How to Win Friends and Influence People Book Club, Part 4
By Bryan Caplan
In this last part, Carnegie teaches leadership. Attentive readers will notice that some of his principles of leadership are virtually identical to earlier general principles, but so what? Carnegie casually repeats himself because he’s trying to improve his readers, not succinctly relay a body of information. Here’s what Carnegie says leaders ought to do:
Principle 1 – Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
Principle 2 – Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly.
Principle 3 – Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
Principle 4 – Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
Principle 5 – Let the other person save face.
Principle 6 – Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be “hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.”
Principle 7 – Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
Principle 8 – Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.
Principle 9 – Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest.
A few highlights:
Earlier in the book, Carnegie told us never to criticize. He clearly doesn’t mean it literally. His real view: Try to make criticism not feel like criticism. How can you achieve this amazing feat? Do all of the following.
First, don’t start with criticism! “It is always easier to listen to unpleasant things after we have heard some praise of our good points.” Again: “Beginning with praise is like the dentist who begins his work with Novocain. The patient still gets a drilling, but the Novocain is painkilling.”
Second, make your praise blunt and your criticism subtle. Case in point:
Many people begin their criticism with sincere praise followed by the word “but” and ending with a critical statement. For example, in trying to change a child’s careless attitude toward studies, we might say, “We’re really proud of you, Johnnie, for raising your grades this term. But if you had worked harder on your algebra, the results would have been better.”
In this case, Johnnie might feel encouraged until he heard the word “but.” He might then question the sincerity of the original praise. To him, the praise seemed only to be a contrived lead-in to a critical inference of failure. Credibility would be strained, and we probably would not achieve our objectives of changing Johnnie’s attitude toward his studies.
This could be easily overcome by changing the word “but” to “and.” “We’re really proud of you, Johnnie, for raising your grades this term, and by continuing the same conscientious efforts next term, your algebra grade can be up with all the others.”
Now, Johnnie would accept the praise because there was no followup of an inference of failure. We have called his attention to the behavior we wished to change indirectly and the chances are he will try to live up to our expectations.
Third, be harder on yourself than whoever you’re criticizing: “It isn’t nearly so difficult to listen to a recital of your faults if the person criticizing begins by humbly admitting that he, too, is far from impeccable.”
Fourth, talk as if whatever you’re criticizing is easy to fix:
Tell your child, your spouse, or your employee that he or she is stupid or dumb at a certain thing, has no gift for it, and is doing it all wrong, and you have destroyed almost every incentive to try to improve. But use the opposite technique – be liberal with your encouragement, make the thing seem easy to do, let the other person know that you have faith in his ability to do it, that he has an undeveloped flair for it – and he will practice until the dawn comes in the window in order to excel.
Carnegie doesn’t just want us to praise specific accomplishments; he urges us to praise the whole person.
[I]f you want to improve a person in a certain respect, act as though that particular trait were already one of his or her outstanding characteristics. Shakespeare said “Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” And it might be well to assume and state openly that other people have the virtue you want them to develop. Give them a fine reputation to live up to, and they will make prodigious efforts rather than see you disillusioned.
Toward the end of Part 4, Carnegie offers a rare admission that his techniques are imperfect:
Will John be happy about doing what you suggest? Probably not very happy, but happier than if you had not pointed out the benefits…
It is naive to believe you will always get a favorable reaction from other persons when you use these approaches, but the experience of most people shows that you are more likely to change attitudes this way than by not using these principles – and if you increase your successes by even a mere 10 percent, you have become 10 percent more effective as a leader than you were before – and that is your benefit.
1. After urging to never criticize, Carnegie now proceeds to show us the best ways to criticize! Happily, his advice here is both (a) non-obvious, and (b) easy to follow. From this day forward, preface all your criticism with praise. From this day forward, call attention to others’ mistakes indirectly. From this day forward, talk about your own mistakes first. From this day forward, make the fault seem easy to correct.
Notice, though, that I just failed to follow all four pieces of advice. I should have said something more like this:
I have wasted hundreds of conversations – and spoiled a few friendships – with shrill criticism. Who knows how many potential friendships I killed before they were even born? I just stubbornly refused to see things from the other person’s point of view. Now, before I criticize, I reflect on the target’s good points. Imagine, for example, that I was going to criticize you. I’d start by thinking about what a loyal and curious reader you’ve been for all these years. Readers like you make all my efforts worthwhile. One problem people like us have, though, is that we focus so much on discovering the truth that we fail to effectively sell our discoveries to others. We’ve got to make people like us. Fortunately, that’s not so hard, because people like people who like them. Even though reaching out to others doesn’t come naturally to me, I’ve managed to make a great deal of progress. For you, this would probably be even easier.
2. The easiest technique, for me, is to share my own failures. Why? Because in all sincerity, I’ll never run out of stories about my own inadequacies. Remembering my own shortcomings also helps me sincerely praise others, because I realize, “This person is doing better than I did at their age.” Or at least wonder if this is so.
3. Carnegie tells us to start with praise. Kahneman, in contrast, urges us to end with praise. I suggest we do both. If you must criticize, sandwich your criticism between two thick slices of praise.
4. One problem with Carnegie’s approach: Many people are too oblivious to hear indirect criticism. If you don’t bluntly say, “You made a mistake,” they don’t change. What then? Try humor, especially self-mockery. Playfully exaggerate until you finally get your point across. On Friday, I critiqued one of my son’s AP English Language essays. The rubric includes a point for “sophistication.” I told my son that if he wanted to make sure he didn’t get the point, he should include a sentence like, “Oblivious to possible counter-arguments, the author says…” He laughed.
5. I love Carnegie’s advice to “Make the fault seem easy to correct.” Yet be warned: when you do this, you’re playing with fire. Remember the wisdom of Epicurus: Divergence between expectations and reality causes unhappiness. So if a task really is terribly difficult, you really don’t want those who pursue it to expect easy success. The ideal approach, I suspect, is to be Epicurus globally and Carnegie locally. Loudly but infrequently tell people that achieving your main goal is a herculean endeavor. Day-to-day, however, focus on tiny intermediate goals – goals so tiny that they really are easily achieved. Indeed, one of a leader’s most important jobs is slicing up an arduous odyssey into a long series of baby steps.
6. I realize that pairing every criticism with praise becomes exhausting – a tax. Yet if, per Carnegie, you give your compatriots a stellar overall reputation, you can afford to be blunter on specifics. Instead of waiting for bad news to come up, then searching around for offsetting praise, share your positivity with others whenever you happen to feel it. I routinely tell my kids I’m proud of them out of the blue. They’re such great kids, so parental pride fills me without warning. I don’t just enjoy sharing my pride with them; the praise I’ve lavished in the past impels them interpret today’s criticism as constructive.
7. Carnegie focuses almost entirely on voice rather than exit. Lurking in the background, however, is the fact that you can and should avoid interacting with people who are stubbornly negative, hostile, predatory, or plain incompetent. Key point: Carnegie reminds us that many people who are negative, hostile, predatory, or plain incompetent aren’t stubbornly so. Don’t write them off until you earnestly reach out to them. Using his techniques, you can improve some of the folks in your life, then distance yourself from the rest.
P.S. Some editions of How to Win Friends and Influence People have more than four parts, but I’m sticking to the classic version.