When my son-in-law Josh first started dating our daughter Rena, we liked him very much. He seemed like such a friendly, personable, interesting young man. Rena has always been on the shy side, so we thought it was a perfect match. Maybe it is, but now we’re having a very hard time with him.
After Josh married Rena and started coming around more often to our house and feeling really comfortable here, his true nature emerged. He is a nice guy and I think that Rena is happy with him, but my wife and I have discovered that he is a “know-it-all.” Frankly, I’ve never met anyone like him before. Though he means well, he has an opinion on absolutely everything. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d start giving a brain surgeon advice on how to perform surgeries more efficiently!
The fact is that although he is smart and does know a lot, he doesn’t know everything. And yet, he’ll insert his opinion into every single conversation going on, to the point that I want to pull out the few hairs I still have on my head! One problem is that everything is his business. It doesn’t matter who is talking to whom or what they are talking about, he has to comment. And once he gets going, he can’t seem to stop. He’ll go on and on, and if someone challenges what he says, like a pit bull, he won’t let go. He can’t seem to say he’s wrong, defer to the other, or just walk away. It becomes a battle to the death.
I pride myself on being an easygoing sort of person. I rarely get upset and almost never yell. Yet, I find my blood pressure rising when we’re debating, and I eventually start to yell because my level of frustration is just so high that I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. Last week, we got into one of our typical confrontations, and after many attempts to move the conversation forward unsuccessfully, I finally really lost it. I used language that I normally would never use and just felt so ashamed of myself afterwards. Plus, I was really angry at Josh that he could incite me to the point that I lost all control over myself. It was a terrible moment for me. I feel awful and can’t believe what happened.
I just don’t know how to have a relationship with Josh anymore. Again, I know he’s a good person who means well. But his need to prove to everyone that he knows everything, and his inability to sometimes just say, “O.K., maybe I’m wrong,” is almost driving me to drink!
How does one deal with such a personality?
Though, as I always say, we can’t ever totally control other people, we also don’t have to let them cross boundaries and drive us insane. People who are know-it-alls may or may not be narcissists, but their behavior, which may actually be coming from a place of insecurity, certainly does feel obnoxious, bossy, and powerful in their ability to suck us in and quite literally force us to react and behave in ways that feel so alien to who we really are.
I can give you several reactionary tips to try that may be helpful during your confrontations with Josh. But the first thing to keep in mind is that it’s not personal. When we can step back and realize that it has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with the other person’s needs, it lowers the temperature in the room and allows us to regroup and view the other — in this case, Josh — in a more clinical way. And by reacting in unexpected ways, you’ll shift Josh away from his usual pattern of behavior and shakes things up, hopefully in a more peaceful way.
- Try to be mindful to respond in a nonthreatening way. Though it’s tempting and natural to respond to know-it-alls by telling them that they’re wrong, that will only encourage them to argue their point further. (Even if they don’t have a clue about what they’re talking about.) Responding without inciting them, with statements like, “Well, I hear what you’re saying but here’s what I’ve heard about that …” might slow them down a bit, since they can’t outright deny what you’ve heard or what you think about a subject.
- Try thanking them for their advice. Even if your blood is boiling and your natural instinct is to ramp up the tension, it’s better not to give them an emotional reaction to work with. As counterintuitive as it will feel, by showing gratitude, you actually have a good shot at ending the conversation.
- Try introducing alternative thoughts. By shifting the conversation from a “me versus you” perspective, you can hopefully get them to consider how other people might think about the topic you’re discussing. You could say something like, “Hmmm, we each have very different opinions about the best way to work out. I’m curious what professional trainers feel is the best approach.” This type of comment might remind them that they aren’t necessarily the complete center of the universe and that maybe, just maybe, some other ideas might exist.
- Another approach is to start asking them questions instead. The questions should not be confrontational, but rather come from a place of curiosity. By shifting the conversation in a different direction, it will not sound challenging and may ease the tension.
- Try leading by example. By stating that you don’t have all the answers and probably need to do a bit more research on the subject at hand, you may plant some seeds that fact-checking is not such a bad idea.
- No matter how frustrated you find yourself getting, if you can manage to hold on to your sense of humor and not allow the conversation to take on a life-or-death tone, everyone will benefit. By suddenly saying something ridiculous or downright funny, you have a good chance of changing the tone of the dialogue.
- Sometimes, you just need to agree to disagree—the sooner the better, since you know how these interactions usually end. By saying something like, “Looks like we have different opinions on this subject, and that’s fine with me,” you can effectively shut it down.
- You can even try flattery. Tell them how impressed you are with his wealth of knowledge. This one is a bit tricky, since you don’t want to encourage him to be even more opinionated, but at the moment, it might disrupt the escalating tension.
- Finally, sometimes you just have to let it go. Despite the fact that Josh may be driving you insane, you need to learn how to calm yourself, take deep breaths, regain your center, and detach from the moment. It’s possible that in some weird way, Josh actually enjoys getting a rise out of you, and if you don’t take the bait, he’ll get bored and move on to someone else who will offer him a more exciting reaction. So if you can manage to stay calm, despite what you are feeling inside, even walk away if you must and just let the conversation go, you will all benefit from the outcome.
Try your hand at these suggestions. Some may feel awkward and not for you, while others will feel more feasible. The point is that you have more control than you think — at least over yourself. It would be nice to help Josh understand how off-putting his behavior is in this regard, but my guess is that he’ll need an objective individual, like a therapist, to guide him to a more successful place, and that will be his choice. For now, explore and take advantage of your choices.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone sessions. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.