How To Influence People

I posted before on the how-to-win-friends part of Dale Carnegie’s classic How To Win Friends And Influence People. Today I’ll discuss influencing. Carnegie offers twelve principles, the first three of which are:

  1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
  2. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
  3. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

He illustrates principle 1 with a story:

During the dinner, … the [storyteller] mentioned that the quotation was from the Bible. He was wrong. I knew that, I knew it positively. … I appointed myself as an unsolicited and unwelcome committee of one to correct him. He stuck to his guns. … Frank Gammond, an old friend of mine, … had devoted years to the study of Shakespeare, So the storyteller and I agreed to submit the question to Mr. Gammond. Mr. Gammond listened, kicked me under the table, and then said: “Dale, you are wrong. The gentleman is right. It is from the Bible.” On our way home that night, I said to Mr. Gammond: “Frank, you knew that quotation was from Shakespeare,” “Yes, of course. … But we were guests at a festive occasion, my dear Dale. Why prove to a man he is wrong? Is that going to make him like you? Why not let him save his face? He didn’t ask for your opinion. He didn’t want it. Why argue with him?” … I not only had made the storyteller uncomfortable, but had put my friend in an embarrassing situation. How much better it would have been had I not become argumentative.

Carnegie also tells of how Ben Franklin learned a similar lesson:

“I made it a rule,” said Franklin, “to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiment of others, and all positive assertion of my own.”

This is a hard lesson for me. Humans have many conversation ideals, and usually act as if they uphold such ideals. For example, you aren’t supposed to lie. And if you talk about something as if you think it important, and someone else knows a good clear reason that something important about what you said is wrong, they are supposed to tell you, and you are supposed to listen, and then change your mind. So we commonly talk as if we assume people who said something must believe it, as if people who heard a claim and didn’t object must not have known a good clear reason it was wrong, and as if people who don’t publicly change their minds when others object must not think the reason offered was good and clear.

But we are actually hypocritical about such ideals – we try to avoid visibly violating them, yet are not otherwise eager to follow them against our interests. We often object to unimportant claims by rivals, to gain status at their expense. We often pretend we don’t think reasons offered by others are good, to avoid visibly changing our mind. We often lie. And those of us who are best at arguing and lying are the most eager to uphold conversation ideals, as we can best evade detection of our ideal violations.

So how committed should we be to such ideals? How should we think of Carnegie and Franklin’s violations, refusing to tell others they are wrong, and even lying on occasion to avoid conflict? Given that they will try to admit when they are wrong, I find it hard to find much fault overall in them. Yes, their refusing to disagree on something important could fail to inform others, but I doubt they took this habit to such extremes. I expect that in such situations they disagreed indirectly, but still got their key info across.

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  • Jared

    These first three rules seem really useful for getting along with others, but not so much for influencing them, inasmuch as influencing involves getting them to change their mind about some issue or some thought they previously had. Getting along with others certainly makes them more amenable to listening to you about new ideas & such down the road, but it means letting a lot of other “learning moments” go by the wayside.

  • Ben

    The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
    Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”

    I happen to think these are (mostly) wrong.

    I tend to think of discourse as being somewhat like poker. There are times when it’s appropriate to be directly confrontational, and other times when it’s best to avoid conflict. Deciding which approach to take depends on the particulars of the situation, the opponent/interlocutor, and the stakes involved.

    I suspect that much of this blog’s audience is more confrontational than is optimal (probably even moreso than internet-users generally), but confrontation serves a pretty important function. If no one ever states a contrary opinion, it’s pretty hard to progress intellectually.

    Please, RH, don’t stop speaking up when you think someone’s wrong.

    • lemmy caution

      People are much more confrontational on the internet than in real life.

  • So, what is the solution?

    Is it possible to exchange information and correct each other on some higher conversational level, using less obvious means? (Something like: I always say “you are right”, but if I wink or if I don’t repeat it twice, it means I don’t think so, and if you ask me tomorrow, I will tell you the correct information.) Is there some Carnegie-Aumann’s agreement theorem saying that two perfectly rational and perfectly polite actors will achieve the same conclusion without ever admitting that they had different opinions anytime during the process?

    Or is it dividing people to “people I share information with” and “people I try to influence” and exchanging useful information only with the former? (The division does not have to be absolute, people may be in different categories depending on the topic discussed.)

    In other words, is it in principle possible to act “Carnegie-like” towards all people while remaining sane, or do we have to split between influence channels and information channels? (With the obvious risk that someone who is my information channel treats me as an influence channel.)

  • Mark M

    Arguing an inconsequential point diminishes your status. You lose, even if you win.

    In the middle of a controversy between departments at a University where I worked, my boss and I agreed that my solution was easily the best for everyone involved. “But,” he said, “it’s not the hill to die on.” When I thought of it that way, he was right. The opposing plan was far from optimal, but workable. We could win, but the price of winning, paid in time and status, would be high, and the benefit relatively low. We let it go.

    Noticing an error does not create an obligation to correct that error. When the error is of little consequence, let it go.

  • Vaniver

    Note this advice is often about presentation, not about content. If someone says “X is from the Bible,” saying something like “I seem to remember that from Shakespeare” is far better than “you’re wrong, that’s not from the Bible! It’s Shakespeare!”, and if it’s not germane to the point, that correction may not be worth pointing out.

    • Lucas Reis

      Perfect example. Whenever I say or hear someone saying “You are wrong”, I never listen to a “Sorry, I was wrong and you are right” after that… People tend to simply get defensive.

    • This took me quite a while to figure out myself. If you’re not in a hostile venue, ask yourself this before supplying a correction.

      Is the misstatement actually a ‘load bearing’ component of the argument that the speaker is making? If it isn’t, don’t play gotcha the fact-checker.

      If it is, a gentle correcting question like you describe is probably the way to go.

      Of course, if its a hostile communication, nitpick away. Just don’t expect anyone to like it.

  • I try this:

    15:2 The tongue of the wise makes knowledge appealing, but the mouth of a fool belches out foolishness.

    That is, I try to correct without belittling the other person but perhaps I am not so successful.

    Recently I have corrected 2 guest on USA manufacturing maybe I did wrong.
    I kind of felt bad about it later. I often feel compelled to protest to those who lately are predicting hyper inflation.

    I think that I will try to hold my tongue more on Dale’s advice, at least for while. Thanks, it will be a burden lifted.

  • zzk

    Before correcting someone, I like to ask myself if I’m correcting this person because I genuinely want to dispel an incorrect notion (and improve their life) or do I just want other people to see how smart I am?

    Usually, I just want to signal, so I keep my mouth shut.

  • Those three rules are basically the antithesis of the “rules” of arguing on the internet, which is why they might seem hard to grasp for readers of this blog (myself included).

  • It seems a shame that generational separation prevented a conversation on this topic between Carnegie and Robert Aumann. The latter won a Nobel by being correct, yet apparently alienated over 1,000 academics who signed a petition to have the award revoked.

  • Robert Koslover

    Robin, I for one encourage you to continue your prickly practice of being brutally/painfully honest on your blog. Yes, you could most-certainly win both more friends and more powerful friends by paying closer attention to Dale Carnegie. However, to loosely paraphrase Star Wars, those aren’t the friends you’re looking for. 🙂

  • Eric Falkenstein

    I think the trick comes in as where to draw the line. Your thesis adviser might say X, and you agree even though he is wrong, etc. All fine, as long as it’s inconsequential. But what if he argues with you about something more fundamental, like whether the first order of government is to get bigger, or the key problem with finance is the assumption of perfect information, or that America desperately needs open immigration. How do you disagree on these issues without losing their important support? Perhaps, you look for a new coalition, acknowledging that you don’t change beliefs, just coalitions.

  • Young Money

    I’m pretty sure being completely non-argumentative/non-confrontational is also looked down upon. Not having any opinion at all can make you look weak or uninteresting.

  • Robin,

    You say: “Yes, their refusing to disagree on something important could fail to inform others, but I doubt they took this habit to such extremes. I expect that in such situations they disagreed indirectly, but still got their key info across.”

    Not being as effective of a communicator as Carnegie or Franklin, I have to disagree. I am strongly inclined to believe that (a) they likely did not get their info across…because truth usally wasn’t their goal. Instead, truth was a means to a goal, and they correctly concluded that truth wasn’t a very effective means to many (any?) goals.

    So instead, they endeavored towards their goals effectively rather than truthily.

    As a second line of disagreement…we need to address the question of whether communication of disagreement frequently or ever changes folks minds. If, as Franklin and Carnegie suggest, communicating disagreement has a ~1% chance of impacting someone’s opinion…then even your (and my) truth-seeking goal isn’t served by disagreeing, except perhaps with very rare individuals…and knowing that, the effective communicator should perhaps abandon the attempt to change minds, and attempt secondary goals instead, which are themselves actively inhibited by disagreeing.

    • Yes! In our autistic world, it’s easy to forget that most people communicate for two basic goals: (a) relationship building/maintenance, and (b) self-presentation. Truth or information transfer barely registers, and our insistence on factual correctness in the context of, say, a regular human party, is just dickishness – a refusal to acknowledge the goals of those around us.

      • It’s important to remember that it’s often truly unclear to (us) autistic types that communication is this way. Don’t attribute someone’s insistence on factual correctness as dickishness until they actually understand what’s going on. The fact that autistic types (like me) will reform their behavior (to an extent) is evidence that this is due to cluelessness, not dickishness.

      • Indeed – I do not mean that we shouldn’t give others the benefit of the doubt. (I had to learn about communication goals from a book!)

      • Any books worth suggesting?

      • It was in a textbook for a communications class I was teaching (ironically) – not a great textbook, but I think almost any communications textbook will reveal the same insights. Relevant search terms: “relational maintenance,” “self-presentation,” and “instrumental goals.”

    • .. the question of whether communication of disagreement frequently or ever changes folks minds

      Indeed and I would also point out that the disagreement, in addition to being mostly ineffective, is likely to make the opponent even less likely to change their opinion.

      • If an opponent is unable or unwilling to change their mind, there is no use communicating with them.

  • Rob

    In his new book, Haidt briefly discusses Carnegie (“a brilliant moral psychologist”) in terms of the Social Intuitionist Model of moral judgement.

    One of these days, I hope Professor Hanson will share his thoughts on where he takes issue with Haidt’s work.