Wednesday 28 September 2016

Charm offensive: Be interested if you want to be considered interesting

Published 09/08/2016 | 02:30

Dale Carnegie's book.
Dale Carnegie's book.

In 2001, British journalist Toby Young wrote a very funny memoir about his ill-fated stint working for Vanity Fair magazine in New York. Young called his book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, which was a riff on Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People - a book that was first published in 1936 and has since sold over 30 million copies worldwide.

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Carnegie's classic is still one of the best-selling self-help books of all time and has been read, cover to cover, by some of the world's most successful entrepreneurs - Warren Buffett included.

While the title of the book might suggest that it advocates Machiavellian skulduggery and subterfuge, it in fact promotes the cornerstones of integrity, decency and respect, with one or two psychological manoeuvres thrown in.

Unlike Young's egomaniacal misadventure, Carnegie's best-seller keeps coming back to one simple piece of advice: be interested if you want to be considered interesting. "You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you," he wrote.

The How to Lose Friends approach is of course to do the very opposite. We all know people who seem incapable of engaging in conversations in which they aren't the star of the show. They talk more than they listen; they say 'I' more than they say 'you' and they somehow find a way to bring every topic back to themselves.

"If you aspire to be a good conversationalist," wrote Carnegie, "be an attentive listener. Ask questions that the other person will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments."

Meanwhile, if you aspire to be a conceited conversationalist, talk only about yourself and your accomplishments, interrupt people when they're talking and don't forget to forget names too.

"Remember that name and call it easily and you have paid a subtle and very effective compliment," wrote Carnegie. "But forget it or misspell it and you have placed yourself at a sharp disadvantage."

Remembering names is of course a textbook way to endear oneself to others. However, very few of us take the time to commit those few syllables to memory. As someone who can forget a name almost as soon as it is uttered, I attribute this to laziness. Nobody is 'terrible with names'. They just couldn't be bothered trying to remember them.

Further on in the book, Carnegie writes about winning arguments. However, he doesn't propose advanced debating tactics or Schopenhauer-esque strategies. Actually, he advises that arguments are avoided "as you would avoid rattlesnakes and earthquakes".

"Remember that other people may be totally wrong. But they don't think so," he adds. "Don't condemn them. Any fool can do that. Try to understand them, only wise, tolerant and exceptional people try to do that."

Contrarily, those who want to lose friends and alienate people often have a need to be right. They cling vehemently to their 'point' as though it's the very oxygen that sustains them. Worse, they are incapable of admitting when they are wrong. In fact, they would rather evade, deflect and dodge than own up to a mistake.

Instead of playing the blame game, Carnegie advises that we admit we are wrong "quickly and emphatically". "It raises one above the herd and gives one a feeling of nobility and exaltation to admit one's mistakes," he adds.

The other benefit of avoiding arguments is that it eliminates irrational and unnecessary anger. Those who want to lose friends and alienate people get angry very easily. They're the people who raise their voices, pound their keyboards and say 'FFS' so often that it has almost become a verbal tic.

Carnegie believed that you can "measure the size of a person by what makes him/her angry" and he proposed that anger be met with compassion and patience.

"The chronic kicker, even the most violent critic, will frequently soften and be subdued in the presence of a patient, sympathetic listener," he wrote.

The other Carnegie approach to dissipating anger - or indeed any fractious behaviour - is to treat the person you're dealing with in a manner that resonates with how you would like to be treated. "To change somebody's behaviour, change the level of respect she receives by giving her a fine reputation to live up to. Act as though the trait you are trying to influence is already one of the person's outstanding characteristics."

Conversely, those of the How to Lose Friends school of thinking have a tendency to assume defence mechanisms based on how they believe a person will react. The trouble with this approach is that it compounds - if not causes - the very behaviour that they're trying to defend themselves from.

In many ways, Carnegie's book is just a call to common sense. And yet many of us continue to unwittingly take the How to Lose Friends approach to interpersonal relations. If you're one of the many people who have read the wrong book, the message can be summarised thus: Instead of trying to get the better of people, try to get the best out of them instead.

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