On a farm in Missouri, a young man walked three miles each day to go to college. He was a smart boy, had good grades, and aspirations to become a great novelist. There was only one problem — he wasn’t any good.

Nevertheless, the boy would end up writing one of the most influential books ever written. It wasn’t the next big American novel. Instead, he wrote a book about people. More specifically How to Win Friends and Influence People. It sold over 30 million copies. 

You could see some signs of Dale Carnegie’s talent in his early years. He could speak well in front of people. Encouraged by his mother he entered the debate club and started helping other students with speaking in front of the class. He then went on to use these skills to work as a salesman, selling bacon, soap, and lard to local farmers. He was very successful at this job and saved enough money to move where every young man in the US wanted to go in the early 20th century — the city of New York.

Carnegie trained as an actor and still chased his dream of becoming a famous novelist during his free hours. But both these pursuits were unsuccessful. All he got was one minor role and a terrible novel, which he himself realized after reading it. At this point he thought he’d never be a writer.

How then, did he become one of the most influential writers of modern times? And what can we learn from the man who wrote the book on soft skills?

From failed novelist to bestselling writer

With his dreams crushed a still young Carnegie went back to what he knew — public speaking. He persuaded the manager of the YMCA that he could teach evening classes on communication skills for adults.

But teaching in front of a class is not the same as teaching to a fellow student. In his very first lecture, he ran out of things to say. Afraid of embarrassment, he improvised and put one of his students on the stage. He suggested to the student that he should just speak about something that made him angry. Suddenly, the success of his students superseded any expectations. He realized that he’d hit a goldmine.

It might sound trivial, but at the beginning of the 20th century, lectures didn’t include any real interaction. The students got exactly what you’d expect from a lecture: hours long of speech and no exercises, practice, or the sort. But public speaking cannot be learned by listening to someone speak in public. You need to practice it yourself and that’s exactly what his students did. The course became a big success and he started to license it all over the country.

At some point he started writing again. Not about heroes and foes but about what he knew best — speaking in public and gaining confidence. Because of his success with his course, he got a book deal with a publisher. It was a book about human interrelations and soft skills. The first print of How to Win Friends and Influence People amounted to 5'000 copies. That’s how much it was expected to sell.

It sold all copies on the first day.

And it continued to sell. It was on the bestseller list for 10 years, was translated into over 30 languages, and became one of the best selling books of all time with over 30 million copies to this day. This book made Dale Carnegie a legend.

How did he do it?

Carnegie did address two fundamental human needs: people want to be liked and listened to. In his book, Carnegie wrote actionable principles that everyone could implement and help people achieve these goals. This was something that was rare in the space of human relations at the time and still is today.

Admittedly, none of his principles are unique and most seem to be common sense. Unfortunately, common sense is not often common practice. Applying Carnegie’s principles has an immensely positive impact on your personal and professional life.

Furthermore, Carnegie started with practice and then moved to theory. He developed his insights into the human psyche by first teaching people how to speak in public. Over time he naturally added ways to increase people’s confidence, make them likable, and persuasive. He didn’t do so by reading a lot of books and then rehashing them on his own. No, Carnegie used what he learned from his teaching practice together with what successful students and practitioners learned.

How to win friends

Photo by Eric Nopanen

The key to the human heart

I’m convinced that every social failure stems from one simple fault every human has to battle with, self-obsession.

Carnegie identified six fundamental principles of handling people and six principles for getting people to like you. All of them are based on a simple law of human nature — the law of narcissism.

We mostly care about our own problems, we think everybody else is like us, and we act as if we’re the most important person there is. Of course there are shades of narcissism and we’re all narcissistic to a varying degree. Carnegie wants you to overcome your narcissistic fixation on yourself and open up your worldview to the others.

Therein lies the secret of how to win friends and getting people to like you. The power to get the attention and hearts of everyone is through their own self-obsession. As Benjamin Disraeli said “Talk to a man about himself and he will listen for hours”. Hence, the first and probably most important principle of Carnegie is to

be genuinely interested in people and show it.

The keyword in this sentence is “genuinely”. This cannot be faked. People will notice and recognize you as the phony you are if you try to put on a show.

But expressing your genuine interest needs to be practiced. Carnegie identified different ways to convey your interest and appreciation to people that will instantly improve all your relationships.

First, smile.

Duh! You’re probably saying and you’re right. Pretty obvious advice, but shockingly few are actually practicing this. I’m not talking about the usual social smile you’re putting on at the grocery store when accidentally making eye contact with people. Put some warmth and appreciation into that smile! Smiling often and genuinely has the great side-effect that you’ll be happier too.

Second, remember names. I recently listened to an interview where one of the guests claimed “if you can’t remember the other person’s name you don’t give a shit about them”. I wouldn’t go that far and instead, think the problem lies more in the fact that we’re often so pre-occupied with ourselves during an introduction that we fail to listen. We meet a new person and think about making a good impression, making eye contact, smiling, and completely forget to pay attention to the name we’re told. Again, focus outwards on the other and listen. Truly listening means paying full attention to what the other person is saying and not thinking about what to say next.

Lastly, show and express your appreciation and interest. Make the other person feel important and do so sincerely. In my experience this is especially important for men. Women tend to compliment others much more while men keep their appreciation to themselves. Developing the habit of expressing your positive opinion of others openly instead of keeping it to yourself is a simple but effective change to make. Who doesn’t like to be complimented?

Implementing the above habits will have a tremendous effect on your social life. This is Carnegie’s promise:

“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.”

How to influence people

Photo by  Mimi Thian

How do we usually argue? We try to convince the other person by bringing forth logic arguments and evidence of why we’re right and the other wrong. The goal is often to discredit the opinion of the other person. This strategy might work well for a debate where the goal is to convince the audience rather than the other party. But if you’re discussing with a friend or business partner, you might want to choose a different approach. Because as Carnegie says:

“You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it , you lose it.”

First things first, if you want to win someone over to your way of thinking you need to change your strategy. You can’t convince someone by making their view or opinion look stupid and wrong. Often we end up arguing about issues as if our life’s at stake. When voices start to get louder during a discussion you’re doing it wrong.

Even if you feel strongly about your opinion and are much invested in changing the other person’s, you’ll achieve better results with following Carnegie’s approach.

A soft approach to “winning” an argument

Carnegie’s approach to convincing people is a soft one. He doesn’t rationally argue for his side and against the other. Instead, he starts out with praise and honest appreciation. He starts with the good and areas where you agree with the other person.

He also talks first about his own flaws and mistakes before criticizing the other. Why? Because it’s much easier to take criticism if it isn’t one-sided. Admitting ones own faults in thinking and argumentation does make you a more likable sparring partner and makes it easier for the discussion partner to admit to his own mistakes and potentially change his opinion.

When the other person makes a mistake in his or her thinking you shouldn’t say Aha! Got you! Instead, point to the mistake indirectly by asking questions. Give people the opportunity to recognize and correct their own mistakes. Don’t jump on a contradiction by saying “Ha, but you said before that… and now you say this and contradict yourself”. Better point it out with simple questions that make the other herself realize that she made a mistake in thinking.

Choosing this soft approach makes it much easier for the other person to change his or her opinion. Because this way they don’t have to fear that they lose respect and look stupid. Instead, they can comfortably change sides without any reproach, even the opposite. Carnegie has a few techniques up his sleeve that makes it even desirable for the other to change his or her opinion.

How? By conditioning them to your opinion.

Pavlov conditioning in an argument

In a famous experiment, Ivan Pavlov discovered the principles of classic conditioning. By ringing a bell every time a dog was fed, Pavlov could link the concepts of the bell and food in the dogs mind. Hence, at some point it was sufficient to ring the bell and the dog would start to salivate without there being any food. The dog was conditioned to associate food with the sound of the bell. This is classical conditioning.

Carnegie does something similar in the context of an argument. The goal is to associate your opinion with positive emotions and hence, make the other party more likely to take on your opinion. You can do so by doing three things.

First, make it easy for the other person to change her opinion. Make whatever you want her to do seem easy to do. This means that you should start small by inducing her to make small concessions regarding her position. Don’t ask for big ideological changes in thinking, but start small with baby steps until you brought her over all the way to your way of thinking.

Second, praise every improvement the other makes. If she changes her opinion just ever so slightly, “Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise”. Instead of feeling bad by admitting ignorance or fault the other feels good because she gets such positive enforcement.

Lastly, give the other person a suitable reputation to live up to. We have an innate tendency to want to live up to people’s expectations of us. When someone compliments us on our honesty, we’re much more likely to keep being honest. Hence, if you want to change someone in a certain respect, act as if this trait was already one of the person’s outstanding characteristics. She will inevitably try to live up to the image you created for her.

How to practice and learn these soft skills

Dale Carnegie managed to address the human need to connect and influence with authenticity, integrity, and respect. We all want to connect and be heard, but relationships and social interactions are often confusing and intransparent. Carnegie changed that by putting down some simple principles that worked and built the foundation for the success of the Dale Carnegie courses still offered today. The organisation has now over 2'700 trainers that train the business community all over the world in soft skills.

While these principles and tactics are simple and effective, they’re not easy to implement in your daily life. Yes, it’s easy to smile when you want to but we rarely think of doing it in the right moment. We tend to realize it after the fact. It’s often like having a great rebuttal after the conversation is already over.

Here are three ways that helped me make the most out of these soft skills and make them a habit in your life:

  1. Choose one principle each week on which you can focus and write an actionable intention. E.g. I’ll smile at people I make eye contact with in public. Look at this intention every morning before starting your day.
  2. In the evening check-in with your intention. Did you do it? Mark days where you fulfilled the intention and the ones you didn’t. Don’t beat yourself up if you didn’t make it happen that day and focus on doing it tomorrow.
  3. Review at the end of the week . If you hit 70% or more, choose a new intention for the next week and start over again. If you didn’t, keep it for another week.

It’ll be good to revisit even the soft skills you think you’ve nailed down every once in a while. We forget quickly and quite some time is needed to establish a new habit. Be patient and focus on how you improve, the positive reactions you get, and the fact that you’re well on your way to win friends and influence people.

Thanks for reading. If you like this article you might be interested in more…

Header photo by Antenna