Health

How to Argue With a Narcissist

Blame shifting, gaslighting, stonewalling, and an obsession with winning will make this a particularly challenging conversation; here's how to avoid getting stuck in an exhausting loop.
August 18, 2020, 11:00am
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How to Argue With Anyone, a guide to getting what you want without making enemies, is part of our series The Way Back to School.

In a perfect world, the answer to “How Do I Argue with a Narcissist?” would be… don’t.

But alas, we don’t live in that world. Whether the person is a partner, parent, sibling, friend, neighbor, boss, or colleague (or perhaps even a stranger), all of us have at least one narcissist in our lives—and most of us have several. Here’s how to best handle a conflict with them.

What is a narcissist?

Let’s start with basics. First, narcissism is not a diagnosis; it’s a pattern. And it’s a pattern characterized by entitlement, arrogance, lack of empathy, validation and admiration seeking, sensitivity to criticism, grandiosity, poor insight, and difficulty controlling emotions, especially when frustrated or disappointed.

In some cases, narcissistic individuals can also exist in a chronic state of victimhood, and are sullen, resentful, petty, oppositional, and constantly aggrieved. There are different styles and severities of narcissism, and it exists on a continuum—from milder, annoying, and arrogant, to more menacing, malignant, and dangerous. At their core, narcissists are insecure, and the way they argue is designed to protect their fragile egos.

Why does it feel impossible to argue with a narcissist?

First, it’s important to note that arguing in and of itself is not unhealthy; when done right, it resembles healthy, reciprocal, respectful debate. An opportunity to disagree, voice a position or a feeling, and ideally end up with a solution or at least a compromise. None of that will happen with a narcissist.

One big reason is the narcissist’s penchant for gaslighting. Gaslighting is the denial of another person’s reality. In its simple forms, it’s saying things like “that never happened,” “stop making such a big deal out of this,” or “you have no right to feel that way.” Gaslighting is typically part of a larger pattern of deflection—you are left so confused by the gaslighting, you get pulled off of the initial linear argument.

In healthy arguments, a peaceful conclusion is often achieved simply when one person takes responsibility for his or her role in a situation. That will not happen with a narcissist. Narcissistic personality styles are also associated with blame shifting. If they aren’t trying to blame you for the issue at hand, they will blame someone else.

A big part of this is the narcissistic obsession with winning, which can be manifested by unrelenting arguing, vindictiveness, deceit, manipulation, and pleasure when others lose. There are also some unique elements of narcissistic communication style, most notably something called “word salad,” which is when the narcissist just starts coming at you with a series of unrelated statements that are intended to befuddle, exhaust, and confuse you.

And finally, if they do not like how your argument is going or how it went, they may just decide to stop talking in the form of stonewalling, storming off, and days or weeks of the silent treatment  (or some variant such as only writing you notes, texting you, or talking through other people).

So, how do you argue with a narcissist?

`Choose your battles.

Most arguments with narcissists are a waste of time because it’s not going to be possible to change their mind or get them to agree with you. Avoid them when possible.

Of course, avoidance will not always be possible, so it’s important to be aware of the fights you are willing to take on. These may be ones that regard the well-being of your children, integrity around a professional matter, or finances. It might make sense to endure their psychological blows for the right issue, but it isn’t worth it on a daily basis.

Keep your voice calm and stay composed.

When the narcissist rages and yells, don’t meet their volume. Instead, keep the calm and steady tone that a person would use when trying to reason with a tantruming child. If you become so frustrated that you start yelling as loudly as they are, you may find that they’ll abruptly stop yelling themselves, and calmly say to you, “Hey, you need to calm down—why are you getting so worked up?” That leaves you feeling disoriented, defensive, and tempted to start arguing about whose reality is correct.

Don’t defend or explain yourself.

Attempting to explain or defend your point of view in an argument with a narcissist is a waste of time. Remember these simple words each time you argue with a narcissist: THEY AREN’T LISTENING. They have a point to make and a distorted reality to maintain; your defenses and explanations are just going to leave you confused and distracted when they dismiss and deny them.

Their attacks will feel personal, and most arguments are. But narcissists tend to be equal opportunity offenders who will argue mercilessly with anyone. Be clear on your goal for the argument—because some goals are impossible. You are not going to bring them over to your way of thinking; you are not going to convince them to take responsibility; you are not going to persuade them to do something. If you keep reminding yourself that they just need to win, and don't care about what you or anyone else has to say, it can help you detach a little, and not let the conversation devolve into a hurtful and pointless screaming match that leaves you upset and unsettled.

Hold on to your reality.

Gaslighting only works if you doubt your own reality. Hold on to it tightly, and do not second-guess yourself. When they say “you are being too sensitive” or “that didn’t happen” don’t attempt to correct them. Smile inwardly knowing you are being gaslighted, and don’t get sucked into their manipulative abyss.

Keep bringing it back to the original thread.

Deflection and word salad are ways for the narcissists to dodge and avoid the initial issue raised in an argument. Deflection involves talking about something tangentially related to the initial argument which can move the blame to someone else (“I can’t believe you are making such a big deal out of me being late—especially since you always sleep late on weekends and that delays everything; the last two weeks we have been running late all day because you sleep late on the weekend”)  Suddenly, an argument about the problems caused by the narcissist’s lateness spins into your sleeping habits.

Word salad is even more confusing—they hit you with a bunch of words, e.g., “I may be late, but time isn’t money, time with me is money, and I make money when I show up to important stuff. And I do important stuff, important stuff that changes lives. It makes money and it changes lives. And then if you think about it that way it isn’t about me being late, it is about you earning your keep.” You end up so confused, the initial argument gets lost.

Nod politely after most servings of word salad. And then go back to the original issue of how important being on time to certain appointments is. If you are fighting for something that matters to you, keep steering it back to that point. It will incense the narcissist but that’s OK—it means you aren’t falling for their deflection and confusion.

Don’t bring up old grievances (even when they do).

Narcissists are masters of grievances and ancient grudges. They will dust off offenses that happened years ago, or words spoken months ago. They are very sensitive and hold on to their hurt feelings of the past, which they weaponize in the present. When they bring up a past grievance, don’t fall into the trap of doing the same. Responding with, “Oh yeah? Well I remember when you said _blah blah blah blah_” allows them to steer you into their deflected and confused narrative. Redirect or just stop engaging.

In a situation like this, that might mean saying something like “OK, to keep things moving, let’s stay focused on the issue at hand….”  If things keep spinning around and around in an endless loop, try a bit of empathy and ownership: “Yes, I did say that, and I know it was difficult at the time… and I would like for us to resolve what is happening right now so we can keep moving forward.”

Know that it’s OK to physically step away (just don’t storm off).

If the argument escalates into yelling, false accusations, gaslighting, and word salad, it’s OK to calmly exit. Don’t storm off, or slam any doors. Calmly say something like, “This isn’t productive  for either of us, so I am going to take a moment” and then gently step away. Doing so can be a way to de-escalate, and keep you from getting stuck in an exhausting loop. If you feel strongly that the conversation needs to continue later, perhaps approach it when you are recharged and more resilient, and when both of you may have the bandwidth to take on the issue again. But know that it may end up in exactly the same place

Become boring by not arguing with them.

Narcissists love a fight. They will bait you, and poke you, and incite you. They will drop politically polarizing comments and insults. When you don’t take the bait, it is actually frustrating for them. When you cease to be a source of narcissistic supply who gives them the satisfaction of an argument, they will initially get enraged, then bored, and will then let it go (at least with you). At some point, they will find a new target and pursue arguments with them.

Bring it to a soft landing.

The stonewalling and the confusion that are part of an argument with a narcissist mean you’ll want to end it ASAP. This isn’t always easy; disengagement works best. Making a declarative statement like “I am no longer going to discuss this with you” only antagonizes them further, and may result in them continually revisiting the topic. Try the tips above, and then just let it go. Leave it with “I have nothing else to say about it” and then stop. It may not feel like a resolution, but at least it is an end.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, and the author of "Don't You Know Who I Am?": How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility and Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving A Relationship with a Narcissist. Follow her on Twitter.