5 Ways to Outfox a Know-It-All
Know anyone who won't let you get a word in edgewise? Ever sit across a table from someone who lectured, rather than conversed? Or has it been impossible to discuss work, health issues, relationships – or, gee, just about any subject -- without a know-it-all in your life telling you you're wrong and there's a better way?
Know-it-alls can be as exhausting as they are annoying. The secret to outfoxing one, communication experts say, is to realize where they're coming from. Try these five tactics:
1. Master the "yes, but . . . "
What that sounds like: "Yes, I see why you think that way, but can you see where I'm coming from?" "Point taken, but can you look at it from my perspective?" "Yes, I understand that you see it this way, but I see it another way."
Why it works: Acknowledging a know-it-all's views, then using a "but" transition to launch into your side of things, can stall some of his or her momentum. Do this with an "I" statement that starts with your perspective: "I see, but . . . " "I understand, but . . . " "I'll consider it, but . . . "
Know-it-alls are often narcissists -- people preoccupied with themselves, says psychotherapist Steve Sultanoff, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. "Their brain functions as 'my way is the right way,' even when there's no one right way," Sultanoff says.
Making noises of agreement, without agreeing, allows you to insert yourself and share your disagreement, slowing the onslaught.
2. Present your facts in a nonthreatening way.
What that sounds like: "Well, here's what I know." "Let me tell you what I learned about it." "This is what I've heard."
Why it works: You can't shut this personality type down with direct confrontation, says Simon Casey, a psychologist in San Clemente, California, and the author of Secrets to Emotional Wealth. "Know-it-alls tend to be grandiose egocentrics with an inability to admit they're ever wrong. If you challenge them directly, that's where they thrive -- they'll argue relentlessly to prove their point. "
In fact, he adds, they tend to argue relentlessly to prove a point even if they actually have limited knowledge about the subject at hand.
So saying, "You're wrong!" or "I've heard enough already!" backfires. It's like throwing oil on out-of-control flames.
3. Ask about alternatives.
What that sounds like: "I know you see it that way. How might others in the same situation see it?" "Are there any other alternatives you can think of?" "You do it this way and I do it that way; are there other ways?"
Why it works: By inviting the know-it-all to consider alternative views, you nudge him to adopt a broader perspective. That can sometimes shift him out of the "me-me-me" mode that's so wearisome to hear.
To some extent, this tactic depends on your relationship and how well you know Mr. or Ms. Smarter-Than-You. Some steamrollers will just say, "No, my way is the only right way," whereas others will at least share what they think about a wider range of views.
The know-it-all may still be insufferable, but at least you've moved him or her to wider turf.
4. Initiate a closing without pushing for an apology or a concession.
What that sounds like: "We just see things differently." "I'm afraid we have to agree to disagree." "That's interesting, but I'm not going to change what I do."
Why it works: These pedantic pests are secretly running scared of being exposed as the insecure beings they are -- so admitting their inferior knowledge isn't gonna happen. Rather than pushing for consensus or an admission of error, just call it a stalemate. If you wait for concessions from the know-it-all, you'll be waiting a long time.
The psychological makeup of a know-it-all means they have a difficult time with humility. "They don't feel good about themselves, so they wear a mask that they love themselves -- they're as good as or better than you, as evidenced by their knowledge," Casey says. "The most important thing to them is to be right."
5. Chalk up any continued pontificating to personality -- and realize you have a choice about how much to take.
What that sounds like (said to yourself): "There goes Bob again, monopolizing the conversation -- he can't help himself. " "This is not worth arguing over, but I know my ideas are better." "She and I just see things differently; that doesn't mean I'm wrong."
Why it works: Another way to respond to a know-it-all happens internally: You mentally let it go. Basically this means telling yourself, "This may not be pleasant for me, but the poor guy is doing what he needs to do to get his needs met." Combine this internal empathy (which, admittedly, isn't easy with a bombast) with self-reminders that a know-it-all's lecture-at-you style doesn't have anything to do with you as a person or your own level of knowledge.
At root, it's about them: Conversation-monopolists often literally can't help themselves. "If they can impress you with something you didn't know, they feel good momentarily," Casey says. "They can't help doing this over and over, because their egos are insatiable."
Remember, too, that suffering through a one-sided conversation is a choice, Sultanoff says. "Tell yourself, 'I don't have to be here, but I've chosen to listen,'" he says. Then you can use the above tools to avoid feeling resentful or ignorant. And if you do get overwhelmed despite your careful responses -- and really, who can blame you? -- then it's your choice to say, "Excuse me, that was interesting, but now I have to go."