50 Shades of Conversational Narcissism
Yes, I read the books and yes, I’ve seen the movies. Moving right along…
I talk a lot. Often about myself, but more often than not about my plans, what I want to achieve, the next adventure I want to go on, or the next task I need to conquer. I’m a raving extravert so what happens on the inside, is totally expressed on the outside without much filtering.
My father will on occasions jump in and comment “It’s just all about you, isn’t it Michelle!”
Well, yes. Why wouldn’t it be?
But from my perspective it isn’t JUST all about me. It’s about an internal drive for perfection and achievement. It’s about appreciating the privilege of the life I have and making the most of it before I die. It’s about showing my kids what life can offer and giving them the confidence to be themselves in the world. It’s about so much that only I, who lives inside my head, can appreciate and understand.
To the outside world, I may possibly (no probably) appear a bit narcissistic. Making it all about me is not my intention, but it can certainly be the outcome from the experience of others.
The biggest mistake we humans make in conversation is that we become conversational narcissists. We make it all about us. Our intentions are good, but the impact can be quite different.
Now the problem here is that this is not only common and normal, but it is how we have evolved (or in this case, not evolved). Our survival instincts drive us to make it all about us — it’s how we are wired.
Unfortunately, it’s a major barrier as we come to understand more about the human brain and its motivating forces of threat and reward.
Are you a conversational narcissist? See how many of these you can tick…
During a conversation, have you ever thought to yourself (or out loud)…
☐ I know what they want/need…
☐ My idea is better…
☐ There is an obvious answer here…
Or have you ever said…
☐ Why don’t you just try this…
☐ What I would do is…
☐ Why haven’t you…
Or do you…
☐ Set and lead the agenda in meetings, or in a conversation for that matter…
☐ Assume that your team or colleagues have understood your instructions or requests… (only to discover later that they didn’t)
☐ Assume that your team or colleagues have the same goals or desired outcomes that you do… (only to discover later that they don’t)
Or even more importantly, have you been on the other end of a conversation or meeting where…
☐ Nobody asked your opinion or thoughts, or when they did, they didn’t take the time to dig deeper or understand your perspective
☐ You wasted your time because nothing in the meeting was of value to the issues YOU are currently facing
☐ You left the conversation thinking “Well, that was all about them!”
If you have ticked a few of these then you have engaged in, or been the victim of, well-intentioned conversational narcissism. Your drive to get things done, or to help others understand or achieve, overtakes the critical skill and process of supporting others to engage in quality thinking, to self-motivate and engage, to discover, learn and grow for themselves. You may also be missing out on valuable alternative perspectives or ideas, or preventing a useful challenge to your own one-sided thinking and perspective.
Leadership is about conversation, and we need to get it right.
You must begin to notice your conversational narcissism and deliberately move to a place of conversational humility — characterised by conversational curiosity! You don’t, and can’t know it all, so take some time to ask.
Here are 5 shades (sorry, not enough page space for 50 — but the book is coming!) of conversational narcissism that you might find yourself falling into, and a few tips on what you can do about changing it.
Conversational GREY — the AVOIDER
It all feels too hard, so you just sit in the background, agree, say little and avoid rocking the boat. You are scared to evoke emotional responses that may make you feel bad or challenged — defensiveness, anger, sympathy, embarrassment. You may even ‘beat around the bush’ a bit and avoid saying directly what you really want to say…sound familiar?
This is experienced by others as passive aggressive behaviour and they will experience much frustration.
Conversational RED — the REACTOR
You take everything personally and react to what has been said based on your past experience, your values and your future goals — none of which are known to others. When the conversation doesn’t go your way, your response is to walk away, or begin to just ‘tell’ so you can move on…sound familiar?
This is experienced by others as an inability to listen and they will give up trying to engage with you.
Conversational BLUE — the RESCUER
You are good at what you do, so when others are struggling, you know you can get it done faster and better yourself, so you take it on.
This is experienced by some as distrust or by others as an opportunity to pass the buck and take it easy. You will find yourself with too much to do and not enough time to do it.
Conversational GREEN — the HELPER
You are a great listener, and when others are in pain or experiencing difficulty in working through something, you want to heal the pain and just ‘save them’. You have a million different ideas, suggestions and solutions that you bombard them with. You feel great knowing that you have saved another soul from the depths of despair…sound familiar?
This is experience by others as confusion and overwhelm and they will feel more helpless.
Conversational GOLD — the PLEASER
“Yes” “I totally agree” “Really, she did that??” Relationship building is important to you, but your desire to connect deeply with others and be accepted into the ‘tribe’ can lead you to be a YESer.
This is experienced by others as weakness — or if they have narcissistic tendencies then you are simply feeding them! Nothing gained.
In all these shades, you are making the conversation about you — be that protecting yourself, defending yourself, or making assumptions about what others need or want from a conversation. Conversational narcissism shuts down thinking, fuels defensive responses, creates apathy and wastes time.
AND…you find yourself feeling like you are doing everyone else’s job for them, and you are frustrated by the lack of self-accountability and engagement in your team. People cannot NOT be engaged when they are doing the thinking and the talking — so change up the balance in respect of those two things.
So…start making conversations all about others…it has to be all about…THEM!
- Be a conversational facilitator not a consultant — trust that others know what they want or need from a conversation or meeting and ask them.
- Let others make the decisions about a conversation or meeting — What to focus on? What the outcomes need to be? How long to spend?
- Let others do the thinking — What is your perspective? What would be the best outcomes for you? What other perspectives or stakeholders should we be considering?
- Allow others to road test their solutions, even when you know it might not work
- Ask others if they want feedback from you, don’t just give it. And if the answer is yes, then ask what specific feedback they would like and how would they like you to give it.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t express your ideas or needs as well, but only AFTER others, and only if relevant to who has the responsibility for doing the thinking.
Essentially, a conversation needs to work for THEM if you are to get what YOU want — so ultimately, it comes back to being all about YOU anyway. Give these ideas a go in your next conversation or meeting and see what happens…