How to Communicate With a Psychopath: 3 Tips for Dealing With the Emotionally Stunted
Some People are Incapable of Growing Up
The safest policy is to have no contact with such dysfunctional individuals. However, there will be times when you will have to deal with a psychopath, whether it be a co-worker, some confrontational clown at the movie theater, a family member you couldn't avoid—parent, sibling, child, etc. Or perhaps, you're trying to co-parent with one of these personality disordered individuals.
I am not a professional; my advice comes from my own personal experience, and from a wealth of resources—books, websites, forums, etc. In my opinion, the following are the three most important things to know when interacting with a psychopath. It's also worth mentioning that true "communication" with one of these manipulators is not possible, so be aware of that going into any interaction with someone like this. It's a dance where they try to get into your head, and you either naively let them in, or put your guard up and try to maintain a good defense.
Note: I use the terms "psychopath" and "sociopath" interchangeably. I read somewhere that the difference between the two is that a sociopath is capable of showing loyalty within a group (think gang members), but a psychopath is loyal to no one. It's semantics. The jury seems to be out on what the difference is; experts have differing opinions on the subject.
The Gift of Fear - Gavin DeBecker
The only problem I had with this book is that the author seems to be of the opinion that males only are aggressors. If you can ignore that, the book contains a wealth of practical and useful information, and it is a very interesting read. He designed the MOSAIC Threat Assessment System, which helps law enforcement determine which domestic violence cases are likely to result in eventual homicide.
We tend to rationalize or flat out ignore danger signals for fear of being seen as impolite. DeBecker will help you learn to recognize warning signs and trust your instincts, in order to protect yourself from predators. This is especially helpful information for people-pleasing, co-dependent types, who have loose boundaries.
1. Establish Rock Solid Boundaries
Stand Your Ground
Psychopaths hate boundaries and, just like children, they will constantly test yours. If you are the child or spouse of someone who suffers from a personality disorder, it's very likely that you have weak boundaries or none at all. Think of establishing, and maintaining, strong boundaries as putting on your armor.
Sociopaths try to make you feel as if you have no options. They are able to more easily manipulate you once they have made you feel powerless and defeated. Do not allow them to back you into a corner, to make you feel helpless or that you have no choice but to give in to their demands. You always have choices, you may just need to step back and figure out what they are.
If you are being pressured, and you feel the need to remove yourself from a certain location, then do so. Go for a walk, head to the bathroom, take some deep breaths, and regain your composure. Once you have removed yourself from the emotionally charged setting, you'll be better able to assess the situation.
If at all possible, do not get into a vehicle with them, because then you have no egress. However, if you do find yourself without an exit strategy, and the abuse is escalating, try to remain calm. Possible options are to simply ignore the personality disordered individual, repeat a mantra to yourself (for instance, "peace" or "calm"), or keep repeating a response out loud. An example would be to tell them (in the most serene and in-control tone of voice you can manage), "I refuse to speak to you when you're being irrational." Or, "I'm not comfortable having this conversation with you."
Assertiveness will be interpreted as "mean" or "rude," because, by being assertive, you are maintaining a boundary. Never underestimate the sociopath's low self-esteem and tendency to internalize anything that is said to them. No matter how narcissistic or grandiose they can appear to be, they inwardly detest themselves. Even minor, constructive criticism will be taken personally. Do not allow this to deter you from asserting yourself and protecting your personal space.
2. Remain Calm
Do Not Get Sucked Into the Drama
Keeping a cool head is the most important thing you can do in almost any situation, and it is imperative when communicating with a sociopath. You may find it helpful to remind yourself, before you are in the presence of the disordered person, to disengage. Prepare yourself emotionally, as they will try to get under your skin in any way that they possibly can.
They enjoy pushing your buttons. Do not give them the desired response. Do not allow them to see that they are having any effect on you whatsoever. If they see that they have hit a nerve, they will keep digging at it. Be aware of what you are communicating non-verbally (fidgeting, teeth grinding, knuckle cracking, etc.).
You cannot have a rational conversation with someone who is irrational. This is perhaps the toughest challenge for some of us. You may be looking at an adult, but you are speaking to the emotional equivalent of a ten-year-old. (In some cases, 10 is a generous estimate). Adjust your speech and mannerisms accordingly, but try not to come across as condescending. What good will it do to get angry at a child for having a tantrum? The difference with psychopaths is that you can't realistically send someone who's biologically an adult to his or her room, so you'll have to be creative about how you handle yourself in their presence.
Under no circumstance should you argue with them; you will not win. They will always be right, and you will always be wrong. They are unwilling to listen to reason and logic. You will not get through to them, and you will only wind up frustrated. If they do let you think that you have won an argument, be wary! They want something; they are lulling you into a false sense of security. The other shoe will drop after they coerce you into doing, buying, or giving them what they want.
A co-worker may have a harder time figuring out which buttons to push, but be especially wary of ex-lovers and family members who know you very well. If you feel yourself becoming emotionally responsive to their attempts to provoke you, try repeating a mantra in your head, even if it is simply one word such as "disconnect" or "serenity."
What's your experience?
How familiar are you with psychopaths?
3. Stay Focused
Be Wary of Diversion Tactics
Keep your attention on what is important. A sociopath will use elaborate hand gestures, stand too close to you, stare you down, constantly touch you, anything they can think of to distract you from catching the discrepancies and contradictory statements coming out of their mouths. They will embellish and outright lie in order to appear more intelligent, more accomplished, more interesting, more anything than they really are. They will also abruptly change the subject (or tell a series of lies) if you call them out on something.
They will try to keep you on edge or make you feel uncomfortable. Do not allow them to overstep your personal boundaries. "No" is a complete sentence, and you don't have to disclose information that you do not want to share with them, nor are you obligated to tolerate physical contact.
Be aware that they may tell you something personal (which may not even be true - they are, after all, compulsive liars) in order to make you feel obligated to share something personal with them. The goal is to elicit private info that they can then use to their advantage. For instance, maybe it's a secret you fear they will tell others, or perhaps it's just knowledge they can use to guilt trip you. They can use seemingly innocuous information to manipulate you in ways that you wouldn't even have thought possible, so be very careful what you divulge.
See past the flighty hand gestures, smiles, winks, attempts to touch you, and really focus on what they are saying. Their dialogue is usually full of contradictions and faulty logic. Just like mythical vampires, emotional vampires will try to mesmerize you (and they tend to use an abnormal and intimidating amount of eye contact). You are not obligated to look them in the eye. In fact, you may find it easier to focus on their words if you close your eyes, focus on a spot on the wall, or look at another facial feature other than their eyes.
I highly recommend this book which was written by Dr. Robert Hare and Dr. Paul Babiak. The information is to identify manipulators in the work place, but it translates to any situation where you might encounter such a person. In fact, if you have a "friend" or relative like this, you will recognize some of the same behaviors instantly. It is frustrating when you know that something is terribly wrong, but you can't quite put your finger on it. Reading books like this one will help you to identify it and name it, which will help you talk about your experiences, or at least write about them. Making sense of what is happening/has happened to you is essential, if you want to bounce back. Also, once you've identified the manipulative behavior, it will be easier to recognize the next time a bully comes along and tries to pull your strings.
Is there a manipulator in your life?
If so, what role do they play for you?
Empower Yourself, Do Not Be a Victim
Establishing, and maintaining, strong boundaries is the best line of defense in keeping yourself safe from emotional vampires. Setting limits is absolutely essential, if you do not want to be taken advantage of. It is also important to remain calm and alert; focus on the words, not on the diversions.
You cannot change the behavior of a psychopath (or anyone else, for that matter). You can only change how you react, and not reacting to them at all is usually best. You do have choices; walk away whenever possible, and when you can't, be vigilant.
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Karli McClane