It is a true master who professes ignorance, for only an empty vessel can be filled. Madisyn Taylor
We’ve all encountered know-it-alls at work, in the supermarket, at parties, in the neighborhood, and more than likely in our own family. In search of prey, they spin their web of words luring us closer and closer until they swallow up every bit of our time and attention. Over exaggerating? I think not!
Politely disengaging from a one-sided conversation can be tricky if it involves someone in an authoritative position such as your boss, your in-laws, a teacher or a community leader. An exit strategy can be a lifesaver. Psychotherapist Diane Barth tackles this dilemma in her article “What’s the Best Way to Handle a Know-It-All?” While side-stepping know-it-alls herself, she notes, “I find myself wondering what he or she wants from me. Admiration? Applause? Maybe an argument? Was showing off a way of engaging with another person? Does he or she need to keep me—and I assume others—at a distance?”
Some of the common threads Barth found in know-it-alls’ behaviors and dynamics are:
*An underlying insecurity: a sense they are “not enough—not good, smart, pretty, thin, classy, articulate, artistic, etc. enough.” There is a sense that knowing everything would avoid any suggestion that they were fake, out of the loop or uneducated.
*A genuine sense of superiority and grandiosity: Barth encountered several know-it-alls who genuinely felt that they knew more about everything than anyone else could possibly know.
*A combination of the two: Some grandiose individuals suffer from an underlying fear of being found out to be fakes while others are supremely insecure people who secretly believe that they are better than anyone else.
*Difficulty with intimacy: A few forms of this difficulty are: the fear that if someone gets too close they will discover the secret feelings of self-doubt or of superiority. In childhood, they may have been overly praised indiscriminately leading them to believe they can only feel close to people who admire and praise them. A know-it-all may be attempting to provoke his or her listeners. There are some people who, for a variety of reasons, become enlivened by an argument to feel connected to others.
According to Barth, there are several ways to manage these individuals. She says, “What is most important in these interactions is to remember that we do not have to see the other person as they want to be seen; and we do not have to cater to that need unless we want to.” Tell them you’ve enjoyed listening to them but would like to speak with some of the other guests, coworkers or family members. If they persist in holding your attention, tell them for only one more minute. After that, simply excuse yourself. Motion for others to join your conversation and then politely excuse yourself. Be warned though that “dagger eyes” may be triggered from your coworkers, friends or family members that you left dangling in the web of the know-it-all.
Folks, when all else fails, my go to exit strategy is to look over their shoulder and squeal, “Is that ________ (Oprah, Bono, Adele, Beyoncé’?) and quickly head for the bar, the buffet table or the door.
Happy Father’s Day!
Originally published in the Bay City Tribune on Sunday, June 18, 2017.