When No Contact Is Not an Option: 3 Ways to Communicate With a Psychopath
No Contact Is the Best Policy
Sociopaths, psychopaths, personality disordered individuals, emotional vampires, toxic people, high conflict personalities, abusers, bullies - whichever term you feel is most accurate - it's best to avoid them like the plague. Of course, this is not always possible. The abuser in your life may be a coworker, someone you share parenting responsibilities with, a relative you'd feel guilty about breaking ties with, or some other person you can't always avoid.
If no contact is not an option, strive for minimal contact, and stay focused when communicating with the individual. For example, if it's a coworker, limit the discussion to whatever project you are working on. Co-parenting? Refuse to converse about anything other than the shared offspring. If it's a manipulative relative you have issues with, set some firm boundaries, and let the emotional blackmailer know that you will hang up (or leave, depending on the situation) if they attempt to cross any lines. Be prepared to follow through; stating that you refuse to be mistreated but then allowing it only reinforces the narcissist's belief that you are easy to take advantage of.
Currently, most of us use 3 main types of communication, and I will discuss the pros and cons of each. Before opening up a dialogue with a toxic person, assess your own mental well-being. Are you tired? Hungry? Upset about something else? If you don’t feel 100% going into the conversation, you can always say, “Now is not a good time. I’ll have to get back to you later.” Don’t allow the individual to intimidate you into continuing a conversation you aren’t ready for. If you can’t give it ALL of your attention and focus, and be on your highest state of alert, do not engage.
Please note that I am not a mental health clinician. My advice comes from my own personal experiences and research.
Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work - Paul Babiak, Ph.D. & Robert Hare, Ph.D.
I highly recommend this book. Even if you don't work with a psychopath, the information translates to other types of interpersonal relationships. These types of personalities operate in the same manner, whether they are coworkers, bosses, subordinates, lovers, parents, children, siblings or anyone else.
Here are just a few highlights from the book, as they pertain to this hub:
Psychopaths figure out how to push your buttons by identifying weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They can also use those buttons to play people against each other.
"Amazingly, more often than not, victims will eventually come to doubt their own knowledge of the truth and change their own views to believe what the psychopath tells them rather than what they know to be true."
"The more you know about your own weaknesses, biases and hot buttons, the better prepared you will be to fend off attempts by psychopaths and others to influence you."
"When someone presses one of our hot buttons, our attention may be diverted from more important things in our social environment, and our evaluation of a person or situation may be colored by the feelings and reactions triggered by the hot button... They will identify your hot buttons and will push them to test their utility. They will use this information to establish in you a mood that is conducive to their current interests and schemes."
The book contains a wealth of information to educate you on what motivates these slimy creatures, how they operate, and how we allow them to get into our minds and under our skin.
1. Face to Face Meetings
This is absolutely the worst way for you to have to communicate with a manipulative individual. It is also the best way for them to get into your head. If you cannot avoid this type of contact, insist on meeting in a very public place. Most manipulators want to maintain a demeanor of composure and normalcy, at least while in public, so they are less likely to physically attack you or cause a scene (theatrical sobbing, yelling, screaming, and generally just throwing a tantrum). However, the more emotionally unbalanced ones have less control over themselves, and they may flake out whether there are others around or not. The main advantage of being out in public is that you will have witnesses. At the first sign of a meltdown, get up and walk away. (It is important to arrive on your own - NEVER get into a car with one of these types).
Assuming the disordered individual you are meeting with doesn't become loud or obnoxious, they will be employing one or more tactics that you need to be aware of. In a face to face meeting, they will be able to read your body language and facial expressions, so it is important to remain calm, and keep your voice neutral. Also, pay attention to your non-verbals - try not to fidget, grit your teeth, chew your nails, sigh, roll your eyes, wring your hands, swing your leg, play with your hair, or anything else that would give away anger, irritability, nervousness or anxiety. If you have any of these habits or others, be aware of the non-verbal message you’re sending and how it is being received.
They will try to push your buttons. Don't get sidetracked into a conversation that isn't relevant. Focus on whatever business required you to meet with this person in the first place, and refuse to be distracted. They will most likely either ask you a lot of questions that do not pertain to the business at hand and/or flood you with a lot of irrelevant information in an attempt to confuse you and keep you off balance. Gently remind them of why you agreed to meet, and bring the conversation back to that.
Be aware that they will mirror your body language in an attempt to put you at ease in their presence, to make you feel a sense of camaraderie. There's nothing you can do about this, just be aware of it, and don't fall for it. They may try to flirt with you or touch you during the conversation. This is a major boundary that you need to establish and maintain - NO touching. You have every right to ask them to keep their hands to themselves. You also have the right to get up and leave at any time during the meeting, if they refuse to respect your boundaries.
You don't have much time to think about your responses in a person to person meeting. If you are asked a question that you don't want to respond to right away, it's perfectly okay to say that you would like to think about that and get back to them at a later time or date. Don't be pressured into agreeing to anything rashly.
Finally, they may try to intimidate you with too much eye contact. If a direct stare is unnerving, simply close your eyes or look away. If you don't want to appear too obvious about not meeting their gaze, focus on a spot between their eyes or the tip of their nose.
2. Phone Calls
This form of communication is so-so for both you and the manipulator; it has pros and cons for each of you. One of the downsides for you is that your abuser will be able to hear in the tone of your voice what your mood is like and whether or not their words are having any affect on you. It is important to remain composed, moderate your voice, and refrain from sighing. Do not allow your voice to go up an octave or become strained. Do not allow yourself to get riled. Manipulative people will always try to push your buttons and, once they know they've hit a nerve, they will attack it relentlessly.
Along with the ability to read the tone of your voice, there are other things with phone calls that are just like a face-to-face conversation. They can flood you with information in order to keep you off balance. You don't have too much time to compose your responses, and you might let something slip. Do not allow yourself to be drawn off topic by seemingly innocuous questions. You would be surprised how useful the most minute details are to this type of individual. The information can be used to harm you in some way. Remember that you can end a phone call even easier than you can walk away from a personal meeting.
If at all possible, you might want to record the conversation. The laws are different in every state, so you may not be able to use the recording to protect yourself. You will, however, have proof that the conversation did go the way you remember it. It's not uncommon for a psychopath to try, at a later time, to convince you that you agreed to something you did not, or that they said something completely different from what they actually said.
You can legally record in ANY state by simply letting the other party know that they are being recorded. If they continue the conversation, then you have a record. Be extra careful, though, as they may try even harder to push your buttons and make you lash out, making them look like the "sane" one if the recording should ever come up. If they refuse to continue, it may be because they are uncomfortable with the idea that what they say could be heard by someone else that they are not actively trying to manipulate. The idea of their actions having a wider audience than their intended victim will likely be off-putting.
3. E-Mail, Texting and Instant Messaging
First of all, just forget about video chat; tell the manipulator your webcam doesn't work. Video chat puts you at almost the same disadvantage as a face to face meeting with the abusive personality, and you want to avoid being that vulnerable whenever possible. E-mail is absolutely the safest form of communication for you (so, of course, is snail mail, if anyone reading this is still using it), and instant messaging and texting are the next best thing. (Although, it goes without saying that you should avoid giving your personal cell number to anyone you even suspect of being personality disordered).
With e-mail, you have as much time as you need to respond. Read and re-read your response. If possible, sleep on it, prior to hitting send. With chat and text, you have a little less time to respond, but you're not on the spot like you are in a personal meeting or phone call. And, if you feel pressured, intimidated or angry and you need a few moments to compose yourself, you can always say that you had to walk away from the PC (or set your device down) in order to answer the door, walk the dog, take the kettle of boiling water off the stove, etc. You get the point.
The personality disordered individual that you are communicating with cannot read your facial expressions or body language or the tone of your voice. This is all very good for you and quite a disadvantage for them. They can, however, read the tone of your words, so be careful when choosing them. Try not to come across as condescending, sarcastic, self-righteous, or anything other than equanimous, polite, courteous and to-the-point. You want to be clear and direct, but firm. Deal with whatever business you have with them, but hold your boundaries.
Stick to the issue/subject at hand ONLY. Do NOT offer or provide any other information about yourself or answer any questions that don’t relate to the matter at hand. If the personality disordered individual you are speaking with tells you they are “just being friendly” or “polite”, don’t be afraid to say, “Let’s stick to the subject”, or “I would prefer it if the two of us maintained our professionalism”, if it’s a business associate. A personality disordered individual may become cold or take this as an attack on them. NOT YOUR PROBLEM. An emotionally healthy person would simply roll with it and take your cue, as in, “Got it, no chit-chat - no problem.”
This type of communication offers you a hard copy, or transcript, of the conversation. If it comes down to it, it may or may not be admissible in a court of law. Either way, you now have proof of what was said. It is not uncommon for manipulators to later try to rewrite history by trying to convince you (or co-workers, friends, family members, etc.) that the discussion was quite different from what it actually was.
Sociopaths Hate Healthy Boundaries
It's worth repeating that you should never give away personal information that isn't relevant. If you feel pressured into giving an immediate response, buy time by asking some questions of your own, ignore the psychopath's questions, or simply refuse to answer. Yes, you do have the right to flat out state, "I refuse to answer that question" or "My personal life is of no concern to you."
It's a mistake to over-explain yourself or offer detailed excuses for why you can't or don't want to comply with their wishes. The fewer words you use, the better. They will try their hardest to cause you to doubt yourself and to tear your excuses to shreds in order to get you to do what they want. As an example, let's say your emotional vampire is your sister. She wants you to watch her kids Saturday, and you don't want to. You tell her you already have plans for Saturday. It doesn't matter whether you are going out with friends, or you just need a day to yourself because it's been a stressful week for you. She doesn't need to know why; you do not owe her an explanation. If she keeps asking for a reason, simply keep repeating that you already have plans and that you don't care to share them with her. Any additional information will be met with resistance/argument. She will try to make you feel like you're being selfish or only care about yourself in an attempt to guilt you into doing what she wants. It's FOG (fear, obligation, guilt); If you know this, you can learn to recognize the tactics as they are being used.
It really is that simple. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you assert yourself, the more it will become second nature. Staying on topic and maintaining your boundaries will almost certainly cause the psychopath to try to manipulate you into doubting yourself. They will tell you that you are being rude, mean, selfish or any number of things in an attempt to weaken your boundaries. Don't be bullied; you have the right to assert yourself and protect your best interests.
Also worth noting is that when you engage with a sociopath, it is not truly "communication"; there is no give-and-take exchange happening. As outlined in this article, these manipulators play head games with their words and twist your words around on you or use the information to their own advantage. Never forget that when you know you are dealing with one.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Karli McClane