In Part Three of his self-help classic, Dale Carnegie offers twelve strategies to “win people to your way of thinking.”  They are:

Principle 1: The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.

Principle 2: Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”

Principle 3: If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

Principle 4: Begin in a friendly way.

Principle 5: Get the other person saying “yes, yes” immediately.

Principle 6: Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.

Principle 7: Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.

Principle 8: Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.

Principle 9: Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.

Principle 10: Appeal to the nobler motives.

Principle 11: Dramatize your ideas.

Principle 12: Throw down a challenge.

Since we’ve seen how Carnegie argues, I won’t quote examples for all twelve principles; I’ll only offer a few highlights.

Carnegie categorically announces, “You can’t win an argument” – and shares his personal journey.

During my youth, I had argued with my brother about everything under the Milky Way. When I went to college, I studied logic and argumentation and went in for debating contests. Talk about being from Missouri, I was born there. I had to be shown. Later, I taught debating and argumentation in New York; and once, I am ashamed to admit, I planned to write a book on the subject. Since then, I have listened to, engaged in, and watched the effect of thousands of arguments. As a result of all this, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument – and that is to avoid it .

Why can’t you win an argument?

You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why? Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot his argument full of holes and prove that he is non compos mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph.

Carnegie then shares the story of truck salesman Patrick O’Haire:

Here is his story in his own words: “If I walk into a buyer’s office now and he says: ‘What? A White truck? They’re no good! I wouldn’t take one if you gave it to me. I’m going to buy the Whose-It truck,’ I say, ‘The Whose-It is a good truck. If you buy the Whose-It, you’ll never make a mistake. The Whose-Its are made by a fine company and sold by good people.’

“He is speechless then. There is no room for an argument. If he says the Whose-It is best and I say sure it is, he has to stop. He can’t keep on all afternoon saying, ‘It’s the best’ when I’m agreeing with him. We then get off the subject of Whose-It and I begin to talk about the good points of the White truck.

Why shouldn’t we tell people they’re wrong?  Because it’s a great way to make them stay wrong.

If a person makes a statement that you think is wrong – yes, even that you know is wrong – isn’t it better to begin by saying: “Well, now, look, I thought otherwise, but I may be wrong. I frequently am. And if I am wrong, I want to be put right. Let’s examine the facts.”

There’s magic, positive magic, in such phrases as: “I may be wrong. I frequently am. Let’s examine the facts.”

Nobody in the heavens above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth will ever object to your saying: “I may be wrong. Let’s examine the facts.”

There’s only one person you should unequivocally call “wrong”: yourself.

If we know we are going to be rebuked anyhow, isn’t it far better to beat the other person to it and do it ourselves? Isn’t it much easier to listen to self-criticism than to bear condemnation from alien lips? Say about yourself all the derogatory things you know the other person is thinking or wants to say or intends to say – and say them before that person has a chance to say them. The chances are a hundred to one that a generous, forgiving attitude will be taken and your mistakes will be minimized…

If you must say something the other person doesn’t want to hear, at least begin by saying things the other person does want to hear.  Here’s a nice anecdote about negotiating for a rent reduction:

O.L. Straub, an engineer, wanted to get his rent reduced. And he knew his landlord was hard-boiled. “I wrote him,” Mr. Straub said in a speech before the class, “notifying him that I was vacating my apartment as soon as my lease expired. The truth was, I didn’t want to move. I wanted to stay if I could get my rent reduced. But the situation seemed hopeless. Other tenants had tried – and failed…”

“He and his secretary came to see me as soon as he got my letter. I met him at the door with a friendly greeting. I fairly bubbled with good will and enthusiasm. I didn’t begin talking about how high the rent was. I began talking about how much I liked his apartment house. Believe me, I was ‘hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise.’ I complimented him on the way he ran the building and told him I should like so much to stay for another year but I couldn’t afford it.

“He had evidently never had such a reception from a tenant. He hardly knew what to make of it.

“Then he started to tell me his troubles. Complaining tenants. One had written him fourteen letters, some of them positively insulting. Another threatened to break his lease unless the landlord kept the man on the floor above from snoring. ‘What a relief it is,’ he said, ‘to have a satisfied tenant like you.’ And then, without my even asking him to do it, he offered to reduce my rent a little. I wanted more, so I named the figure I could afford to pay, and he accepted without a word.”

In terms of teaching specific tools, Part Three is probably the richest section of Carnegie’s book.


1. Since I’ve spent my career crafting and sharing arguments, Carnegie’s advice is personally painful.  Never argue?  But that’s what I do!  For the most part, however, he’s right.  The only escape hatch is to say: “There are arguments and arguments.”  When Carnegie urges us to avoid argument, he primarily means a one-on-one attempt to reverse someone’s position even though at least one of you is upset.  He’s not against argumentative essays or public debates; neither does he oppose sportsmanlike conversations on controversial topics.  Instead, Carnegie opposes verbally attacking an individual you seek to persuade.

Is he right?  As a rule, yes.  Treating another person like an enemy usually turns them into an enemy.  Yet he overstates; rather than insisting “You can’t win an argument,” he should have just opined, “Arguing with people combines high risk with low average reward.  Yet once in a while, argument pays off big time.”  Arguing is especially functional if repeated interaction is minimal.  If all goes well, you argue, get what you want, then move on with your life.  Even so, this should be your last resort, or nearly so.

2. I continue to tell people, “You’re wrong,” though far less than I used to.  But now I only do so in two situations: (a) there’s an audience, or (b) we’re very good friends.  When there’s an audience, I’m not really trying to persuade the person I’m talking to; my goal, instead, is to convince listeners that I’m right.  Even then, however, I try to reserve “You’re wrong” for the most egregious and demonstrable errors.  Similarly, when I’m among very good friends, we can speak frankly because we judge each other with affection.  If I tell Robin he’s wrong, I know he’ll take it the right way.  In contrast, the worst I’m likely to tell a student is, “Not quite.”

3. Isn’t there a contradiction between, “Never say ‘you’re wrong,” and “Rush to say, ‘I’m wrong'”?  Of course not.  Carnegie isn’t denying that humans err.  Instead, he’s trying to smooth social life.  Calling attention to the errors of others causes conflict.  Calling attention to your own errors brings goodwill.  Of course, if you do nothing other than decry your own fallibility, you paint yourself as a pleasant incompetent.  Few of us, however, will ever fall into that trap.  Your tone should be, “I uncharacteristically missed something important,” rather than, “What an idiot I am.”

4. One of my favorite approaches that Carnegie fails to mention: Instead of telling people that they’re wrong, tell them that some other people are wrong.  Remember: Most people are hazy about their own beliefs.  So rather than finding out if they believe X and then demolishing X, just assume they disbelieve X and then demolish X.  This works especially well if you combine it with a sense of humor.   Once they’re laughing at the folly of those-who-believe-X, they’re unlikely to haughtily announce, “Well, I for one happen to believe X.”

5. What if there’s an audience?  Should you still admit error then?  Strategically, it’s fuzzy: You want your audience to think you’re both strong and just.  If your errors are blatant, fessing up is probably your best bet.  Otherwise, there’s a trade-off between success and virtue.  I recommend virtue, but Carnegie would likely deny the trade-off.

6. “Begin in a friendly way” could be Carnegie’s best specific recommendation.  Critically: Don’t merely preface criticism with perfunctory praise.  Reflect in earnest about the other person’s strengths – and strive to feel their value on a emotional level before you speak.  Also: Think about the fairness of your standards.  My daughter isn’t Tolstoy, but she writes great stories for a 2nd-grader.  Remember: You’ll usually interact with the person you criticize again, so your goal is to fill them with hope of improvement.  Words aren’t enough; convey a cheerful, can-do tone.

7. If you’re sure you never want to deal with a person again, criticism is especially useless.  Just compliment their best traits, then regretfully tell them, “I’m afraid is just isn’t a good match.”

8. To repeat, Carnegie overstates and overgeneralizes.  Drill sergeants around the world subject new recruits to severe emotional abuse – and they get results.  Many leaders refuse to admit errors – yet they still have their jobs.  Explain that, Dale!  The best answers, to repeat are that: (a) fear and brutality are only effective in rarefied situations; and (b) unpleasant leaders usually have other strengths that compensate for their toxic personalities.  If a toxic genius builds a multi-billion-dollar company, the reason is probably his genius – not his toxicity.  And though you can’t choose to be a genius, you can choose to treat others well.  Consider Carnegie’s Rockefeller story:

Back in 1915, Rockefeller was the most fiercely despised man in Colorado. One of the bloodiest strikes in the history of American industry had been shocking the state for two terrible years. Irate, belligerent miners were demanding higher wages from the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company; Rockefeller controlled that company. Property had been destroyed, troops had been called out. Blood had been shed. Strikers had been shot, their
bodies riddled with bullets.

At a time like that, with the air seething with hatred, Rockefeller wanted to win the strikers to his way of thinking. And he did it. How? Here’s the story. After weeks spent in making friends, Rockefeller addressed the representatives of the strikers. This speech, in its entirety, is a masterpiece. It produced astonishing results. It calmed the tempestuous waves of hate that threatened to engulf Rockefeller. It won him a host of admirers. It presented facts in such a friendly manner that the strikers went back to work without saying another word about the increase in wages for which they had fought so violently.

The opening of that remarkable speech follows. Note how it fairly glows with friendliness. Rockefeller, remember, was talking to men who, a few days previously, had wanted to hang him by the neck to a sour apple tree; yet he couldn’t have been more gracious, more friendly if he had addressed a group of medical missionaries. His speech was radiant with such phrases as I am proud to be here, having visited in your homes, met many of your wives and children, we meet here not as strangers, but as friends … spirit of mutual friendship, our common interests, it is only by your courtesy that I am here.

“This is a red-letter day in my life,” Rockefeller began. “It is the first time I have ever had the good fortune to meet the representatives of the employees of this great company, its officers and superintendents, together, and I can assure you that I am proud to be here, and that I shall remember this gathering as long as I live.”

Isn’t that a superb example of the fine art of making friends out of enemies?

9. If everyone took Carnegie to heart, would that impede the search for truth?  No, because everyone would bend over backwards to sympathetically listen to other people’s arguments!  The real danger is if the people most capable of discovering truth take Carnegie to heart, while the rest of humanity stays its current course.  If Carnegie glanced at the books I’ve written, I fear he would disapprove.  I readily picture this conversation:

Carnegie: These are wonderfully argued books, Bryan.  Compelling.  Beautifully written.  Your parents must be proud.  I can only assume you’ve completely changed their minds?

Bryan: Uh, no.  They haven’t even flipped the pages.

Carnegie: Maybe they would have read your books if you’d written them differently?

Bryan: I doubt it.  The premises are too objectionable.

Carnegie: Well, that’s no big deal.  We both know that people like your friends far outnumber people like your parents.

Bryan: Uh, it’s probably the other way around.

Carnegie: So what exactly was the point of writing books with such objectionable premises?

Bryan: I guess because I think those premises are true and important.

Carnegie: Right, right.

Ultimately, I’ll stick to my current path, because I really do prize truth for its own sake.  And it sure seems like the “just the facts” attitude with which I identify has yielded enormous social benefits over the last few centuries.  Still, Carnegie’s challenge is awkward to face.

10. If you object, “Carnegie’s advice is easier said than done,” I couldn’t agree more.  Never mind my misspent youth; I fail to implement his precepts on a daily basis.  Yet I don’t let this discourage me from the quest to better myself, and neither should you.  As I often tell my kids, “Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes better.