Mining wisdom from Dale Carnegie

I’d never thought of reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People even though I knew of it back in my college days. Recently, I found out that this book is part of Buffer’s hiring criteria — and I have so much respect for Buffer, their values, and their team — so it has to be something special, right?

So I picked up a copy, read a few chapters, and got really mad… at myself.

Why didn’t I pick it up sooner??!

Not only did Carnegie’s advice on how to engage with people resonate with what I’ve learned in my professional and personal life, his insight also gave new dimension to these lessons. And I can’t wait to apply and share them.

Given the book’s title and some of the anecdotes, it’s understandable why some of the reviews are skeptical or downright critical. Although Carnegie frequently reiterates that being genuinely interested in others and behaving in an authentic fashion is paramount, it is still up to the reader to interpret the advice in the book and I can see how one may read it as a manipulation manifesto. But I don’t think that’s fair.

It all lies in how you read it and how you live it.

If you read Carnegie’s book as describing relationships between a particular set of behaviours (e.g. listen, don’t condemn, smile) and their outcomes (winning friends and influencing people), and frame those behaviours in a positive, non-manipulative, authentic, and life-giving manner, then I don’t think using his advice is disingenuous. Any set of instructions can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but how to understand and manifest it in your life is up to you 🙂

Understanding things from the other person’s perspective

Carnegie begins his book by encouraging people to adopt a certain mindset — one that isn’t driven by criticism of the other person. Criticism engenders resentment, he says, and resentment is not only unproductive to your ends, it also hinders the other person’s development. How many times have we refused to take advice just because the advice-giver began with pointing out our flaws? Hearing oneself painted a negative light automatically puts people on the defensive, even when we know that we truly are guilty as charged.

My professional life is dedicated to empowering students and helping them be the best that they can be. In my early years, it was easy to default to scolding and nagging since that was how things were done when I was a student and the teacher’s intentions are good anyway. But you see, when it comes to developing others, good intentions are not enough.

If you truly want to help the other person grow, you need to help them hear your message too. They won’t hear your message if they’re put on the defensive.

Furthermore, I have come to view education as a dialogue, in which both teacher and student learn, instead of the mere transfer of information. Just telling someone to do A instead of B doesn’t empower her to make the best choice for herself. Why not explain why you think A is beneficial for her and discuss the decision-making process instead of labelling either option as good or bad? Regardless of what she chooses, at least she has thought it through and it’s a decision she can own. That’s more than can be said if she chooses out of spite due to a mishandled piece of advice.

It is also rather condescending to assume that we know what is best for someone else. Other people are different persons, not versions of ourselves; we have infinite things to learn about them. This is why I found Carnegie’s closing sentiment so impactful:

“Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance, and kindness. “To know all is to forgive all.””

Some other choice quotes from this chapter are:

“Don’t criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.” — Abraham Lincoln

“Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbor’s roof,” said Confucius, “when your own doorstep is unclean.”

Reading this chapter made me reflect on how I can handle my interpersonal relationships with more intention. Positive reinforcement and positivity in general go so much further than being a well-meaning complainer.


These reflections are influenced by my readings of Paulo Freire, Emmanuel Levinas, and Dale Carnegie. Drop me a tweet (@stephe_lee) if you’d like to start a conversation!

P.S. This is the first post in a reading series. Check back at my main blog or the post category to read the rest of the posts!

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