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Written in 1936, yet still one of the best-selling books today, How to Win Friends and Influence People relies on a keen grasp of human nature to provide practical advice on getting along with friends and family.
The book’s lessons are universal and highly applicable to the present day – whether for standard interpersonal relationships, marketing campaigns, or as a course correction for society at large. With over 16 million copies sold, Dale Carnegie’s book has attained legendary status as one of the most influential books ever written in the genre.
How this book was written – and why
Dale Carnegie began his career as a mentor for people looking to improve their skills at public speaking. Through time and many training sessions, he came to realize that there is a dire need for people to learn the art of getting along with other people. Carnegie began searching for a book that could help people become more likeable, and get along with others. There were none. He then went on to read everything he could find: newspaper columns, magazine articles, family court records, autobiographies, writings from psychologists – he even hired a researcher to spend over a year and a half in a library, reading.
Carnegie then gathered, organized, and synthesized all of the useful materials he found into a new book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. This series of articles divides the book into four different parts, letting each core lesson stand on its own as we dive into each chapter. The first part has 3 distinct principles.
Fundamental techniques in handling people
Principle 1: Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain
The first key lesson to understand is that people have built up a psychological resistance to personal criticism. The only thing it reliably produces is resentment, which in turn reduces the critic’s influence on the other person – quite the opposite effect from what was intended. Criticism doesn’t solve problems – it creates new ones, by potentially demoralizing friends and family, while leaving the main issue still out there, unresolved.
This outcome is the result of a peculiar phenomenon. By and large, people are unwilling to blame themselves for their own mistakes, as they will always find reasons to justify their actions. Direct criticism, therefore, tends to be blocked by people’s mental defenses. It’s important to always keep in mind that people are hard-wired to seek approval. When we criticize or condemn them, we take away their sense of love and acceptance – and this is experienced as an act of hostility, even if it was meant in a more positive spirit.
Lewis Lawes, warden of New York’s famous prison Sing Sing prison, stated that, “Few criminals in Sing Sing regard themselves as bad men. They are just as human as you and I. They rationalise, they explain. They tell you why they had to crack a safe or be quick on the trigger.”
To effectively influence behavior, positive reinforcement is a far more effective tool. Compliment people when they do things right, and understand that anybody can make mistakes. When those mistakes appear, it is necessary to have enough self-control to hold back your anger or frustration at the other person.
Psychologist B.F. Skinner showed that animals learn much more rapidly, and retain lessons far more effectively, through rewards rather than punishment. The same lesson applies to humans.
In short: Always speak well of other people, and they will be more interested in what you have to say. Benjamin Franklin, American ambassador to France, was one of the most influential people in United States history. The secret to his success? “I will speak ill of no man,” he said, “… and speak all the good I know of everybody.”
The takeaway message: Human nature does not like to admit fault. When people are criticized or humiliated, they rarely respond well and will often become defensive and resent their critic. To handle people well, we must avoid criticism, condemnation or complaint because it will never result in the behavior we desire.
Principle 2: Give honest and sincere appreciation
People are looking for all sorts of things: money, food, health, sleep, sex, fame, and all kinds of material possessions. Yet a common mistake is to focus on these wants, while neglecting an equally fundamental value shared by us all: Respect.
This oversight is a common one. Businesses have long been accused of taking not only their customers, but also their employees for granted. Companies that neglect the people they depend on may have good products and offer high salaries, but in the end they will lose out to competitors that are more attentive and responsive to people’s true value as human beings.
Dale Carnegie fasted for 6 days – a long time to go without food. Afterwards, however, he said that it wasn’t very hard, and he wasn’t any hungrier on the last day than on the first. Take away a person’s access to human contact for 6 days, however, and they may soon be starved for attention. When we think of our necessities, we think of things like food, water, and air. But we all need love and attention, too.
We must remember that appreciation and flattery aren’t exactly the same. Appreciation means engaging with someone in a positive way, while showing good intentions. Flattery, on the other hand, doesn’t give any weight to the words being said. We all spend most of the time thinking about ourselves, but if we decide to put others first, we must begin to appreciate them the way they, in turn, see themselves – as real people with depth and emotion.
Words have a lot of power and weight to them – both positive and negative. They can be used to change another person’s perception, affect their motivation, and shift the reasons behind their choices.
The takeaway message: People will rarely work at their maximum potential under criticism, but honest appreciation brings out their best. Appreciation, though, is not simple flattery. It must be sincere and meaningful, and come from a place of love.
Principle 3: Arouse in the other person an eager want
“He who can do this has the whole world with him. He who cannot walks a lonely way.”
Give people what they want, and you can get what you want. Even the most inexperienced fisherman knows not to use pizza or hamburgers as bait; fish are out looking for worms or grasshoppers instead. The lesson generalizes well. For example, if you don’t want your children to smoke, don’t lecture them or scream at them. Instead, show them that smoking cigarettes will keep them from making the basketball varsity team or winning that hundred-meter dash.
‘If there is any one secret of success,’ Henry Ford once said, ‘it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.’
Whether they admit it or not, everyone wants something. The only way to influence people is to talk in terms of what the other person wants. Security, revenge, love, food, tangible or intangible goods – these are things that most of us seek. So, dig deep into the other person’s psyche, really try to understand what they crave, and fix your message until it sounds appealing to the person with whom you are talking.
Carnegie’s book gives another example of a boy named Tim, who is about to go to kindergarten the next day. Many children are afraid of being outside in a crowded place without their parents, so Tim’s parents got together and started finger-painting, making the activity feel fun. They talked about how exciting it would be to go to kindergarten, and how they would sing and make new friends. The next day, Tim was the first one to wake up – and the most eager to go to school.
The takeaway lesson: Before you speak, pause and ask yourself: “How can I make this person want to do it?”
An olive branch for all occasions
Communication is at the heart of influence, and words are the foundation of communication. It should come as no surprise that skill with words can take you far in life.
Likewise, a good marketing campaign uses the right words to deliver a clear message, making the most of a good story to influence potential customers. The best marketing efforts are the ones that touch the emotions of the audience. This is a difficult and delicate task, to be sure – but the rewards are immense. By following the principles outlined above, and respecting the mindset of your audience, your chances of success will be dramatically greater.
Once again, however, such lessons generalize into other areas. Much of the world’s struggles and frustrations regarding communication relate to the simple fact that each participant is thinking of their own viewpoint first, without taking the time and effort to consider where the other one is truly coming from. By putting our own opinions aside for a moment, and seeing things from their perspective instead, it is possible to make real headway.
In today’s divided times, this respectful approach makes for a breath of fresh air – and is indeed the only way that a greater understanding can be achieved on any side. Rather than viewing other people as adversaries, or as subjects whose worth is equal only to the amount which we are able to change their minds, Dale Carnegie reminds us once again to see each other as people first and foremost.
Though Carnegie’s book continues to appear on bestseller lists, its message has in large part faded from today’s culture. Yet it is sorely needed again today; only by understanding other people can we connect with them in a positive way, and only through such a connection can we gain the trust that is a prerequisite for real influence.
Part 2 of this series will continue our review of How to Win Friends and Influence People, covering effective ways to make people genuinely like you. Hint: Reciprocity helps!