Dale Carnegie – Still Relevant

How to Win Friends and Influence People

I’m a big believer in revisiting the classics. Even if they feel a little outdated, often the main lessons are still valuable. So, case in point, I decided to listen to the audio book of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

If you aren’t in sales or if just haven’t heard of it, here is a little background from Wikipedia:

  • Dale Carnegie (November 24, 1888 – November 1, 1955) was an American writer and the developer of popular courses in salesmanship, public speaking, and interpersonal skills.
  • Born into poverty on a farm in Missouri, he moved to New York City where he taught evening classes at a YMCA and eventually wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948), Lincoln the Unknown (1932), and several other books.
  • Many people have heard of Dale Carnegie through the training courses that still bear his name (http://www.dalecarnegie.com).

As I listened my way through the book, I had three distinct “impressions” of Carnegie’s approach.

Don’t be a jerk

It is hard to read this book and not think, “Ah, this is where the sales person learned that.” You become hyper aware of all the different tactics every sales person has ever used on you… e.g. asking questions to get you to talk about yourself, getting to yes-yes, etc. But above all else, Carnegie’s primary focus is treating everyone kindly and with respect. It seems obvious now – don’t be a jerk and you’ll win friends and influence people – but back in 1936, his approach shaped everything we now take for granted about how to treat angry customers and how to approach challenging sales situations.

Listening/reading the book almost 100 years later, I was struck by how some of his advice has been taken out of context. For example, we have all experienced pushy sales people who are so focused on asking you questions and trying to get you to say yes, that the interaction feels fake and pressured. Carnegie would have pointed out that they forgot to listen, and would have stressed the importance of putting the other person’s needs before your own (i.e. putting the customer experience first).

Overall, the book is a pleasant reminder not to be a selfish jerk, which led me to my next question…

But what if you have to deal with jerks?

In an age where we have public discourse about bullying, this book seems to have little or no examples of sticking up for yourself or standing your ground. In fact, it seems to go very far in the opposite direction – constantly encouraging the reader to consider every situation from the other person’s point of view, no matter how difficult, mean, or aggressive that person is being. Carnegie gives multiple examples of how to have difficult discussions without angering the other person, often by using passive aggressive language.

About half way through the book, this started to feel like a huge hole to me. In a professional environment, particularly as a female, I don’t like the idea of being indirect, passive, or of avoiding conflict to make the other person happy. At first glance, Carnegie could be interpreted as telling us to avoid rocking the boat, that only nice people get ahead, and that making everyone happy is the path to success. But by the end of the book, I decided that wasn’t his point at all…

Jerks are people too

When you consider How to Win Friends and Influence People in its totality, Carnegie isn’t pushing specific sales tactics (though they are too often used in isolation) and he isn’t suggesting that we should all remove our spines to make others happy. Instead, I believe he’s encouraging us to remember the humanity of the person sitting across the table from us, regardless of how difficult that may be. I’m sure this sounds overly dramatic, but I’m wondering if Carnegie has more in common with Gandhi than a top sales person. What would the world be like if in every situation we ignored our ego, stopped trying to be right, and considered the other person’s point of view? I bet we’d all have more friends…

“If you treat people with dignity, respect and friendliness, you can turn enemies into friends. An enemy is nothing but a friend in disguise.” – Ted Turner on Master Class




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