How to argue with a narcissist – four tactics they love to use and how to respond to them
Do you have the misfortune to know a narcissist? Discover four tactics they often use in arguments and the best way to respond to them to protect yourself – and minimise the damage.
If you have ever had the bad luck to encounter a narcissist, or even to live, work or be related to one, you’ll know that they love to argue. You’ll also know that when a narcissist feels challenged, there are no holds barred. No response is too low for them to steep to, no tactic too dirty and no insult too far.
All of which makes it very tricky to know how to respond if you are not a narcissist. How do you play by the normal social rules (or even stick to the truth) when they aren’t constrained by the same? And how can you avoid falling into the cruel traps they set for you?
In this article we explore how you can effectively argue with a narcissist and, if not win (there are few winners when a narcissist is involved) at least emerged relatively unscathed.
Narcissists love to argue (and win)
There’s only one thing a narcissist loves more than an argument, and that is winning an argument. Forget compromising or finding any kind of middle ground; the only objective a narcissist has in a disagreement, or even a simple difference of opinion, is to destroy your point, and quite possibly you.
And they have a wealth of tools to aid them in this battle. Namely (though not restricted to) strawmanning, gaslighting, stonewalling and blame shifting. Before we explore what each one is, how they use it and how to respond when they do, let’s first of all clarify what a narcissist is.
What is a narcissist?
As we explain here, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a psychological condition in which people have an idealised self-image. They have an over-inflated sense of their importance and need attention and to be admired.
But behind this outward confidence they have an extremely fragile self-esteem that cannot take even the tiniest criticism. If they do perceive they are being criticised (even if they actually aren’t) they will usually come out all guns blazing to defend themselves – often by attacking what or who they perceive as the threat.
Many people can display one or more traits of narcissism, depending on the situation and what is happening in their lives at that point in time. But to be officially diagnosed as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder you would need to meet five or more of the following criteria:
- Have a grandiose sense of self-importance.
- Be preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believe that you are special and unique.
- Require excessive admiration.
- Have a very strong sense of entitlement.
- Be exploitative of others.
- Lack empathy.
- Be often envious of others or believe others are envious of you.
- Regularly show arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes.
Why is it so difficult to argue with a narcissist?
Not many people actually like arguments, and some people will do almost anything to avoid a confrontation. But narcissists thrive on them.
That’s not to say all arguments are unhealthy. Done ‘properly’ and with mutual respect, arguing can be constructive and help people get out of ruts, change their thinking and find new compromises that may never have been discovered or agreed otherwise.
But a narcissist isn’t interest in a healthy discussion and finding a mutually agreeable outcome. They want to win/destroy and, as mentioned will employ any tactic to ensure this happens. They also have no interest in ending an argument quickly, so will often pour petrol on a conflict, ensuring it burns longer and harder than necessary.
A narcissist is a vindictive and ruthless opponent in any conflict, however small, and requires very careful handling. Here are four common tools they’ll employ to ensure they win, and the best way to respond to them.
When someone uses the strawman tactic on you, they will take something you say, and distort it or exaggerate it to an extreme degree. They’ll then attack this distortion, as if that is what you said.
So for example, if you say to a narcissist “We need more government legislation to protect women in the workplace”, a narcissist may respond with, “Oh so you think the government is sexist, does nothing at all to support mothers and it’s their fault that your friend lost her job.”
Strawmanning is an incredibly powerful tactic because the narcissist immediately derails any point you may have been making, and instead you find yourself defending a ludicrously incorrect statement, and sometimes helping them make THEIR point in the process.
For example, in the above exchange, you may respond with, “No I didn’t say that, I know it’s not the government’s fault my friend was made redundant…”. At which point the narcissist may jump in with, “See! You were completely wrong as usual.”
In reality strawman arguments usually last much longer than this (and get much more ridiculous) and you find yourself continually correcting or defending statements that are increasingly far from where you started, to the extent that you can forget what your original point was. Or simply concede out of exhaustion.
The other good thing for a narcissist about using the strawman tactic is that it focusses everyone else on what they say you said. So you’re presented as an unreasonable and unreliable person (your continual defences of the latest strawman statement will inevitably mean that at some point you’ll contradict something you’ve said) and everyone misses your original, valid point.
The strawman tactic is particularly effective because you cannot help but feel emotional and frustrated at being misrepresented so dramatically and unfairly. And when we’re emotionally triggered, we can suffer an ‘amydala attack’ which disables your frontal lobes, and makes it much harder (or even possible) to have a rational, reasoned response.
How to respond to strawmanning
So how can you respond to the strawman tactic? Try not to let them drag you down their route of misdirection. Instead, whatever they say simply restate your original point and DO NOT get dragged into defence.
So if you say “We need more government legislation to protect women in the workplace”, and the narcissist responds with, “Oh so you think the government is sexist, does nothing at all to support mothers and it’s their fault that your friend lost her job,” you reply with, “No, I said that we need more government legislation to protect women in the workplace.”
Do not deviate from that statement if they continue to try to strawman you. Every time they attempt to distort or exaggerate your statement, re-state it. Even if it means saying the same thing over and over again. The only way to avoid being strawmanned is to not respond to their exaggeration, even if that response is to try to defend it.
Strawman’s close cousin is our old friend gaslighting. The aim of gaslighting is to get you to second guess or doubt reality, or what you have said or done. And like the strawman tactic, it works well in arguments to disrupt what you are really trying to communicate, confuse you and others, and send the argument in a totally different direction.
With gaslighting a narcissist won’t just distort or exaggerate what you are trying to say – they will outright lie, deny or move the goal posts completely.
They’ll claim the point you made was completely different; that you have either mis-remembered or are lying now. And they’ll state this with such conviction and determination that you (and anyone else involved in or witnessing the argument) will find it hard to disbelieve them.
It can be a powerful way to discredit you because you’ll find yourself defending their accusation by claiming that either you don’t remember saying or doing that, or can’t believe that you’d say or do that – and either way you sound uncertain and end up defending or explaining their lie rather than your original point.
How to respond to gaslighting
That’s why, like strawmanning, the best way to respond to a gaslight attack in an argument is to simply restate your original point, or what you did, with confidence and not get dragged into he-said-she-said autopsies of what happened or how you got here.
So, to take the exchange we used above as an example. You might say, “We need more government legislation to protect women in the workplace”, and the narcissist responds with, “Why are you saying that? Yesterday you claimed this government had done more to help women in the workplace than any other!” You should never be tempted to respond with, “When did I say that? And why would I say that? I’ve always thought this government could do better.”
If you do, you’ve opened the chink of doubt, and their statement stands as the truth that must be defended against. Instead, it’s much better just to shut them down with a very certain, “I did not say that. I said we need more government legislation to protect women in the workplace.” Don’t explain further, just refuse to debate on, reiterating that simple statement if needed.
Don’t be tempted to elaborate any further. After all, their entire argument is incorrect (and an outright lie) and defending against it simply implies they may have a point worth debating.
Another gaslighting tactic a narcissist may employ is to say something that is impossible to prove or disprove like, “Last week you said I/they were mean and you didn’t want to work with me/them any more.” Most decent people won’t make up a complete lie like this, so it’s easy for witnesses to your argument to believe what they say, or at least credit it with a grain of truth.
Again, don’t fall for this tactic. Don’t try to defend yourself by asking when you said it, explaining why you would never say that, or getting indignant. Give their lie all the respect it deserves by simply stating, calmly, that you did not say that and don’t elaborate or explain further.
If you do allow yourself to get drawn in by a narcissist’s tactics, they will diminish your point and credibility further by telling you to “calm down” and “stop getting so emotional.” Which will only result in you getting more emotional, which impairs your rational thinking (and ability to argue effectively) further, and discredit you to anyone else witnessing or involved in the argument.
I just want to note that I appreciate it is hard not to get drawn in when someone is misrepresenting you so awfully, especially when other people are witnessing the exchange. But by entering into any debate or defence you are giving the narcissist exactly what they want, and weakening your own position.
The only way to protect yourself from strawmanning and gaslighting is to remain calm, refuse to let their distortions, accusations and lies get to you, and stick to your original statement. The moment you respond to their tactic, they have drawn you into a circular, confusing debate that you’ll quickly get lost in and have little-to-no hope of winning.
The opposite to strawmanning and gaslighting, but equally as frustrating and effective, is stonewalling. This is when the narcissist refuses to engage, shutting down the conversation or debate either before it has really begun or before it’s concluded, and without addressing or resolving any of your concerns.
Stonewalling can also lead to being given the silent treatment, where the narcissist ‘punishes’ you by ignoring you and refusing to speak to you.
Continual stonewalling is an effective tactic for a narcissist who wants to undermine you, as being given the silent treatment has been shown to activate the same area of the brain that detects physical pain. So it feels physically painful.
Being stonewalled can be extremely frustrating as you don’t get the opportunity to present, explain or defend your position. You don’t have the chance to understand the other persons’s point of view, nor help them to understand yours. And there’s no compromise or conclusion.
And as the narcissist is the one who effectively ends the debate, they retain the power. It is almost like they are saying, “You are so wrong it’s not even worth discussing further with you.” It is especially frustrating when a narcissist ends a discussion by stating their position as if it is fact and then not allowing any response, either by removing themselves physically from the room, or ignoring you.
Often a narcissist will employ the tactic of stonewalling if they think you are beginning to see through their games, or realise they can’t bully you with strawmanning or gaslighting.
Stonewalling can trigger anxiety, fear and self-doubt in its victims, especially if it’s used often. It removes any power you have to respond or voice your thoughts, opinion or position, and infers that anything you have to say is irrelevant or meaningless to the narcissist.
How to respond to stonewalling
So how should you respond? Like all tactics employed by a narcissist, the worst thing you can do is to emotionally react as it plays into their hands, and reduces your ability to think and react in a calm, rational way.
If the narcissist leaves the room, let them. Understand that their response has nothing to do with you, and does not reflect on the validity of your feelings or argument. If it is possible, let the argument go. Unlike the narcissist, your ego doesn’t need to ‘win’ to feel validated.
If it is not possible to end the discussion there, then the next time you see the narcissist, ask them if they are ready to continue it. If they claim it is over, calmly state that it is not, and you would like to resolve it and come to a mutually agreeable decision. Ask them again if they are ready to discuss now, and if not, when would be a suitable time.
if the narcissist does not leave the room but simply blanks you, again consider whether or not the discussion needs to be concluded properly. If it does, then state to the narcissist that you can see they do not wish to discuss this further now, so will talk to them later about it.
Don’t pursue an argument for the sake of it. If it’s just a conflict of opinions ask yourself whether it’s worth resolving, or better to just leave there as clearly the narcissist is not capable of debate (and therefore their opinion is unlikely to be worth the battle anyway).
But if you do need to agree an outcome, for example to come to a clear decision for work, then don’t let the narcissist steamroller you by withdrawing and stonewalling you. Insist that they agree a time to continue the discussion and don’t just cave in for an easy life (which the narcissist assumes/hopes you will do by employing this tactic). Remain calm and factual, but stand your ground.
4) Blame shifting
The final tactic narcissists love to employ in an argument we’re going to cover in this article is blame shifting. Narcissists use blame shifting to deflect the argument from themselves and make themselves the victim.
Why do they do this? Aside from the fact that it muddies the water and wrong foots their opponent, the brutal truth is that a narcissist can’t possible ever take the blame for something, because in their eyes they can’t ever be wrong. And if they are not wrong then you MUST be.
Blame shifting is a convenient way for a narcissist to side step any responsibility and shift an argument from the actual facts of the debate, to who is to blame for it happening. (And that is never them.)
You’ll often notice a narcissist using this strategy when they’re caught out. For example, if they’re caught cheating on you, they may say, “If you’d showed me more attention I wouldn’t have needed to look elsewhere for affection.” Or if they make a mistake in a report at work they may respond with, “If you hadn’t given me the wrong information this wouldn’t have happened.”
Another classic blame shifting response is, “You made me do it because…”. It’s always someone else’s fault when something happens; the narcissist will never take personal responsibility. It’s a particularly toxic way to respond to a situation because it doesn’t allow open, non-accusatory dialogue, and doesn’t enable the real truth or reasons to emerge. It doesn’t respect or acknowledge, and it doesn’t lead to any understanding, real resolution or ability to learn and prevent situations from happening again.
Instead, blame shifting effective way of shutting you down because, once again, rather than focusing on the situation and facts at hand, you are back to defending yourself. The focus is on you, your behaviour, your mistakes, your flaws… and you feel unfairly accused. As a result you feel that you need to explain and defend yourself, and are often emotionally aroused as a result – and therefore less able to be calm and rational.
Also, the accusations made against you are often hard, even possible to quantify and defend. They are likely to be emotional, motive-driven and never black and white. How can you prove a lack of motive on your part? Or demonstrate that you didn’t make someone feel a particular way?
And as soon as you try to refute an allegation or defend yourself against it, you lose sight of what actually happened. You’re not resolving the actual act or facts, you’re binding yourself up in emotional debate, having been cleverly distracted from the real issue.
How to respond to blame shifting
So how can you respond to blame shifting? Like strawmanning and gaslighting, the key is not to get bogged down in accusations and emotional or irrelevant details. And instead stick to the facts at hand and moving to a resolution.
So if your partner claims they cheated on you because they didn’t get enough attention from you, rather than become outraged that this is a ridiculous response (which it is) or try to defend yourself as a loving partner, instead say something like, “That is not an appropriate explanation. I would like to know why you cheated.” Continue to press your point if it’s not answered.
If a colleague made a mistake in a report and is blaming you, then either simply move on if appropriate (debating who made a one-off mistake is not helpful), or if the mistake is important and you know untrue, you may respond with, “That is not true. Please provide evidence of this mistake.”
The key is always to remain calm and keep any response factual. Don’t let the narcissist drag you down rabbit holes that distract you from the point at hand, and ensure they win simply because they have confused and exhausted everyone else.
Reduce your exposure to narcissists and avoid arguing with them
Want to know the best way to win an argument with a narcissist? Don’t get involved with one in the first place! Narcissists love a good brawl; it helps feed their narcissistic supply. And they always fight dirty. So for your own sanity, try to avoid getting into an argument with one if you can.
If it’s not possible, remember to stay calm and factual. Stick to your position and keep repeating it. Whatever tactic they try on you, don’t let them emotionally trigger you or confuse you by forcing you to defend yourself against ridiculous claims and statements.
And if you start to suspect that someone in your life is a narcissist, or if they frequently use any of the tactics we’ve covered above, try to minimise your exposure to them. If they are a friend or family member, gradually withdraw from their orbit without them realising (making any kind of statement or obvious move will only anger them and make them want to punish you).
And if you work with a narcissist, try again to minimise your exposure to them. Move departments, projects or even job if necessary. You’ll never change a narcissist and little good will ever come from engaging in one. Especially if you get them into a fight!
Read more about narcissists and toxic people
If you’d like to learn more about narcissist and toxic people in general, and get more strategies for handling them in specific situations, we recommend reading these articles:
- How to spot and deal with toxic family members
- Seven signs you work in a toxic workplace (and what to do about it)
- Nine signs you’re in a toxic friendship
- The 10 giveaway signs of a toxic person – and how to handle them
Photo by engin akyurt