People with strong narcissistic, sociopathic, and psychopathic tendencies (hereafter narcissists) are unwilling or unable to resolve conflicts or participate in discussion in a healthy, mature manner.
Now, it’s worth noting that not everyone who doesn’t know how to build sound arguments, isn’t familiar with logical fallacies, or doesn’t know how to resolve conflicts is a narcissist. However, a regular, well-intentioned person is usually genuinely willing to become better at it. Meanwhile, a narcissistic person wants to win, dominate, and get what they want, oftentimes at the expense of other people’s well-being.
As someone who has been fascinated by and studied philology (i.e., language), psychology, and argumentation for most of my adult life, I’ve seen thousands of good and bad examples in various scenarios and everything in between. Most people, however, are not knowledgeable in these disciplines and therefore may become easily confused, frustrated, intimidated, or shocked when they encounter certain toxic tactics commonly used by narcissists and other manipulators.
And so in this article we will explore some typical techniques a narcissist uses in conflicts and similar social situations.
1. Arguing in bad faith
When in disagreement, a common person tries to understand the other party, listen to them, be honest, and make sure they understand where others are coming from. Sure, sometimes people can slip and become too upset or too anxious. But generally that’s the unwritten guideline.
Narcissists on the other hand argue in what is sometimes referred to as bad faith. It means that they don’t even care about, or try to understand, the other person. Or even worse, they are dedicated to deliberately misunderstanding and mischaracterizing others, often to the point of absurdity.
They are willingly dishonest, deceptive, and morally corrupt. Often while at the same time quick to accuse others of being dishonest, deceptive, and morally corrupt (more on that in #5).
2. Fallacies, nonsense, word salad
Narcissists are often ill-equipped to have mature discussions or resolve conflicts yet in their mind they are experts at it. As a result, they often use some terms, arguments, or techniques that they’ve heard about yet don’t really understand, all while thinking that they are being rational, reasonable, or correct. Sometimes to the degree that they become extremely upset or even aggressive that you are being irrational, unreasonable, uneducated, and unwilling or unable to have a mature conversation.
Meanwhile in reality, what they’re saying is simply an incoherent rant or an amalgamation of logical and argumentation fallacies, misrepresentation of you, factual errors, emotional language, or pure nonsense (as in something that literally makes no sense). In more extreme cases it is called word salad, as in a mix of words that are just thrown together with no coherence or structure.
3. Provoking, bullying, intimidating
Since a narcissist’s goal is to dominate and be perceived as right at all costs, they often use aggression. This category involves the more overtly aggressive tactics commonly used by narcissists.
Such methods include provoking, bullying, and intimidating, where the narcissist picks on you, calls you names, yells, acts overly emotional, deliberately tries to hurt you, blatantly lies, threatens, or even physically aggresses against you.
Not only that, then they spin it around by presenting it as if by reacting to it or by ignoring them you are the one who’s unreasonable, too emotional, and aggressive against them.
4. Lying, denying, changing definitions
Here, in order to “win,” the narcissist uses more covert tactics.
Sometimes they lie about what happened, what you or they did and didn’t do, or even about what’s real and factually true. Often to the degree of pure denial and delusion. An attempt to confuse the other person and make them doubt their experiences or reality by lying about it is called gaslighting.
Another method that falls in this category is redefining to suit their narrative. For that purpose, they are keen on using euphemistic language or redefining commonly used words to fit their narrative when it clearly doesn’t. Again, the goal is to justify that what they are doing is good and what they are saying is right, even when it clearly isn’t.
Sometimes it means reframing or minimizing their toxic behavior to confuse you. For instance, “I didn’t yell at you, I was just passionate.” Or, “This is not abusive or manipulative, I’m just being assertive and honest.”
5. Deflecting, attacking, projecting
A painfully common tactic used by narcissists is deflect and attack.
Here, the goal is to shift attention from what the narcissist is saying and doing to what you are saying and doing, where they never have to take responsibility for their toxic behavior or address anything you’re saying.
If you bring something up that you don’t like or find to be untrue and problematic, instead of addressing it or taking responsibility for it, they will quickly deflect and go into attack mode. This means they will use their toxic tactics to quickly shift attention from themselves and bring up something that you may or may not have said or done. Often to the degree where they try to always keep you on the defense by accusing you of all sorts of stuff, some of which includes the things they are actually doing themselves (narcissistic projection).
And if you make a mistake of actually trying to address it, you will get distracted from the initial issue and soon become overwhelmed by all the stuff that now you are expected to address and clarify. And do so to a person who doesn’t care about understanding you and is dedicated to mischaracterizing you in order to dominate and “win an argument.”
6. Involving others and acting out revenge fantasies
Narcissists have extremely fragile egos and a shaky sense of self-esteem. If you actually stand up for yourself and don’t play their games, they perceive it as humiliation, as you being unfair, even abusive to them. In their eyes, you are being unreasonable because you don’t acknowledge that they are superior, right, and all around wonderful people. They find it terribly offensive, and feel shame, injustice, and rage (narcissistic injury).
To regulate their overwhelming emotions, they often try to receive false validation. This means looking for people who would side with them and tell them that you are wrong and evil and they are right and good. It involves lying, smearing, slandering, triangulating, gossiping, stalking, and other forms of social aggression and manipulation.
We explored this more in the previous article titled How Narcissists Play the Victim and Twist the Story.
Summary and final words
In a social interaction, discussion, or argument, regular, well-meaning people treat others with curiosity, empathy, and good faith. A narcissist, on the other hand, sees interaction as a win-lose situation. To “win,” they try to dominate, bully, deceive, demean, humiliate, and hurt others.
For that, they use certain common and predictable tactics that include but are not limited to arguing in bad faith, lying, denying, deflecting and attacking, gaslighting, and intimidating. If and when they feel they have lost or were wronged, they will try to intimidate you further and manipulate others in order to hurt you personally and socially. Sometimes while accusing you of it at the same time.
Engaging with a person who uses these tactics is fruitless, frustrating, boring, and predictable. Yet someone who is not quite familiar with it may think, “But if only I explained myself better…” Or, “But if only I presented my argument better…” Or, “But if only they could understand where I’m coming from…” But if only….
Yet they’re not interested in, and often not even capable of, that. They don’t care about sound arguments, honesty, empathy, curiosity, or win-win resolutions. They might claim that they are all about that, but if you look at how they act it’s evident that they are not.
So after you noticed that you’re dealing with someone who is consistently participating in something like this and is not really interested in conflict resolution or finding truth, you can safely decide not to engage with them and save yourself a headache.
Check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.