How To Handle A Know-It-All With Compassion & Understanding
The other day at brunch, the topic came up about what to do when a know-it-all is working your last nerve. Let’s face it, we all know someone who thinks they’re the smartest person in any room.
I definitely have friends, co-workers, and family who are know-it-alls, and if I’m being honest, I may have a few know-it-all tendencies myself—but just a few. I mean, I know some things, why wouldn’t I want to share my vast expertise about cats, narcissists, and dry shampoo with the good people of the world? Okay, sure it’s not always a good idea to unload all the information I have in my head, especially when not specifically requested.
On the flip side, there are times when it’s good to not know something so that you can learn and connect with someone who does know the answer to that question that’s been buzzing around in your brain.
If you’ve managed to live your life without knowing a know-it-all (which honestly seems impossible) then loosely defined, a know-it-all is someone who presents as though they know everything and who rejects the opinions, knowledge, suggestions, or ideas of others.
Know-it-alls can be annoying, but they also can be interesting and helpful—especially if your phone is dead and you need to Google something—this way, you can just ask the human-encyclopedia for the answer instead of waiting for your battery to charge.
I have a few friends who are know-it-alls and most of the time, I take their superior attitude regarding their big brain in stride, but there are a few know-all-behaviors that aggravate me such as when they assume because they know everything, that everyone else knows nothing.
If you are a super smart person, you’re probably a genius about a lot of things, but you’re not an expert on every topic. Know-it-alls have a hard time fathoming that anyone could have more knowledge in a subject than they do. It’s as if there’s some kind of theory that if they know all, then everybody else knows nothing.
There’s something so insulting about a know-it-all with a superior attitude.
It can be challenging to carry on a conversation with a know-it-all if they’re constantly correcting you, especially those times when you’re right and they’re wrong.
I have a know-it-all friend who feels compelled to immediately halt the conversation and point out that whatever fact I’ve said is wrong. Later, when what I’ve said is proven to be right, she’ll just move on as if she never corrected me. That’s another quirk of a know-it-all that exasperates me—how when they’re mistaken or they’ve gotten their facts messed up, and they refuse to take ownership of it.
Hello know-it-alls, sometimes you are wrong.
If we dig deeper and we look at a know-it-all with compassion, we can see they’re the ones putting an incredible amount of pressure on themselves.
For whatever reason, they have an overwhelming need to know everything, probably because they’re insecure they might not know anything, and they’re overcompensating. But, when you don’t allow anybody else to participate in a conversation, it becomes a big somewhat monotonous monologue. No one enjoys talking to a conversational narcissist, so instead of connecting with them on a significant level, the know-it-all puts up a barrier between themselves and other people by lecturing everyone within earshot.
So, how do you deal with a know-it-all?
Since real life isn’t an episode of “Jeopardy” and there are no Daily Doubles for having the right answer all the time.
It’s not hard to see that if someone feels they have to know the answer to every question and their opinions are the only ones that matter, that they have some major insecurity issues. If rather than reacting to them in a negative way, you empathize with them.
This way, they may not feel the need to dominate every conversation and they might relax enough to actually be open to what other people have to say. Arlene B. Englander, LCSW, MBA, says, “One of the best ways to deal with this individual [know-it-all] is first and foremost awareness of the fact that they are trying to hide a tremendous sense of insecurity. Because their self-esteem is so low, they are desperate to shore themselves up by trying to appear to be competent and in control.”
Acknowledge What They’re Saying
If we go back to the idea that know-it-alls are frantic for attention, then think how validated they’ll feel if they realize their words are being heard. It’s not that you’re encouraging their know-it-all behavior, but you’re letting them know in a subtle way they don’t have to work that hard to impress people.
Know-it-alls love giving advice because they know better than you do about what you should do. Know-it-alls are aware that most of their advice goes unheeded; but since it’s not the execution of the advice that matters, but the giving of it. If you thank them, it acknowledges you heard what they had to say, and you might or might not act on it. “In most situations, know-it-alls won’t know if you actually follow through on their advice,” says Caleb Backe, wellness and business consultant. “Just thank them for their never-ending fountain of knowledge and proceed to ignore their suggestion if you so wish.”
Arlene Englander further explains, “Often they themselves had parents who were infantilizing, domineering, and demanding. That’s how they learned the behavior, which they now repeat, unfortunately, unaware of how inadequate it made them feel, and how upsetting it is now when practiced by themselves to others. Once we realize this pattern, it’s easier to politely say, ‘Thanks so much for your advice, I’ll keep it in mind.’’
Look For The Funny
Sometimes the best thing you can do when a know-it-all is in full-force is to look for the humor. This helps you to not take it personally and can give you a different, more positive perspective on the whole thing. The know-it-all may not mean to be condescending; they’re too self-absorbed to even recognize their behavior could be interpreted as irritating or snotty. Laughing in a non-hostile way can help break up the tension in the room.
Question Them In A Non-Challenging Way
If you ask questions, you could learn something, and it will help them to demonstrate their knowledge without becoming defensive or overbearing. As the conversation continues, it could help the know-it-all to recognize the gaps in their expertise and perhaps remind them of how nice it is sometimes to be curious and to learn from other people.
Check In With Them
The know-it-all may be oblivious to how they’re alienating people, so one thing you can do is to confront them with compassion. Let the know-all hear how they make you feel. Use non-threatening “I” statements that convey your emotions without attacking them. We all need a wake-call from time to time, and with a little self-awareness, thanks to your honesty, the know-it-all may start to recognize their behavior and take steps to change it.
Don’t Argue With Them
Try to steer the conversation away from hot-button topics that are just going to fuel their fire. “Avoid topics that are particularly susceptible to discussion such as religion, politics, etc., says,” Mike Sheety, Director of ThatShirt. “These topics often have personal opinions and can just cause an argument due to differentiating views. Try and avoid getting into a debate or heated discussion with someone who is a know-it-all.
They won’t take in anything you are saying, and it can become very heated. Just agree to disagree and move on.” If you try to prove them wrong, you’ll only prolong the argument and possibly cause it to get more intense and uncomfortable.
Allow Them To Fail Gently
If the know-it-all is wrong about something, don’t rush to point out their error or mistake. You don’t want to humiliate them. Take them aside and let them know how they were mistaken. It’s never a bad idea to allow for a cooling-off period, so don’t feel you have to confront them immediately. You don’t want to make them feel defeated and ignorant because those feelings probably contributed to making them a know-it-all in the first place.
Never Let Them Make You Feel Less Than
It can be hard not to take a know-it-all’s arrogant attitude personally, but remember, this is one of those times where it’s not about you at all; it’s completely about them and their feelings of self-doubt. You know your self-worth and it’s not built on putting other people down or making them feel as if they’re not knowledgeable or worthy. You don’t need to have all the answers to feel like a valid human being.
Not engaging with a know-it-all seems simple enough, but can be harder to navigate than you might think. There are times when we have to engage with a know-it-all, especially if they’re our boss or some other authority figure in our lives.
The last thing you want to do is to get into some kind of competition with them. “Often the best way to deal with a know-it-all is not to engage them,” says Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C. “Trying to prove them wrong or one-up them usually results in competition and conflict. You can save yourself a lot of stress by taking the high road and just allowing them to speak their piece without challenging them. Avoid getting extensively involved with them, and when you must engage with them, smile and nod and move on.”
There’s no standard way to deal with a know-it-all. The best thing you can do is to follow your own instincts and try to treat them with compassion. If you’re a know-it-all, maybe look inside yourself and question why you feel the need to dominate every conversation, and why you feel the need to discount other people’s expertise and ideas.
A true know-it-all knows how truly little they know and are always open to what other people have to teach them.