Rick Ross is a narcissist

"I'm perfect - I don't need coaching!"


So far, there has been little research into difficulties in coaching. This post therefore reports on research that shows what challenges can arise in coaching clients with narcissistic tendencies. Clients with narcissistic tendencies were not only experienced as difficult by the coaches in the studies, but also led to implicit fear and distress in the coaches. This result shows the need for successful coaching strategies in dealing with narcissistic clients. According to initial studies, a possible strategy to coach such a client to reduce the fear and distress that has arisen is to practice mindfulness.


Up to now, difficulties in coaching have not been well-researched. The present paper therefore reports research that shows the difficulties in dealing with clients with narcissistic tendencies. These clients with narcissistic tendencies were not only perceived by the coaches as difficult but further led to the coaches feeling anxious inhibition and distress. This result depicts the necessity for successful coaching strategies to better deal with narcissistic clients. One possible strategy with regard to first studies is a mindfulness intervention to reduce this client-induced anxious inhibition and distress.

“He is self-confident, knows no doubts, feels up to any situation” - this is how the psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm (1900–1980) describes the narcissistic person (Fromm 2005). How does a narcissistic client behave in coaching - i.e. in a situation that aims at individual growth and change (Stober 2006)? Coaching is “an intensive and systematic promotion of result-oriented problem and self-reflection as well as advice for people or groups to improve the achievement of self-congruent goals or for conscious self-change and self-development” (Greif 2005, p. 59). This definition implies voluntariness, openness and the willingness of the client for coaching - which can normally be assumed based on the client's motivation to change. Narcissistic traits, such as a lack of self-insight, problem insight and the ability to criticize, as well as a low willingness to change, inhibit these three fundamental aspects and thus create little room for growth and performance improvement in the coaching process (Mansi 2009).

Difficulties in coaching

In related disciplines, such as B. in psychotherapy, researchers and practitioners have been dealing with difficulties for a long time in order to be able to guarantee and improve processes, strategies and results of the therapy (Seligman and Gaaserud 1994). In coaching, however, difficulties have so far been treated as taboo. Therefore, there is currently hardly any research and therefore little evidence for coaches to be able to deal successfully with difficult clients. For coaching to be successful in the long term, however, it is important to reflect on negative effects and to consciously deal with possible causes in order to avoid negative effects, avert them or convert them into opportunities or manageable challenges in coaching (Schermuly 2015).

Negative effects are defined as the “harmful or undesirable consequences that are directly caused by the coaching and occur in parallel or after it” (Schermuly 2015, p. 416). If one takes a closer look at the coach-client interaction, it can be seen that these negative effects are reported more often by coaches than by clients (Schermuly 2014; Schermuly and Bohnhardt 2014; Graßmann and Schermuly 2018). In addition, these negative effects are associated with the experience of stress, emotional exhaustion and a reduced feeling of competence (Schermuly 2014), the effects of which can persist for up to two months after the end of the coaching (Graßmann et al. 2019).

Coaches see the causes of negative effects primarily triggered by the client and often describe the client's lack of awareness of the problem as the cause (Schermuly 2015). Furthermore, coaches experience more negative effects when the quality of the relationship with their clients is low (Graßmann and Schermuly 2018). In psychotherapy, too, such “resistance” and the avoidance of self-disclosure and change on the part of the client is considered a major challenge (Seligman and Gaaserud 1994). According to Paulhus (1998) narcissists display such challenging traits as B. the tendency to self-deception and a lack of self-insight.

This assumption could be classified as problematic, especially for the coaching sector: In a survey on difficult coaching clients, 80% of the coaches reported narcissistic tendencies (Graßmann et al. 2020), and 78 also described in a subsequent study on the dark triad % of the coaches surveyed had narcissistic tendencies of their clients (Diller et al. 2020a).

Narcissistic tendencies in the client

The term narcissism goes back to the mythological figure of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in the water and looked at it until he died as a result of it. Today, narcissism is understood to be a personality trait which, in a strongly pronounced, i.e. clinically relevant form, can also be diagnosed as a “narcissistic personality disorder” (American Psychiatric Association 2013). The personality trait narcissism is characterized by a constant feeling of superiority over others, a desire for recognition and admiration and the associated vulnerability to criticism (Brummelman et al. 2016) as well as an emphasis on one's own greatness. People with narcissistic tendenciesFootnote 1 can be described as demanding and dominant (Mathieu and St-Jean 2013; Paulhus and Williams 2002). It is also known from personality research that narcissistic people show low values ​​in connection with the personality trait of tolerance. This means that associated traits such as politeness, flexibility, trustworthiness, willingness to cooperate and tolerance are less common in narcissistic persons (Barrick and Mount 1991). Although narcissism is also related to positive traits such as charismatic aura (Rosenthal and Pittinsky 2006), narcissistic people can be described as "difficult" due to their urge to be recognized, their high vulnerability and lack of tolerance, which is particularly evident in their interaction with other people. In the professional setting, the maladaptive behaviors of narcissistic persons represent particular disadvantages, as they can appear reckless, hostile and arrogant (Furnham et al. 2013; Paulhus 1998).

Since narcissistic persons have to struggle with interpersonal problems at work (Harms et al. 2011) and organizations often hire coaches to coach managers in these areas (Liljenstrand and Nebeker 2008), such clients can occur more frequently in coaching. In addition, narcissistic people often find themselves in management positions (Harms et al. 2011), with coaching mostly being offered for managers (Diller et al. 2020c). In the studies on difficult clients (Graßmann et al. 2020) and on clients with narcissistic, Machiavellian and psychopathic tendencies (Diller et al. 2020a) it was found that more than 2/3 of the coaches also reported narcissistic clients.

The results of Diller et al. (2020a) also make it clear that narcissistic clients were experienced by coaches as difficult: Among the greatest difficulties, the coaches described a narcissistic resistance - i.e. avoiding change due to lack of insight and idealizing one's own behavior. For example, coaches wrote B .: "The client was ready to do a coaching, but had the feeling that [he] is always doing everything right. " In the second most frequent place, coaches named assuming the role of victim on the part of clients or assigning blame as a difficulty in coaching. This category contained client descriptions from coaches in which clients saw themselves as victims and looked for the actual problems they were coaching about in others instead of themselves: "A client who came in a narcissistic attitude and saw herself as a victim of other people who couldn't hold a candle to her and who demanded the impossible. " The third most common category of client difficulties in coaching included attention and attention. In this category, coaches primarily describe the client's striving for attention through narratives, without the client actually aiming for an active change in coaching: "The client wants to tell a lot but do nothing.“In summary, narcissistic clients have shown themselves to be resistant to coaching, seeing the guilt of others and striving for attention. Therefore, the question arises how a coach feels when he meets such a client.

Coaches in dealing with narcissistic clients

If a coach now encounters a client who is continuously resistant and unapologetic, the coach experiences a negative discrepancy between his or her own expectations and reality (Diller et al. 2020b, Study 3). Negative discrepancies experienced can be triggered by uncertainty (Hogg et al. 2007), loss of control (Greenaway et al. 2015) or attacks on self-confidence through relational devaluations (Vandellen et al. 2011). Because of the antisocial and resistant behaviors of narcissistic individuals (Paulhus and Williams 2002), it is possible that the coach may experience such insecurity, loss of control, or relational devaluation. The following two models are intended to explain what happens when coaches experience these negative discrepancies.

The General Process Model of Threat and Defense according to Jonas et al. (2014) describes how people deal with negative discrepancies and thus threats. If such a discrepancy or threat is perceived, the first step is to activate the Behavioral Inhibition Systems (BIS) (Gray and McNaughton 2000; McNaughton and Corr 2004).This system is characterized by increased vigilance, anxious arousal, avoidance motivation and behavioral inhibition. Only when the BIS activation decreases can another system - the Behavioral Approach System (BAS) - start. This second system is intended to help find direct or indirect solutions to the negative discrepancy. If the discrepancy experienced is perceived as “manageable”, possible solutions are sought. However, if there are no direct solutions, people react with compensatory defense strategies that indirectly solve or alleviate the discrepancy, such as B. Eliminate negative feelings in other ways.

If you now remember the coach, a narcissistic client can trigger a negative discrepancy: The coach came into coaching with the aim of supporting his client and may have positive expectations of the coaching, depending on previous experiences of success as a coach and his own associated previous experience of competence. In coaching, however, the coach experiences insecurity, loss of control or attacks on self-confidence due to the client's behavior. This discrepancy can lead to BIS activation, which is associated with negative emotions such as fearfulness, behavioral inhibition and vigilance for further danger signals. Diller et al. (2020b, Study 3) showed that a pejorative and resistant client led to a negative discrepancy between expected and perceived state and to fearful inhibition. This fearful inhibition was also shown in the study by Diller et al. (2020a).

Another explanation of the emotions these clients trigger in coaches is provided by Personality System Interactions Theory (PSI theory). The PSI theory differentiates between four different psychological systems: the object recognition system (OES), the extension memory (EG), the intention memory (IG) and the intuitive behavior control (IVS). The object recognition system (OES) is activated when individual sensory impressions are to be perceived that are perceived as inconsistent or unexpected. The extension memory (EG) is described as a holistic experience system, which presents the individual with an overview of all life experiences that could be relevant in the respective situation. The EG enables, among other things, the understanding of other people and oneself.

In stressful and fearful situations or in other negative emotional situations, however, access to the EG and thus to one's own wealth of experience can be inhibited, so that options for changing a situation are more difficult to recognize than when one is in a less tense state (Quirin and Kuhl 2009). If a coach experiences negative affect through the encounter with a narcissistic client, this can inhibit access to his extension memory and thus to himself. Possible solutions for dealing successfully with a difficult client are more difficult to access because of the negative affect. This can mean that the coach only pays attention to the discrepancies that the client signals and that imply possible mistakes of his own, and that he does not understand the current situation in relation to his other knowledge and other experiences in previous (professional) life can put.

The other two systems are the intention memory (IG) and the intuitive behavior control (IVS): The IG is responsible for planning behavior and inhibits the IVS in order to prevent impulsive behavior and rash decisions. However, if an action is automated and immediately applicable, the IVS is activated, which stands for spontaneous and intuitive behavior (Kuhl 2004; Kuhl and Kaschel 2004). With regard to a difficult client, coaches may react more strongly in such stress-inducing situations by activating their own patterns (with active IVS) or that their actions and their reactions initially appear to be slowed down or frozen and they activate their IG in order to consider what an appropriate rational response in such a difficult situation. However, since they may not have had enough experience with such difficult clients, they are not yet able to call up appropriate plans that they could not convert into automated and immediately applicable behavior - the coaches therefore tend to remain in the IG and thus in inhibition as well as a desired good planning of behavior. In summary, this would mean that the object recognition system (OES) and the intention memory (IG) would be activated in the coach. On the one hand, there is a high focus on the discrepancies in the client, along with negative affect, on the other hand, attempts are made to suppress the negative feelings and to think through one's own behavior well in order not to make any mistakes, back to the OES. If the coach does not find a behavior strategy, it may even be that the coach remains inhibited in his behavior.

Both models presented illustrate the problems that narcissistic clients can trigger: a negative, inhibiting and fear-inducing effect that can persist over a long period of time. If this effect of the BIS activation persists, it can lead to distress - that is, to negative stress as well as to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, since one can no longer get out of the spiral (Mirowsky and Ross 2003). Both the study by Diller et al. (2020a) as well as the research by Diller et al. (2020b) showed exactly this BIS activation: coaches felt more in the BIS and experienced more distress, the higher they rated the levels of narcissism in their clients. In addition, the results from Diller et al. (2020a) contradict both successful and unsuccessful coaching strategies in dealing with clients with narcissistic, Machiavellian and psychopathic tendencies. Therefore, it remained unclear how coaches could best deal with narcissistic clients.

Mindfulness exercises for coaches as a successful strategy

One strategy that was not mentioned contradicting itself and only listed as successful was mindfulness strategies (Diller et al. 2020a). This result is consistent with a study by Stewart et al. (2008), where the emotional stability associated with calm behavior correlated with coaching success. Other research shows that mindfulness can reduce the experience of threat and stress (Brown et al. 2007; Karremans and Papies 2017; Sedlmeier et al. 2017). It is also known in clinical psychology that the mindfulness of the therapist strengthens the relationship between therapist and client (Ryan et al. 2012). In a study by Diller et al. (2020d) it was also found that mindfulness intervention not only led to more mindfulness, but also to less anxious inhibition - a beneficial effect on emotion regulation. In previous research, emotion regulation could already be identified as a helpful factor for the coaching process (de Haan et al. 2011).

Emotion regulation also plays an important role in intensive personal contact (Sell et al. 2017), and the authentic reproduction of one's own emotions can have positive consequences not only for the coach, but also for the client and the mutual coaching relationship (West-Leuer 2015). The work by Diller et al. (2020d) also showed that mindfulness can promote access to the self and thus also the activation of the extension memory. This could lead to change and thus options for action being better recognized as a coach.


In recent years, researchers have increasingly focused on success factors in coaching, and well-known coaching researchers such as Greif (2005), Behrendt (2014) or Schermuly (2015) formulated the importance of not treating difficulties experienced in coaching as a taboo topic. The present work therefore examines difficulties in coaching with a focus on dealing with narcissistic clients. Although narcissism, especially in the context of leadership, has been extensively researched over the past decade (Fatfouta 2019), there has been little literature on narcissism in coaching executives or other people in the form of case reports and theories (Rosenbach 2018; Berglas 2002; Wasylyshyn et al. 2012). An empirical study of how narcissistic clients influence the coach is therefore novel, and the three coaching studies on dealing with narcissistic clients (Diller et al. 2020a, 2020b, 2020d) are a first step in exploring dynamics with difficult client cases in the Understand coaching better. Future research should uncover additional dynamics and also deal with effective strategies for successfully dealing with such clients. Strategies from threat research that can help activate the BAS are particularly exciting. Research in this area suggests that strengthening self-confidence and self-compassion in particular helps to mitigate perceived threats (Jonas et al. 2014; Greenberg et al. 1992; Neff et al. 2007; Neff and Vonk 2009). In addition, coach-supporting measures, such as B. additional training or supervision, the effectiveness of which is examined for dealing with such clients.

Narcissism is also not to be considered alone: ​​Narcissism is part of the construct of the "dark triad", which describes three socially deviant and interpersonal difficult personality tendencies (Paulhus and Williams 2002). This construct - consisting of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy - is gaining recurring media attention (e.g. Voigt 2012; Schwertfeger 2013). It is important that the three personality tendencies are related to one another and therefore often do not appear alone (Diller et al. 2020). In the study by Diller et al. (2020a) showed that coaches also reported “mixed forms” (16.7%) - that is, clients who had not only narcissistic but also psychopathic and / or Machiavellian tendencies.In addition to the closer examination of the influence of narcissistic clients on the coaching process and the coping mechanisms proposed in this regard, future research should therefore also focus on the other constructs of the dark triad as well as possible hybrid forms and their influence on coaching interactions.


  1. 1.

    “Narcissism” describes a continuum in the specialist literature (cf. Paulhus and Williams 2002), according to which there are higher or lower values ​​for narcissism in the non-clinical area, but these are to be assigned to the spectrum of healthy functioning. This is to be delimited e.g. B. from a narcissistic personality disorder, which can be assigned to the clinical area. “Narcissistic persons” means in our context persons with narcissistic tendencies without a disease value in the narrower sense.


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