Using “I” Language and other Assertive Communication with Narcissists

The awesome dialog that we had recently about responding to emails made me think maybe it would be helpful to have a post of links to resources which discuss ways to communicate more effectively with a narcissist or other personality disorder.

In the comments, Grace provided one link to an article written by Randi Kreger. She’s a great resource for divorcing a narcissist, and it’s definitely worth the while to look up her work and Bill Eddy’s.  In the article, she references using a “BIFF” approach.

Another approach is the use of “I” language.  This is in the realm of “assertive” communication, and can be used not only with someone who has a personality disorder, but also as a respectful means of communicating at work, at home or with friends when working to resolve a disagreement or to convey how something is impacting you.

It takes some work to slow yourself down and make sure to change the way you express something, so this can be a process to learn how to adapt to it.  The premise is simple – instead of starting a sentence with “you are” and directing it at another person’s behavior or actions, start the sentence with “I”.  For example, “You are hurtful when you ignore me” puts someone into a defensive mode, consciously or subconsciously.  The alternative is “I feel hurt when you ignore me”.

Here are a couple articles with more depth:

Lastly, speaking of the above makes me think of my quest to say things in a positive phrasing (although I’m sure I’ve missed the mark here many times 😉 )  It’s a way way way “simple” change which takes the power of stopping your thoughts before speaking.  It’s great with kids – very well received.

Some more simple examples:

Telling a kid to “Walk!” instead of “Don’t run!”

Saying “I like to be on time” in lieu of “I don’t want to be late”

Telling your ex “I love how you returned the kids on time last time, thank you” instead of “Don’t be late like you always are” (hee hee)

With my kids, I also try to practice the ‘caught being good’ approach, and when they are interacting with each other, I point out things that they do in very considerate ways, and ignore those that are… well… subpar 😉

Now, that said, sometimes it doesn’t always work as effectively as the alternative – like when they are wearing socks and dangerously close to stepping into a puddle.  “Keep your socks dry” just isn’t as satisfying as “Don’t you dare put one single toe in that puddle”!

To that end… “Have an awesome day!”

7 Responses to “Using “I” Language and other Assertive Communication with Narcissists”

  1. Eugenio says:

    Superb site you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any discussion boards that cover the same topics discussed in this article?
    I’d really love to be a part of community where I can get suggestions from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Thanks a lot!

  2. Ann says:

    I am finally feeling like I am not in an impossible situation. Thank you everyone for sharing! I am not alone! I am so sorry that others are going through the hell that I live trying to Co parent with a man that is impossible. I have learned a lot about how to respond to his negative nasty attacks on me. I felt when I left him the impossible control would stop. I was very wrong, when children are involved it can get worse. It is so hard to share the best things in your life with the most evil person you have ever met. I want a positive co parent relationship for my children. Is this impossible or will it ever get better?

    • Stacey says:

      I’ve heard once the kids are 18 it gets MUCH easier – but as long as he has any contact with them, it will likely continue to impact them, and thereby impact you.
      I know for me, the older my kids get, the more they can use their voice and stand up for themselves, the less he has to do with them…sad, but it is less stressful!

  3. Ruby says:

    Dear Natalia,
    A google search for “coparenting with a narcisist” brought me to your site a couple of days ago, and I am so glad that it did. There are so many aspects of your blog site and story that I can relate to and learn from. I am so tempted to sit here typing for 4 hours to explain every aspect of my 7 year marriage and recent separation (soon Divorce). I really like your focus on learning together and supporting others in this situation and where I come across useful information, hard learnt lessons or strategies that work I will post them on your site. My absolute favourite point you make is point 3 of coparenting sanity and I am so grateful for the time you have taken in articulating this thought and making it available. I love your emphasis on sympathy regarding your ex. I have started to feel this way in recent months myself, seeing the way he reacts in certain situations and understanding that he has been deprived of the ability to relate to anyone as anything other than a source of N-supply or a trigger for rage. While there isnt deliberate harm to children in the case of my ex, risk perception is so low (its related to a lack of empathy), that I have been to the emergency ward many many times for my two small boys for very preventable injuries. I have embraced swimming lessons like a person on fire embraces water, so I could relate to that section of your blog too. I still have a long way to go in understanding what it is about me that led me to promise my life to a hologram and it is still a battle for me not to enable. Supplying is a hard habit to break. But I did leave and it has almost been a year. I have managed to have the children the majority of the time but he is after 50/50 (v. important for his image). I am hoping there will be someone new soon so that he loses focus on us a bit. Your site is amazing to me. Thank you so much. I will be returning often. Ruby Kyi

    • Oh my gosh – what a perfect, absolutely perfect term … a “hologram”!! How wonderful. Thank you so much for your encouraging words. I’m very glad we’ve connected!

  4. Heather says:

    I think the thing is to be very respectful but always have the big stick handy. For my narcissistic ex:

    1) Avoid contact when possible
    2) When not possible – oreo it with some positive feedback as well. Try to be more gentle with negative feedback. I like that BIFF approach.
    3) Note more serious consequences if he continues to behave badly.
    4) Take him to court.

    I’m counting the time when I won’t have to deal with his toxicity directly in my life anymore.

    When I have energy, I try to give him positive feedback, but I’m always aware of the way my e-mails will be used against me in the future if I keep it too positive.

    • Amen on #1. Since my ex is still telling everyone he would remarry me in an instant, I am very, very cautious of compliments. I’ve seen a normal “nice” conversation lead him sooo far astray that it’s scary. For me, that one element keeps me on my toes, as well as the possibility of anything going into court. Thanks!

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