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Help! I’m in negotiation with a Narcissist... Get me out of here!

The Covid Pandemic and subsequent supply chain and inflationary pressures have no doubt taken their toll on our collective mental health over the past few years. What it has also done, is to shine a light on the importance of Emotional Intelligence (EI), one of the facets of which is empathy. Being empathetic to some degree comes naturally to the majority of us at different times; there are however those who are not gifted in this area and have little or no natural empathy. As a by-product of increased focus on EI, we have seen people who can be identified as narcissists exposed. Our previously, less emotionally aware workplaces have allowed some of them to hide in plain sight up until now. Once you’ve identified you’re in the unfortunate position of working with a narcissist, it helps to formulate your strategy for dealing with them to avoid things going wrong. It's worth knowing that when it comes to commercial conflict, the more typical empathetic approach won’t work with a narcissist – in fact it can backfire, as they can be master manipulators.

In his new book about the science of relationships - ‘Plays well with others’, Eric Barker has a whole chapter (nine) devoted to narcissism. To paraphrase a joke he uses,

‘When a narcissist was told that humankind had discovered what was at centre of the universe, the narcissist was disappointed to find out it wasn’t them!’.

Narcissism is when you stop trying to sooth your insecurities by relying on others; instead turning to an imaginary ‘self’ where you’re superior. Narcissists are addicted to their dreams – only finding strength within themselves. A lack of empathy is central to the disorder.

So, how can you tell that you’re dealing with a narcissist? Apart from the obvious that the conversation focuses exclusively on them, micro expressions (or the lack of) can give us a real clue. There are emotional expressions which most of us cannot fake – anger, happiness, sadness, contempt, surprise, fear and disgust. We give off these expressions – sometimes for just milliseconds – but they’re still there. They can be difficult to spot, but if we focus on the key areas of commercial conflict, for example: when new information is disclosed; when a proposal is made; and when a proposal is accepted/rejected, these are key times when the aforementioned micro expressions are present. This is unless you’re dealing with a narcissist, when none of these expressions is likely to show*.

So, for those people who haven’t achieved fully blown narcissistic status, Eric Barker has some suggestions about how we can improve our relationships with them. Influencing techniques (or empathy prompts) can help to achieve this. Use the 'liking' principle (or similarity) as a form of ‘judo’ (giving them what they want on your terms): narcissists love themselves, so if they find someone is like them (you), how can they possibly do anything to hurt you? Another good test can be the reaction you receive to expressing your feelings, this is an opportunity to reveal the extent to which narcissism has taken hold. Finally, unity (or community) can also be an effective way of getting them to think outside of themselves – by highlighting the connections of family, friends, groups and other strong bonds.

It is however surprisingly possible to do deals with narcissists, the key is to focus on achieving a strictly transactional relationship (it will never be more than that) which is both clear and specific. The scope of any agreed deal needs to be completely clear in terms of what’s included, what isn’t and what the potential consequences are for non-fulfilment.

Trading with a narcissist is achievable. With a win/win deal, provided the narcissist gets what they believe they should out of it, an agreement is entirely possible. Of course, this presents a potential blind spot for them as well – they may be so consumed with what they are getting, their lack of empathy also may block them from evaluating the deal from your perspective. So it may be possible to trade differential value (high value to you, low cost to them) very easily. Just don’t appear to be too ‘happy’ – or they may re-evaluate what a good deal looks like for them.

The best thing to do (if possible) when you meet a narcissist, is run in the other direction! If that’s not possible, just remember there are techniques to deal with them to help get what you want.

Sam Macbeth, 14th July 2022

* It’s worth also noting that there is another group who may be afflicted with a ‘poker face’ - those on particular types of medication.

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