This post is about coaching narcissists or people with at least some narcissistic traits, with the purpose of helping my fellow coaches deal with this difficult but common trait. My roots are in clinical psychology, having been trained as a Marriage and Family Therapist, and I carried an interest in personality disorders into my executive coaching and doctoral studies in organizational leadership. Unfortunately, my school didn’t allow me to test for narcissism in executives for my dissertation study, due to the potential liability associated with “diagnosing” from afar without treating the participants; my dissertation committee instead suggested neuroticism – a purely academic construct with no clinical disorder directly attached to it. I took the suggestion and studied the relationships among neuroticism components (proneness to all kinds of negative emotions) and leadership competencies. While that study turned out to have useful practical implications, I still remain fascinated with my first love in personality psychology – narcissism. There are pertinent “right” and “wrong” ways to help narcissists, from the standpoint of helping professions, that are worth disseminating. Obviously, we coaches aren’t meant (or allowed) to be treating psychological disorders, but knowing how to handle a narcissist can help them accomplish their goals in the coaching context.
How to Recognize Narcissism in Clients
There are several books and articles that describe what narcissism looks like, so I won’t go into detail here. Basically, you’ll want to be looking out for the following tendencies: showing off about accomplishments, prestigious social associations, money, beauty, intelligence, and power, discomfort with showing vulnerability, seeking approval and adulation, one-upmanship toward others, and difficulty showing empathy. There are varying levels of narcissism, which, like just about everything, is a spectrum. Some display these behaviors practically all the time while others only do when faced with an emotionally difficult situation. Pay attention to the patterns in the people around you, and you’ll eventually become adept at recognizing these behaviors for what they are – compensations that were developed once upon a time, when real validation and empathy was not received during formative years. Some narcissists continue to have low self-esteem while others have high self-esteem but never replaced the behaviors with better coping techniques. These behaviors can be highly reinforcing and rewarding, after all, and they may continue indefinitely when serious consequences haven’t been experienced.
The number one thing a narcissist needs is empathy – something he or she didn’t sufficiently experience while growing up. Over the long-term, showing them empathy has the potential to be a healing experience, though narcissism is very difficult to overcome. It’s worth a try and, at the very least, your narcissistic client will appreciate you for it. In my experience, women are typically more flexible than men and may have a higher likelihood of changing their emotional functioning, given the right motivation; but there are always exceptions. Frequently paraphrase any emotional content they express in order to show you’re putting yourself in their shoes. You may have learned about this commonly taught technique called “reflection” in your coach training, especially if you’re an ICF-credentialed coach. Don’t forget the basics like this one. Empathy is distinct from sympathy, which involves compassion and pity but not necessarily real understanding. Narcissists don’t care as much for sympathy, but then again, that may be the case for most of us. (An aside: In my psychotherapy training, I was taught that the opposite approach is appropriate for those with Borderline Personality Disorder: emphasize the boundaries and differences between yourself and the client so that they don’t fear merging with you.)
Go with the Flow, at Least Initially
A narcissist is accustomed to feeling worthy of his or her existence only through self-aggrandizement and adulation from others. As frustrating as this need may be for those of us on the other end who aren’t in the habit of brown-nosing, you may need to occasionally give compliments in order to form a connection. Pay attention to the client’s schema, or “mental model of aspects of the world or of the self that is structured in such a way as to facilitate the processes of cognition and perception“ (psychologydictionary.org) (in other words, frame of reference); again, they’ll usually pertain to one or more of the following themes: strength, intelligence, talent, social class, beauty, and/or money. Then, praise them for accomplishments in those areas where you feel comfortable (without encouraging superficiality or bad behavior). Over time, you may be able to reduce your compliment-giving, as your client experiences receiving support for just being a living human. Because of their upbringing, they don’t understand that love is freely given and not earned. Show them otherwise.
There’s one circumstance in which praise may always be helpful to this type of client: when giving constructive feedback that could be interpreted as criticism. Sandwiching constructive criticism with positive statements before and afterward can make the client more comfortable with receiving the feedback, making them more willing to work on themselves. If this is not always possible or too cumbersome, at least frame it positively. For example, instead of saying, “You talk too much and don’t listen to others,” one could say “You have a lot of valuable information to offer, and you might want to let others enjoy sharing theirs too.”
Awareness and New Learning
Self-awareness may be present in your narcissistic clients to varying degrees. Observe carefully to identify triggers for narcissistic injury (painful blows to the ego) in their stories and reactions, and avoid these triggers unless or until your client is willing to discuss them openly. They’ll run away from you otherwise, and then you can’t help them at all! It’ll take time to replace their old coping techniques. Your messages may need to be paradoxical in the sense of using their usual mental patterns to build new philosophies. For example, many see seeking help as sign of weakness. Instead, they might learn to think “it’s cowardly to avoid dealing with my feelings of vulnerability head-on. It’s strong for me to be seeking help.” This uses the schema of strength and turns on its head the idea that bottling up feelings is a form of strength. Reinforce how strong they are for engaging in the process of self-examination (especially true for this population!). Also, normalize what they’re dealing with so that they don’t feel especially flawed for having such struggles. It can help to remind them that all feelings are correct, since they’re just reflexes trying to tell us something about ourselves. That way, the client has permission to stop judging him/herself for their very normal feelings.
Use Personal Caution
Be careful that you aren’t getting sucked into an abusive cycle with them, the closer you get. Maintaining personal boundaries is highly important with a narcissist and may be challenging, if they take a liking to you. Don’t react to their games. The narcissistic abuse cycle goes something like this:
1) The narcissist showers praise and adoration onto the new person in their life, making that person addicted to the positive attention and promises of a wonderful future;
2) After the novelty of the adoring person wears off, the narcissist begins to devalue them with cutting remarks and belittling, abusive actions;
3) When the victim reacts in anger, the narcissist makes him/herself into the victim in order to gain sympathy from others, feel empowered, and shun the victim; and, finally,
4) The narcissist discards the victim, who no longer feeds his or her ego, and finds a new future victim that does.
Don’t dance with them in this way. If it gets toxic, get out. And remember any exceptions to your promise of confidentiality, in case they’re also sociopathic and confess to plans of causing others harm.
I hope this helps you to better coach and manage your clients with narcissistic traits. If you have any questions or know someone that could use my expertise in helping bosses become the best version of themselves, please feel free to contact me at [email protected] or 435-200-4909.