea of what to expect. Debrief yourself afterward to consider what worked for you and what you might want to try next time.
- Consider creating an energy bubble for yourself when you interact with the narcissist. Imagine that words and energy can leave the bubble but cannot come inside unless you choose to let them. Imagine the substance and color of your bubble. If you forget about the bubble while interacting, and things get uncomfortable for you, bubble back up.
- Focus on diplomacy and effectiveness on your own behalf rather than trying to get the narcissist to be the way you think s/he should.
- Avoid gossip. Be aware of the difference between gossip and conversation for the purposes of problem solving.
- Do not call the narcissist out as a narcissist. Avoid throwing the label “narcissist” around your workplace - it could easily backfire on you.
- Rather than focusing on what aggravates you about the narcissist, attempt to focus on what you can appreciate about the narcissist.
- Find topics to get the narcissist talking. Rather than get annoyed by the narcissist and try to thwart her, consider which topics she seems to like to talk about that can be of interest to you and rely on those as the ones you bring up in conversation.
- Observe the narcissist’s patterns. Write down what you notice. What are the preferred topics of conversation? How does s/he want to be seen by the world? What does s/he want to be appreciate for? What does s/he hear as criticism? How does s/he respond to differences of opinion, disagreements? What makes the narcissist seem happy?
- Use positive strokes as much as possible. Start conversations with statements that place you in their corner. Acknowledge the narcissist’s strengths; if all else fails, compliment the shoes or tie. Use positive strokes as precursor to brainstorming ideas
- Use humor to deflect tension or to cast conversations that are going south in a new direction.
- When invited into conflict with a narcissist, ask yourself if that’s a party you want to attend. Who ends up feeling worse after these conflicts - you or the narcissist?Do you want to feel the anger, resentment, and ineffectiveness that goes with a conflict with a narcissist? Do you want to handle the emotional fall out that you’ll be left with? Do you want to feed the narcissist in this particular way?
- Narcissists live by rules, so clear expectations and consequences are useful. If you work for a narcissist, clarify what is expected of you. If you manage a narcissist, be clear what you expect from the narcissist (although expecting sophisticated emotional behavior is a recipe for failure).
- Be concise in your communication. Narcissists are not good listeners.
- If you want your ideas to have a better chance of being heard, present them as if they lack ownership. Avoid “I want” or “I think”.
- Have some go-to phrases at the ready. Phrases like “Just something to think about,” or “Could we consider, “ or “What if...” can work wonders.
- Figure out workarounds for your particular situation.
- If you want to go to HR for support, prepare in advance. Present the patterns you’ve observed rather than your story. Describe the strategies and tactics you’ve tried so far, and what you’ve noticed about what works and doesn’t work. Ask for assistance and guidance.
By employing some of these strategies, you will find new space in your working relationship with the narcissist in your office. It may not transform the relationship to one that you relish, but you may have breathing space that allows you to strategize for a longer term solution. Ultimately you have to weigh all the elements that work for you and that don’t work for you in your particular job, and make a decision that takes care of you.