Conversational narcissism: what is it and how to avoid it?

We are starved for attention.

And not in the least because a lot of the social supports people used to rely on have disappeared.

We live a performative and public existence where we’re constantly seeking and vying for other people’s attention.

Our brains are being retrained as our natural behaviours are being used to exploit what is one of the most valuable commodities today: our attention.

In a time when we’ve substituted in-person interaction with instant messaging, like my brother- and sister-in-law who regularly message each other from adjacent rooms, we also bring our hunger for attention to the conversations we have.

Many people see conversations as a kind of competition where the winner is the one who can keep the attention on themselves as much as possible.

This is turning the art of conversation-making into an increasingly elusive skill.

As a communications specialist, I’m endlessly fascinated with how we communicate with each other. And how effective that communication is.

A few weeks ago I met up with an old friend I only see a few times a year.

And having both read and written about – as well as coached people in effective communication – I follow the good old advice of listening more than I talk.

As an empathic introvert, it comes naturally to ask the other person engaging questions about themselves, so I tend to do that.

My friend spent almost two hours talking about herself and barely asked me a single question.

Listening intently is an easy way to charm your conversation partner.

When talking about conversational skills, someone always pipes up with “But what if we both just keep trading questions back and forth?” – and, well, that’s a pretty good problem to have, don’t you think?

And I’ve seen it happen. I’ve experienced it myself.

But the truth is that most people seem to struggle to ask any questions at all. And have an even harder time relinquishing the floor to another speaker.

What is conversational narcissism?

In the book, The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life sociologist Charles Derber shares the results of a study which was done on face-to-face interactions.

Researchers watched 1,500 conversations and recorded how people vied for and traded attention during them.

Dr Derber discovered that, despite good intentions and often without even being aware of it, most people struggled with what he called “conversational narcissism”.

Derber found that conversational narcissists always seek to turn the attention of others towards themselves.

Maybe right about now, you’re thinking, “Oh, I don’t do that, but I DO know someone who does!”

Not so fast, bub.

Conversational narcissism rarely manifests itself in obvious plays for attention because most people give in to, at least some, etiquette and social norms.

Instead, it takes much more subtle forms which we’re all guilty of from time to time.

We’ve all felt that pent up agitation of waiting for someone else to stop speaking so we can jump in.

While we wait, we’ll pretend to be listening intently, but we’re really focusing on what we’re going to say once we get a word in edge wise.

By analysing conversations this deeply, you can use Dr. Derber’s brilliant insights to help you see how a conversation unfolds and how you can easily fall into the conversational narcissism trap.

Competition vs cooperation in conversations.

The quality of any interaction depends on the tendencies of those involved to seek and share attention. Competition develops when people seek to focus attention mainly on themselves; cooperation occurs when the participants are willing and able to give it.

—Dr. Charles Derber, The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life

A good conversation is an interesting undertaking.

It can’t be a solely individual endeavour; it has to be a collaborative effort.

Each individual has to sacrifice a little bit for the group and to, ultimately, increase the pleasure each individual participant receives.

A conversation is like a song, where the rhythm is critical. And each person within the group has to contribute to the rhythm to keep it chugging along.

One person who keeps playing a sour note is enough to throw the whole thing off.

For a conversation to be good, it has to be cooperative rather than competitive.

But many people turn conversations into a competitive rather than a cooperative endeavour.

Dr Derber argues that this is especially prevalent among Americans, because of having a culture of individual initiative, self-interest and self-reliance.

These people want to see if they can get an edge in a conversation by turning the attention of the other participants on themselves as much as possible.

And they achieved this through the subtle tactics of conversational narcissism.

So, let’s get down to business, shall we?

How does conversational narcissism manifest itself and derail what could have been a great face-to-face interaction?

During a conversation, each person takes initiatives.

These initiatives are either attention-giving or attention-getting.

A conversational narcissist focuses more on the attention-getting kind because they’re trying to gratify their own needs.

Attention-getting initiatives take two forms: active and passive.

What is active conversational narcissism?

The response you give to what someone else says takes two forms: the support-response and the shift-response.

The support-response keeps the attention on the speaker and on the topic they introduced.

The shift-response attempts to set the stage for you to change the topic and shift the attention to yourself.

Example of a support-response:

Jenny: I'm thinking about buying a new car.

Carmen: Really? What models are you considering?

Example of a shift-response:

Jenny: I'm thinking about buying a new car.

Carmen: Oh, yeah? I'm thinking about buying a new car too!

Jenny: Really?

Carmen: Yeah, I just went for a test drive in a sports car yesterday and it was great. 

In the first example, Carmen kept the attention on Jenny with her support-response, prompting Jenny to tell her more about the chosen topic.

In the second example, Carmen tries to turn the attention to herself with a shift-response.

The shift-response is often very subtle.

People can disguise a shift-repsonse by prefacing it with something like:

  • “That’s interesting”
  • “Really?”
  • “Oh, yeah?”
  • “I can see that”

And then they’ll tie in their shift-response into the current topic of conversation (as in example number two).

It’s important to note that the shift-response opens up the opportunity for someone to grab the attention, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to do it.

What’s key is the intent of the responder.

The responder may simply want to highlight that they share a bit of your experience before allowing you to continue. This is a healthy and natural part of normal conversation.

Let’s look at some more examples.

Jenny: I’m thinking about buying a new car.

Carmen: Oh, yeah? I’m thinking about buying a new car too!

Jenny: Really? Maybe we could go look around together.

Carmen: Sure. So what models are you looking at?

Jenny: That’s the thing — I’m not sure where to start.

Carmen: Well, what are the most important things to you — fuel economy, storage room, horsepower?

So here Carmen interjected about herself, but then turned the conversation back to Jenny.

Conversational narcissists keep interjecting themselves until the attention has shifted to them. Like this:

Jenny: I’m thinking about buying a new car.

Carmen: Oh yeah? I’m thinking about buying a new car too.

Jenny: Really? Maybe we could go look around together.

Carmen: Sure, I just went for a test drive in a sports car yesterday and it was great. 

Jenny: That’s cool. I don’t think I want a sports car, though.

Carmen: Well, I want something with at least 300 horsepower and definitely leather seating. Did I ever tell you about the time my friend let me take his convertible out for a spin? Now that was a nice car.

Jenny: Which one of your friends has a convertible?

Most conversational narcissists will mix their support- and shift-responses together in an effort to not appear rude.

They’ll use just a few more shift-responses until the conversation entirely shifts to them.

The conversational narcissist has succeeded when they elicit a support-response from their conversational partner: “Which one of your friends has a convertible?”

Just to be clear, it’s fine to share things about yourself, as long as you loop the conversation back to the person who started the topic.

The best rule to follow is simply not to jump in too early with something about yourself.

Let the person tell most of their story or problem first, and then share your own experience.

The earlier you interject, the more likely you are to be making a play to get the attention on yourself.

What is passive conversational narcissism?

When conversational narcissism takes on an even subtler form, it’s called passive.

Instead of interjecting about themselves and trying to start a new topic, the conversational narcissists will simply withhold their support-responses until your topic withers away, allowing them to take over the floor.

There are three forms support-responses can take, each represents an ascending level of interest and engagement with the speaker:

  • Background acknowledgments are minimal acknowledgments that you’re listening, such as,
    • “Yeah,”
    • “Uh-huh,”
    • “Hmm,”
    • “Sure.”
  • Supportive assertions are acknowledgments that show active listening.
    • “That’s great,”
    • “You should go for it,”
    • “That’s not right.”
  • Supportive questions are questions that show, not only that you’re listening, but are interested in hearing more.
    • “Why did you feel that way?”
    • “What was his response when you said that?”
    • “What are you going to do now?”

A conversational narcissist can kill your story dead in its tracks by withholding these support-responses, especially by not asking questions.

Etiquette dictates that you don’t ramble on and share every detail of a story right off the bat.

You say a bit, and then wait for further questions, so you know that the person you’re speaking with is interested in what you have to say.

In the absence of such questions, you’ll begin to doubt that what they’re saying is interesting. So, you’ll stop speaking and turn the attention to the other person.

A victory for the conversational narcissist.

The conversationalist narcissist will also show their disinterest in the speaker by delaying their background acknowledgments — those all important “Yeah’s” and “Hmmm’s”.

Good conversationalists place their background acknowledgments in just the rights spots; in the small natural pauses in the conversation.

The narcissist tries to adhere to social expectations by giving the speaker some cursory acknowledgments, but isn’t really listening, and so the responses are just a few seconds off.

The speaker easily picks up on this skewed-timing and will stop talking and shift their attention to the narcissist.

Finally, one more form of conversational narcissism to avoid is the “Well, enough about me, I want to hear more about you!” tactic.

People will often pull out this kind of line right at the end of an event, so they can make a show of etiquette and interest in the other person, while not actually having to give that person attention that lasts more than a few minutes.

Mastering the art of conversation.

Avoiding these pitfalls of conversational narcissism will have you well on your way to becoming a competent and charismatic conversationalist.

Once someone introduces a topic, your job is to draw out the narrative from them by giving them encouragement as background acknowledgments and supportive assertions.

And moving the speaker’s narrative along by asking supportive questions.

Once their topic has run its course, you can introduce your own topic.

But it takes two to tango. It’s now your partner’s turn to ask you questions.

If they don’t, you’ll sadly find yourself, as I did, listening to a never-ending monologue.

Just smile and nod. Enjoy the chips.

Long, deep conversations can be a magical thing.

Any introvert knows this.

They bring people closer together and make us feel more connected to one another.

But if one person is hogging the spotlight and doing all the talking, it makes the other person feel alienated, unwanted, and unappreciated.