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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Dealing with a Braggart

Dear Crucial Skills,

My coworker continuously boasts and brags about almost every aspect of her life. When anyone from our team discusses their successes or their life, she has to outdo them and frequently talks over people in order to be heard. I have tried to deal with her bragging but I think we are officially on the path to a crucial conversation. I do not want to damage the relationship or cause tension in our department but it has become so excessive that I have even contemplated finding a new job! Do you have any advice?

Brag or Bust

Dear Brag or Bust,

You are facing an interesting challenge—one I’ve seen or heard about many times. The most memorable comment came from an old high school buddy who, when we were about 40, made this comment about another person we knew: “When I toss pebbles in a puddle, he throws boulders in the ocean!” When my buddy made this comment, he sounded as frustrated and angry and perplexed as you do. Certainly, this is one of those conversations that is difficult and challenging to hold.

I once had a professor who had been entrapped by the same behavior as your coworker and who had overcome that particular challenge—with some help from his wife. My professor had a PhD, and he taught at the Air Force Academy and other universities. He was a full bird colonel and during his military career as a pilot, he traveled all over the world. At lunches, wine-and-cheese parties, and backyard barbecues, he would get entrapped. Someone who just returned from a cruise to the Baltic would mention a lovely dinner they had in Oslo, and the colonel would say, “Oh and isn’t the museum that’s next door to that restaurant lovely.” Another person would say, “I just got back from Rio and was on the greatest beach I’ve ever seen.” And the colonel would say, “It is grand, but I prefer the one about a mile south of that.” He had a comment to one-up just about everyone at the party.

The colonel didn’t see the problem until his wife said, “I don’t think you notice that you come across as bragging when you top everyone’s stories. Just because you’ve been all over the world, doesn’t mean you have to diminish what others have seen or done.” Then she added that old adage, “You have one mouth and two ears. You need to listen more and talk less.” He got the message. He changed. He found that if he asked the storyteller multiple questions, he enjoyed the conversation more. He could remember the places he’d been without topping the storyteller. And he found he could still be the one to take a turn at sharing a story. He had been topping people unintentionally, but his wife’s comment helped him see the consequences he hadn’t intended. The colonel didn’t change all at once. He commented that occasionally his wife tapped him with a stealthy elbow.

How do these examples relate to your challenge? Let me explain.

Get your motives right. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to help or launch a guilt trip? Are you intending to be a coach or a critic? Ask yourself these questions, “What do I really want for her, for me, and for our relationship?” When you can feel in your heart that you are genuinely trying to help, then you are ready to talk.

Make it safe. What allowed the colonel’s wife to share her feedback? They had a wonderful and trusting relationship. It was safe for them to talk about annoying behaviors and they had both made corrections based on the other person’s assessment of their behavior.

The step above is essential to building safety. If your heart is right and your motive clear, it will be safe to talk. But if you come in with frustration and prejudgment on your face, you will make it unsafe. In order to make it safe, you should also make sure the conversation is private and convenient. You wouldn’t want to talk when you or your coworker is feeling stressed or tired.

You can also make it safe by clarifying your motive. We call this contrasting. For example, you might begin with, “I have an observation to share. I don’t want to come across as a critic. I do want to share an issue that will help our relationship and improve camaraderie within our team. I’m trying to be a friend.” When you have the right motive, you will find the right words to clarify what you don’t intend and rather, what you do intend.

Start with a specific observation and a question—not conclusions and emotions. Let’s explore the options. You could keep silent—the consequence being that you’d find a different job. To me, the stress and suffering of switching jobs far outweighs the costs of speaking up.

You could go in with moral indignation and say, “I can’t believe you are so dense that you brag and boast and interrupt people all the time! It’s horrible, and I, the other teammates, and most of the people in town, hate it. I’ve had it!” Also not a good option.

Instead of jumping ship or blowing up, I would say something like this, “Last week at our team lunch, I noticed that when Joyce talked about her camping trip with her kids, you commented that you and your family had taken your RV to Jackson Hole and then you talked about the elk and the art you had seen for several minutes. I noticed that Joyce frowned and shut up. I’ve seen you do this more than a half dozen times. I think it’s hurting the relationships in our team, and I’m not sure you even know you’re doing it. It’s difficult for me to bring this up, but I am hopeful that we can talk about it as friends. Can we talk about it?”

Prepare for alternate responses. Your coworker has a few options. She can say, “No I haven’t really noticed. I certainly want to do better. Could you help me?” Wouldn’t that be nice? And often that is what happens. However, there is the potential she will become defensive or emotional. If that happens, describe what you see, “I can see you’re upset.” And then contrast again. Share what you were not trying to do—offend her—and what you were trying to do—help. At this point, you can decide to end the conversation, or as often happens, your coworker will calm down and you can have a dialogue about the issue and some behaviors your coworker can practice when tempted to boast.

I hope this will help you prepare to talk to your coworker. If I had this problem, I’d hope for a coworker who would make it safe enough for me to hear how I could improve my relationship with my teammates.

Best wishes,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

17 thoughts on “Dealing with a Braggart”

  1. jm

    I’m very interested in understanding the reason behind the professor’s (and others like him) behavior in the first place. What causes this one-upmanship type of communication style?

    1. Debbie Meneses

      I believe that there is a belief that one is invisible and boasting will occasionally help the person be “seen” by others.

  2. Gary Cohen

    Al that is great advice… And let me tell you about a four star general who had an even bigger problem…..

    Geat advice. As for jm it is my belief that it arroads from not “being enough”.

  3. Christine R. Carver

    My husband has some of the tendencies that were described in this case. Not necessarily bragging, but inserting stories aobut his own related experiences. He has always been very talkative, highly verbal, and likes to tell stories. He has had several chronic health problems and this has had two results that contribute to his tendency to monopolize.

    One is that he can’t get out of the house much anymore and as a result he doesn’t have very many conversations with anyone. So when he does get out he uses his mouth more than his ears because he is really starved for social interactions. His medications make him groggy and I think listening is actually harder than talking when he gets tired and finds it difficult to focus.

    Something interesting he told me recently is that two of his medications have the potential to make whoever takes them more “chatty” than they normally would be. He wondered if this isn’t part of his problem as well. I think his insight into the problem is poor, but like the professor’s wife I try to nudge him a little when he goes on too long.

    I doubt that either of these things is relevant in the case that was shared, but it is worth considering that there can be many underlying reasons that people may dominate a conversation. Describing the person as a “braggart” may be ascribing an intent that does not exist. It could be telling oneself a story.

    An option might be for the others in the office to make a plan to gently confront the person who dominates, and interpose, “I am sure you have fond memories to share, but right now I would like to hear a little more from Jean about her vacation experience.” And the others can make verbal and non-verbal signs of agreement. Then it isn’t the job of just one person or the speaker who is trying to talk to address the interruption.

    And what does this “braggart” really need? What would cause a person to constantly talk themselves up? We did an (unrelated) exercise in my (small) department where we posted recognition for one another on a special poster. Our goal was that everyone would earn a certain number of recognitions from any of the others for all types of things they did well. This was highly effective for helping everyone feel appreciated for thier contributions, but might be useful for this type of person as well. She might be a very needy person, and she does not provide a natural incentive for people to compliment her spontaneously by “bragging” about her accomplishments to the point others are ready to quit their jobs to get away from her behavior.

  4. Sally Smith

    Do people really talk like this? Sounds a little silly to me.

  5. editor

    @Christine R. Carver Thank you for sharing your personal experiences and advice!

  6. EAD

    @jm Not sure what causes it but, I think for some people it comes from a lack of recognition. They think people will like them better if those people are aware of what they’ve accomplished. “Look at me…look how cool I am.”

  7. barry

    Forget the high road. Society is coming to a downfall because of the majority of good people having to tolerate those exceptional idiots. Just tell that person that they’re not impressing anyone and to be quiet!

    1. kitkat31

      Oh Barry, to say such a thing to someone is also incredibly rude. Talking about societies downfall indeed…

  8. Samantha

    Go Barry! People like that need to be told off because they don’t get it when you tell them politely. I know, I’ve tried. My co-worker is a major fugly girl who thinks she’s a princess and boats about EVERYTHING. OMG – My mom’s house is huge! And the kitchen is gorgeous and I’ve been to 15 countries and used to drive a BMW. Meanwhile if you took one look at her you would throw up because she resembles an ogre. So hey, I may not have been exposed to all the “wonderfully exaggerated” trips/life she has but at least I look like a lady and my face is proportionate! 🙂

  9. suke stown

    I think people who brag are very insecure and childish. Just pity the fools.

  10. Poca hontas

    It’s called narcissistic personality disorder

    1. Reese

      I agree

  11. Marilee

    I have to leave a comment on the above problem with a braggart and the ensuing advice. I, too, had been a braggart; I have had this problem on and off for years; different times of my life it would resurface. The last major time really changed me and I gad a huge wake-up call. I had been frequenting a small consignment shop in town, and knew most of the women in the store. However a few of them seemed very snobby to me, so in order to make myself feel less inferior, I would start to brag about “my rich boyfriend” up North, (which he was); and also my singing. (I sing opera). I started to notice changes in the women and, one day I was actually set up, stopped by local law enforcement, and given a trespass warrant. I was floored. Needless to say, at first I was so angry, then hurt and deeply offended. However, after a while I realized my behavior was getting obnoxious and something they didn’t want to deal with anymore. Huge wake-up call, I have and did change. It really made me take a look at myself and how my braggadocio us ways were seen and felt by others. Sometimes we have hard lessons to learn. Better to learn than continue on to our own demise.

    1. Reese

      I have a sister who always brags. Last time I Visited her place she bragged for 2hrs straight about regular normal things. If someone else has an accomplishment in their life she always talks it down, if not in front of the person then behind their back for sure. It is a very annoying characteristic to have and I doubt that we will be very close. Lately I just thought that she might have a narcissistic personality disorder. It can’t be normal.

  12. liz

    I currently have a boss who does this. He knows I have a strong and solid background in H R, and he has none in that area. He is constantly telling me how much experience he other areas. I just listen and smile. I think these people feel some sense of insecurity and need to express their skills, knowledge, experience, etc., just to let you know they are better, smarter, more experienced, etc…than you. If possible, just smile a d say nothing. If you say something, it is feeding into the problem. I know my skills, experience, talents, etc., and at the right time will make the move I need to…whether it be getting a job at the level I deserve or moving to another company. Don’t let braggers see you sweat.

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