You know the type all too well. He walks into a party like he's walking onto his yacht. He acts like every meeting is about him. When he shakes hands he pulls yours toward him like a hostage taker. Every success is his success. Every failure—even if he proposed it, pushed it through and bullied all the naysayers—was some loser's fault, not his. He says one thing, completely reverses himself, and denies having said either.
The truth is whatever he comes up with at the moment. Everything he does is the best ever, everything he suffers is the worst anybody has ever suffered. He's a big assed, cheeseburger-scarfing, pervert slob who considers himself the greatest athlete and lady's man in history, and he gets away with it all because there are enough fools and greedy bastards and yes men and women to follow him. And, no, we're not just talking about Donald Trump.
The power tripper composes one of the most obnoxious, even dangerous, subspecies of the human race. This type tends to be male, but it includes intolerable women as well. A single trait defines it: a big, empty ego.
It's the emptiness of his ego that makes the power tripper a power tripper and not just your typical politician or CEO or opinionated uncle. The power tripper's ego doesn't come from his accomplishments or abilities or even a strong sense of identity. All these factors tend to nurture a big, healthy ego over time. In contrast, the power tripper's ego acts like one big hot air balloon: It needs constant refilling. Which is where you come in.
Your first instinct in dealing with a power tripper, especially if you happen to be a male, is to take him down a peg. If he gives you the inevitable limp nickname or makes fun of your Vans, you want to point out that his pants could comfortably house a boatload of refugees. You want to tell him that saying "believe me" at the end of every sentence is the rhetorical equivalent of a lie detector alarm. But, as satisfying as these retorts might seem at the moment, they probably will get you nowhere. The power tripper has more practice at pissing matches. Lots more. And defeating his enemies brings more elevating hot air into his soaring ego balloon.
Instead, you need to follow a principle of rhetoric, the art of persuasion. In rhetoric, the point of every disagreement is not necessarily to win on points or humiliate your opponent. Instead, you apply persuasive tools toward getting what you want. (This assumes your chief desire is not to watch the power tripper as he's pushed through a plate glass window by one of the women he's been harassing.)
What can you realistically get out of a power tripper? To put him under your power, getting him to do whatever you want? In rhetoric, the way you do this is to make all your choices seem to meet the deepest need of your audience—or victim, in this case.
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Start with his deepest need. This isn't always easy to suss out with a person you don't know intimately. But it's a no-brainer with a power tripper. He doesn't just want to see his name in lights. He simply has to be the center of attention. It's as if he won't quite exist unless constantly reminded of his power and glory. When his sycophants fail to praise him enough, he finds himself having to do the bragging on his own. Which, again, is where you come in.
Help the poor man fill that big ego-bag of his. Flatter him mercilessly. Take a lesson from the Chinese and Russians and Turks and Saudis—leaders who come from a long line of cynical flatterers. When dealing with Trump, they piled on the red-carpet pomp and circumstance, and they got great deals from the dealmaker himself. Suddenly the Chinese weren't the currency manipulators Trump claimed they were during the campaign. Suddenly Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish dictator, was a heck of a guy. The Saudis got all the American weapons their oligarchic hearts desired. And the Russians…
You don't have to act as cravenly as a diplomat. No need to sacrifice your own dignity to get what you want. Just ask his advice.
Say: "You have a lot more experience in this than I do."
Say: "I need your opinion on this."
Say: "I remember when you sold that contract under impossible conditions. Tell me how you did it."
The power tripper will come to see you as an ally, or even a friend. You may find his growing friendliness intolerable. But you'll also find that he supports you in meetings and recommends you to others. He'll stop undercutting you. Maybe he'll give you a better nickname. He'll see you as a source of the validation he constantly needs. And he'll do anything to get more of it.
Jay Heinrichs is the author of the New York Times bestselling book Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.
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