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How to tell if you're a 'conversational narcissist'

The one thing you should never say to a grieving person — or anyone going through a rough time.

by Julie Compton /
It can be especially tempting to shift the conversation when people are grieving or in distress.PeopleImages / Getty Images

We love to talk about ourselves. It’s what journalist and author Celeste Headlee calls “conversational narcissism.” Not only can it ruin conversations, she warns, it can also destroy relationships.

“Talking about ourselves is very pleasurable and conversational narcissism is what results,” Headlee tells NBC News BETTER. “It’s this tendency to turn conversations back towards ourselves and things that we’re interested in …sometimes consciously, but even subconsciously.”

The “We Need to Talk" author learned about conversational narcissism — a term originally coined by sociologist Charles Derber — the hard way. She once tried to comfort a friend whose father had died, she recalled, by talking about the loss of her own dad.

“I know how you feel,” Headlee told her friend.

Furious at Headlee for making the conversation about herself, her friend stormed away. In hindsight, Headlee admits it was a big mistake.

“When you say you know how someone feels, it’s as though you’re saying: ‘You don’t need to say anything else — I already know,’” says the writer. “It’s condescending, it’s presumptive and it’s diminishing.”

‘Shift responses’: What they are and how they ruin conversations

In trying to comfort her friend, Headlee fell victim to “shift response” — the tendency to shift attention from the other person to yourself. It can be especially tempting to shift the conversation when people are grieving or in distress, according to Headlee, since it can make us feel uncomfortable. But this can be hurtful, she warns.

“People don’t know what to say,” explains Headlee. “And the most familiar topic — the most comfortable topic for all of us — is ourselves and our own experiences.”

Conversational narcissism is not always self-centered, explains the author, though it can come across that way. Anytime we take in new information, our brains search for similar experiences, she says.

“Our brains are trying to help us put that information into context to help us understand it, to give it similar experiences that might help us get a deeper understanding,” she says.

Looking to our own experiences isn’t a bad thing, she says. In fact, it can help us better understand what our loved one is going through.

“You can use that deeper understanding to listen better,” she says. “You just don’t want to open up your mouth and start actually talking about those similar experiences that you have.”

Your loved one doesn’t want to hear about your experiences when they are in distress — they just want to be heard, she explains.

“They want to explain why the loss is so hurtful,” Headlee says.

“When you shift the attention back to yourself,” she says, “you basically shut off that outlet for them.”

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How using ‘support responses’ can make you better at conversation

A “support response” is the opposite of a “shift response.” It’s a response that focuses on the thoughts and feelings of the other person, according to Headlee. It shows them you are paying attention and encourages them to continue speaking.

“A support response basically says two things: It says ‘I hear you’ and ‘Please continue,’” she says.

You can use shift responses in a conversation, explains Headlee, so long as you balance them with support responses.

“If someone says, ‘I need a new pair of shoes,’ you can say, ‘Oh, I need a new pair of shoes, also,’ which is a shift to yourself,” she says. “But you can immediately shift it back by saying, ‘What kind of shoe are you looking for?’”

We should think about conversations as a game of catch, according to the journalist.

“You can’t play if you’re not taking turns,” Headlee says, “and you can’t play if you’re not setting the other person up to both catch the ball and throw it back to you.”

When people trust you to be empathetic, they want to talk to you more

Headlee says that using support responses in conversations has made her relationships better.

“People trust me more, and so they tell me stuff they may not have told me before,” she says.

Finding balance is conversations isn’t solely about helping others, Headlee explains: It’s also something you do for yourself.

“By doing this, you’re more likely to create an empathic bond,” she says.

“It’s a gift you can give to others at the same time that you bestow it on yourself,” says Headlee.

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