How to recognise a conversational narcissist & tips on how to be a charming conversationalist from a communications expert

A conversational narcissist is someone who tends to steer any conversation to focus on themselves.

Whether this is by giving more shift-responses or by simply withholding support-responses, you’ll recognise a conversational narcissist by how they always make every exchange you have with them about them.

You may suspect a conversational narcissist if it’s someone who:

  • needs a lot of attention,
  • can’t seem to stop talking,
  • or seek you out just to tell them how great they’re doing.

1) They are doing all the talking

There’s no denying that talking to people is fun and there’s nothing like getting into a deep conversation.

However, if there’s one person doing all the talking, it’s likely you’ve found yourself a conversational narcissist.

It’s someone who takes over most of the talking and consistently makes it about them.

Often, the person doing this is also unaware of this even occurring.

How to be a more engaging conversationalist:

The big rule to follow when you want to be an engaging conversationalist is to listen more than you speak.

If you just met, a friendly bit of back-and-forth is appropriate, but if you want to make a strong impression, be sure to listen to your partner fully before getting into anything about yourself.

Of course, listening isn’t as simple as it sounds.

It’s skill, and like any skill, it’s something that needs to be cultivated.

One study showed that there are two different types of listening: listening to understand and listening to respond.

Those who listen to understand have greater success in their interpersonal relationships than others.

So here are some tips to listen to understand:

  • Avoid making assumptions or judgments
  • Focus on taking in the speaker’s message – rather than thinking about what you’re going to say
  • Put yourself in the shoes of the speaker, think about what they’re saying from their perspective- not from yours
  • Don’t lose eye contact, and acknowledge that you’re listening with “yeahs” and “uh-huhs”

2) They don’t ask questions

A classic sign of narcissism is that the narcissist doesn’t take any interest in the person they’re talking to.

Because they’re there to engage with themselves through others, not to engage with others.

But just because you fall into conversational narcissism doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a narcissist.

“People don’t know what to say… and the most familiar topic – the most comfortable topic for all of us – is ourselves and our own experiences.”

– Celeste Headlee, We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter*
How to be a more engaging conversationalist:

According to research, when people talk about themselves, it triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money.

Is it any wonder then that people who love to hear themselves talk love it so much?

The good news is, that if you can get people to feel this way because of the questions you ask them in conversation, they’ll associate that happy sensation with you as well!

Ask questions of others in order to engage them and make them want to talk to you more than they are currently.

After you’ve set the groundwork for a great conversation by signalling to your conversation partner that you are interested in what they have to say, keep the conversation going by listening to their answers and asking them follow-up questions.

“Seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them. People do not want to be judged in any thought or opinion that they have or in any action that they take. It doesn’t mean you agree with someone. Validation is taking the time to understand what their needs, wants, dreams and aspirations are.”

– Robin Dreeke, It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone

3) They launch into their story with no introduction or banter

A good test for discovering a conversational narcissist is to watch people when they show up at a party.

Do they walk in and need to have the spotlight on them immediately?

Do they launch into a story or start talking about something that happened to them without so much as a hello?

It might just seem like “the way they are” – and they may often use this excuse themselves.

You can usually spot a conversational narcissist by the passive “uh-uhs” and “yeps” they give while listening to someone else because they’re simply waiting for others to finish talking so they can start.

A classic example of this is when you tell a conversational narcissist that you’re buying a new house, and they immediately launch into how they bought their house and all the troubles they had.

You wanted to talk about your experience but were completely bulldozed by their experience.

How to be a more engaging conversationalist:

Focus on how you respond when someone talks about something they’re interested in.

You can either respond with the shift-response (shift the attention back to yourself), or the support-response (keeping the attention on the speaker and topic they introduced).

More about both types of responses (with examples) here.

A skilled conversational narcissist combines the shift-response with the support-response through temporary responsive concessions before turning the conversation back to themselves.

Don’t be like that. Focus on the message that the speaker is talking about and only that.

The minute you think about talking about your experiences, stop yourself and focus on the topic at hand.

Improved communication skills will provide a better introduction to your desired topic of conversation, will make people want to talk to you, and will provide space for you to be invited to a conversation rather than having to monopolise one because no one wants to talk to you.

Whenever the person you are talking to offers you some insight into their life, don’t attempt to outdo them.

4) They interrupt people who are already talking

Whether they just arrived on the scene or have been at the party for hours, if they interrupt people when they talk, they’re a conversational narcissist.

You might not like the term, but it’s true: we all need to wait our turn and be invited to take part in a conversation that we were not originally a part of.

Nobody likes someone who seeks attention and tries to hog the spotlight.

Even if you’re used to getting your own way and having things focused on you, it’s important to let people finish their thoughts before you break into song about whatever it is you want to say.

And really, how important is it to say it in the first place?

There’s no need to take over if the conversation is already running smoothly; doing that might be complicating things for no reason.

How to be a more engaging conversationalist:

Ask for an opportunity to give advice. Don’t sling it.

If someone is sharing something with you, they aren’t usually looking for advice.

They’re looking for a listening ear and a comforting environment.

It’s human nature to want to fix people and help people through tough times, but unless they ask you for your advice or insight into a situation, don’t offer it.

There’s nothing that upsets the status quo of a conversation quite like unsolicited advice.

Don’t let yourself give into the urge to take over the conversation.

And asking someone to give their advice to you will actually benefit you.

When you ask for advice, people do not think less of you, they actually think you’re smarter.

So, by asking someone to share his or her personal wisdom, advice-seekers stroke the advisor’s ego and can gain valuable insights.

5) They tell people they are wrong in their opinions or experiences

If you find someone saying you’re wrong in your opinions or experiences during a conversation, you’ve most likely run into a conversational narcissist.

This is particularly true if you just met the person, and they’re already dogging you.

Everyone is entitled to their views on things; it’s not okay to go around proclaiming that one view is more superior to the other.

A charming conversationalist knows how to carry on a conversation despite differing opinions.

How to be a more engaging conversationalist:

Ask why they feel or think the way they do and try to learn about their perspective in a meaningful way.

Regardless of how you feel about their opinion, a good conversationalist will take the time to ask where the insight is coming from and respect the opinion for what it is: not a fact, but something based on experience and belief.

Another thing you can do to be a better conversationalist and avoid taking over the conversation, is to avoid correcting people during your chats.

There’s a polite way to correct someone without making them feel you’re trying to take over: ask questions for clarification.

Don’t tell someone they are wrong.

Don’t just bark orders at people or decide that they need to know what you know.

Offer your insight and understanding and ask them what they think.

This is a great way to keep the conversation going, and it keeps you looking like a great conversationalist without taking over things.

“Being well-informed is not the same as being a know-all. The former is about being able to ask intelligent questions in seminars, engage in debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and realise that two of your tutors are having an affair. The latter is about passing on information on all of these subjects to everyone you know, even if you are not entirely sure the information is true.”

– Harriet Swain, The art of being well-informed*

A delightful conversation shouldn’t be difficult.

But it is for a lot of people.

The most important thing is to pay attention to is how you show up for the conversations you have with people.

There’s no need to be in the spotlight all the time.

Learning how to hold your silence, and hold the space for someone else to speak their mind, will only endear you to them.

You can allow other people to talk about their needs and concerns and then chime in when the time is right.

When is the time right?

When your conversation partner has stopped talking and invites your opinion, insight or participation.

The term “conversational narcissist” was coined by sociologist Charles Derber who describes the trait of consistently turning a conversation back to yourself.

A balanced conversation involves both sides, but conversational narcissists tend to keep the focus on themselves.

The tendency is so habitual that they don’t even notice (or care) when the listener tunes them out.

Most likely you’ve had this experience at times. It’s also likely that you’ve done this as well but weren’t aware you were doing it. 

Dr Derber also describes conversational narcissism as “the key manifestation of attention-getting psychology in America.” And, he claims that “it occurs in informal conversations among friends, family, and co-workers.”

Are you interested… or interesting?

We’re all guilty of some conversational narcissism at some point, and that doesn’t make you or me a narcissist.

But to be a charming conversationalist, you’ll want to be self-aware enough to recognise when you do use narcissistic tactics in conversation.

Some signs of conversational narcissism:

  • You always seem to have a “better” story! Whatever they’ve done, you’ve done better. Too nice to tell you the truth, they might just avoid you altogether.
  • You try to relate their story to something in your life! You wait for your opening to jump in and steal their thunder, bringing the conversation back to where it rightly belongs–on you!
  • You don’t think people have much of an interest in sharing. But, the truth is that you really just never let them! If you’re often leaving conversations thinking that others are boring, there’s a distinct probability that you just didn’t give them the space to get more than five words in edge wise.

Here’s a simple example of conversational narcissism:

Tessa: “I didn’t get any sleep last night!”

Rosalie: “Really? I slept great! Have you considered getting a better mattress? Mine's really great, it's a… 

A conversational narcissist can quickly throw cold water on a conversation simply by not asking questions.

Ask questions like: 

  • Were you worrying about something?
  • Tell me more.
  • What else is keeping you awake at night?

According to Dr Derber, a healthy conversation is one where there’s a natural back-and-forth flow of ideas.

It’s like a game of ping-pong where the rhythm is steady with some pauses between points.

And each player must contribute to keeping the ball in play.

A healthy conversation is cooperative.

Carl Rogers #1 rule is that it’s the relationship itself that heals.

We must “be someone with” rather than “do something to” our conversation partners.

A great conversation isn’t the same as a speech or a lecture. It’s your job to both share and listen. And, you don’t want to miss the listening part!

So, what can you do to change the conversation? Here are three practices that I apply in conversation:

1. You can’t change them

So, give up trying. Now!

Silence is golden. Because conversational narcissists don’t like silence.

So, become more comfortable with silence and pauses.

Fran Leibowitz says, “The opposite of talking is not listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.”

Here’s how I try to “wait” – I center myself by taking three deep breaths and then stay focused on my breathing while maintaining eye contact.

2. Adjust your expectations

Set a time limit and end the conversation at that precise time, no matter what.

Practice saying “No.” No is a complete sentence.

Master the decline by not offering support statements. Simply smile and enjoy your meal!

3. Become a conversational narcissist yourself

I mean it. Flip the conversation by asking this question: “Are you open to an assessment?”

This usually stops people cold and opens the door for you to step in with your response, story, or point-of-view.

It changes the game.

PS – Just to keep things above board: links marked with an asterisk* are affiliate links, which means if you buy through that link they pitch a few cents into my coffee jar for referring you. It’s at no extra cost to you and I only recommend that which I love myself! Thank you for reading 💛