Avoiding arguments, finding common ground and showing genuine interest in other people are among the time-tested principles we learned from Dale Carnegie when his book How to Win Friends and Influence People—arguably the most influential self-help book of the 20th century—was first published in 1936.
But implementing Carnegie’s connection-cultivating counsel can seem especially challenging in today’s polarized and online world. How can we avoid arguments when so many people today seem interested only in arguing? How can we find common ground with people whose ideas seem diametrically opposed to our own? And how can we show genuine interest in other people when we interact with them only online?
How to Win Friends was recently updated for the first time in 40 years by a team that included Carnegie’s daughter, Donna Carnegie, and Joe Hart, CEO of Dale Carnegie & Associates. Bottom Line Personal asked Hart how we can apply Carnegie’s venerable communication and bond-forging strategies to our complicated lives in 2023. Here’s his best advice…
When you disagree, lead with curiosity, not conflict. Many conversations these days can be summarized as…
Person 1: “I believe X.”
Person 2: “X is wrong—I believe Y.”
Those conversations will never convince anyone of anything or build any bonds.
Better: When you hear “I believe X,” try saying, “Tell me more…I’d like to hear your perspective.” Asking to hear more is not voicing support…it is simply letting the other person say his/her piece before you respond. When people feel heard, they feel respected, and that sense of respect makes it possible for people who disagree to have productive conversations and perhaps even friendships.
These conversations rarely end with either person changing his mind—deeply held beliefs are hard to shift—but both people could gain a better understanding of the opposing opinion. Example: A woman who believed very strongly in the effectiveness of COVID vaccines was appalled when one of her friends said she was unvaccinated. This woman believed that people who were not vaccinated put old and sick people, like her mother, at risk. Her first inclination was to end the friendship, but instead she asked this friend why she was unvaccinated. The friend explained that she was pregnant and was concerned about how the vaccine might affect the fetus. Neither woman changed her opinion about vaccination, but they now realized that they both were acting out of concern for someone else’s welfare. Result: They found common ground and were able to continue their friendship.
If you find it difficult to respond with curiosity when people say things that you believe are clearly wrong, remind yourself that…
You might think that this person’s beliefs are wrong, but shooting those beliefs down without hearing them out is wrong, too. That approach will only further entrench her opinion and give her more reason to have negative feelings toward people who hold your views.
Having an argument rather than a conversation eliminates the possibility that you might learn something. Having a conversation could help you learn why someone holds this opinion and/or lead to more productive conversations on different topics. Dale Carnegie was fond of a line written by Ralph Waldo Emerson—“Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that I can learn of him.”
Present your evidence before your opinion. The order in which you share your thoughts on a subject can have a dramatic effect on how well they are received—or whether they’re truly heard at all. Most people start by saying what they think, then try to present evidence to back their position. Problem: As soon as you state your position, any listener who doesn’t share that position likely will stop listening and start formulating his response. This pattern is particularly likely with the polarizing hot-button issues that abound these days—many people already have such deeply held opinions on these topics that they think they already know all the points you’re going to make and rush right in with their rebuttals. If you present strong evidence before stating your position, the person you’re speaking with may at least hear that evidence.
Example: If you want to discuss why you’re opposed to a policy, don’t start by saying, “I’m against that.” Instead, start by saying, “I read about this research study that showed the policy was ineffective—did you read about it, too?”
There is always common ground—try to find it. If there’s someone you can’t seem to agree with about anything, refocus your conversation onto a topic that you can agree on. Ideal: Home towns and home states. If you share a home town/home state with this person, ask, “What’s important to you about this area?”…“What are your favorite things about it?”…and “What are your favorite places to visit?” If the other person is from a different part of the country or world, modify those questions to be about his/her home. You’ll likely uncover things you both love about where you live…or at least that you both love your communities and want what’s best for them.
The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. Carnegie knew how to forge connections with people with whom he didn’t see eye to eye—but he also knew that it wasn’t always worth the trouble. Example: Carnegie once met a man who insisted that he wasn’t really Dale Carnegie at all. It was an argument Carnegie could easily have won by simply pulling out his driver’s license or asking a companion to confirm his identity. He didn’t. Instead, he said, “Well, you could be right” and walked away. When asked why, he explained that there was no upside to winning this argument—this man wasn’t someone with whom Carnegie expected to have any further contact, and proving him wrong would have made the man look foolish, which inevitably would have soured him toward Carnegie.
Online arguments often are like this—someone writes something on social media that’s clearly wrong and easily refuted, but what’s the upside of proving that person wrong? You may think that winning these arguments will make you feel good…or that doing so will bring other people around to your way of thinking—but usually it simply becomes petty online bickering that leaves everyone involved appearing childish.
The smart response is almost always to walk away—being right doesn’t mean it’s right to engage. In situations where you cannot bring yourself to walk away—when someone insults one of your friends in a public forum, for example—keep your responses calm, brief and on the high road, such as, “I’m truly sorry to hear you feel this way. The Bill Smith I know is a wonderful person.” Your refusal to take the bait will make you seem calm and rational, something any other calm and rational people who read the exchange will recognize and respect.
Always offer sincere gratitude. People feel increasingly overworked and underappreciated these days. Many companies are understaffed, leaving remaining employees stretched thin. Many remote workers are feeling isolated. And many people are missing loved ones who they haven’t been able to see these last few years.
One consequence of these shifts: A gratitude shortage. Gratitude is a more powerful force than most people realize. If someone senses that you truly appreciated something she did for you, she feels a bond with you and will be motivated to do things for you again. Sadly, most people don’t show gratitude properly, especially in these rushed and remote-work times. The secret to making gratitude seem sincere is specificity—just add a few sentences to your thank you describing precisely what you are grateful for, and your sincerity will shine through. Example: Rather than say, “Thanks for your help.” Say, “I want to say thank you for the help you gave me with [name the specific project]. It was truly terrific—you really went above and beyond—and it’s already [name a specific benefit of the assistance provided].”