How to Win Friends and Influence People

Features - Business Bookshelf

July 25, 2011
Matt LaWell

I was 10 years old the first time I read “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Seriously.

My life had been easy to that point, my childhood spent in comfortable suburbs that shielded me and so many of my friends and classmates from the evils and the hard truths of the world, my only struggles fleeting creations of my active imagination. Why did I receive an A-minus in Science instead of an A? Why did Math homework take an hour to finish instead of 45 minutes? Did Mrs. Smith call us in early from recess?

But I managed to grow up that year, too, and I started to wonder about more important things, like friends and perception and the mirage of popularity. I started to wonder whether people actually liked me. I convinced myself that they didn’t.

I probably inflated the whole situation out of proportion – I seem to remember talking with my parents about it in the middle of the night – but the end result is all that matters now, almost 20 years later. My dad, who worked for decades in public affairs, pulled his Dale Carnegie classic from the shelf and handed it to me. “Read this,” he said.

“There’s a lot of good information in here.”

Right, because doesn’t every 10-year-old read “How to Win Friends and Influence People”? Thing is, it worked. I read Carnegie and applied his techniques – use first names, never criticize, smile all the time, among so many others – and never wondered again whether people liked me.

I hadn’t spent much time since then with Carnegie and what is probably the most important business book out there – even now, 75 years after its initial publication – until it popped up on the Business Bookshelf reading list.
What a mistake. It’s even better now:

Allow people to talk about themselves. None of us knows more about anything than we know about ourselves. None of us loves to talk about anything more than we love to talk about ourselves.

The sweetest sound to our ears is that of our own name. The whole first half of this book review was a personal childhood story. Why? Because, even if I wind up teaching his courses, I’ll never know more about Dale Carnegie than I already do about my own life. And that goes for every one of us. If we can get others to talk about themselves, we’ve won them over. “If you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener,” Carnegie writes. “To be interesting, be interested.”

Don’t beat up people while they talk. Not physically, of course, and not verbally, either. Best to avoid arguments (even the winners lose), show respect for folks and never tell them they’re wrong (even if they are) and, if you’re wrong, admit it quickly (even if you have to suck up some of your pride). Carnegie quotes thinkers, authors and regular folks throughout the book. One of them is Lord Chesterfield, who, in one of his famous letters to his son, said “Be wiser than other people if you can, but do not tell them so.” Another is Socrates, who simply said, “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” Not a bad strategy to take when talking with others.

Take responsibility before blaming. Carnegie trumpets the humble leader. Praise first, he says, talk about your own mistakes before you criticize others, let others save face, build them up rather than rip them down. Over and over, Carnegie quotes Charles Schwab (the steel magnate, not the investment titan). “Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.” Why drive people to failure when you can help lead them to success? L&L

The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.