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Dale Carnegie’s Rule #1 is Backed by Science

Posted by Jonathan Klane on Apr 13, 2021 11:48:11 AM

I remember reading Dale Carnegie’s famous book for the first time. He wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People to help others, and once it was published in 1936, it became a best seller with 30 million copies sold and is credited with starting the self-help genre. Not too shabby when if you think about it. 

I was impressed and found I got into and embraced Dale’s sage advice. I got to part three in the book “Twelve Ways to Get People to Your Way of Thinking” and thought, “Wow, this will be super helpful in my work!” It was, but not how I thought it would. I looked at the title of Chapter One perplexed and thought, “Really? Why not? I can. Hmm.”  

The chapter was titled “You can’t win an argument.” And I thought, “Well, that’s odd. I can win an argument. I have won many an argument.” I must have gotten pretty decent at arguing because my then-wife (now ex) used to tell me, “You should’ve been a lawyer – you love a good argument!” It seemed like a nice compliment at the time.  

The funny thing was, I had planned on becoming an attorney when I was in high school. But then I saw the movie, The Paper Chase, and I thought, “Oh wow – I sure don’t want to work as hard as they are!” And so, I became a geology student. That’s the power of a well-told, emotional story.  [Note: See my micro-blog series, “3-minute micro-stories,” for more on this topic.]  

Even funnier or perhaps, more interesting about not winning an argument is that a 17th-century scientist said pretty much the same thing 370 years ago. Yup, Dale Carnegie was by no means the first to write about this very topic – that winning an argument shouldn’t be your goal. A physicist, mathematician, inventor, philosopher published about it. 

Huh. Perhaps if he’d sold 30 million self-help books, we’d all know him so much better. I’ll come back to him in a moment. 

Growing up, I remember we’d argue over everything the way boys do. We argued about baseball players, sci-fi movies, chess moves, teachers who were hard, and girls we liked. We argued a lot about girls. Well, we were boys, after all.  

In high school social science class, I recall having to debate a friend about nuclear power. He was assigned anti, and I was given pro. We discussed it back and forth following the debate rules – opening statements, rebuttals, more arguments, more rebuttals, and closing statements. I honestly don’t remember who won – probably he did. We both worked as lifeguards and had many a fun and funny conversation while on breaks – sometimes with a good argument, often without. We went away to colleges and grew our careers. He became a pastor – I study risk.  

I also loved performing mathematical proofs in 10th-grade geometry class! They made perfect sense to me, and I “got” them. Ah, I embraced the pure logic of them! It was decades ago, but I remember their typical format. “Given the following statements, prove that a ¹ b.” I’d set to working out how to get from the givens to the final statement step by step. It was fun! Well, at least it was to the 10th grade me. It was a logical argument. 

Like so many of us in a technical and scientific field, I was quite used to having arguments, or perhaps they too would be better described as polite debates. Well, at least debate if not polite at times. We would argue about exposures, their limits, the OSHA reg’s, training approaches, risk perceptions – the topics seem endless to me now. You name it – we’ve probably argued about it. I want to think that most of the time, it was in good spirits. We’d say the merits of the problem statement. Many a time, we’d argue what was the actual problem statement. But it was always about the problem, not about the person. Again, maybe ours were better termed as debates.  

But those aren’t the types of arguments that we typically are getting into these days. No, these days, the arguments are often sadly personal. Maybe not always about a single person, though usually about a group of persons. And they are frequently seen as attacking the other side. Which finally takes us to that 17th-century physicist, mathematician, inventor, philosopher. 

Blaise Pascal was a French inventor, philosopher, mathematician, and scientist who lived from 1623-1662. He accomplished much in those 39 years. One was a 900+ page “masterwork” of philosophy, theology, and a fair bit of psychology. He wrote about the dos and don’ts of persuasion, much of which is echoed by Dale Carnegie.  

Here is one of Pascal’s quotes: “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.” This advice is often found in much more recent research and seems intuitive. We all love our own ideas and aren’t as interested in others, perhaps viewing them with a healthy dose of skepticism or an unhealthy amount of scorn.  

Pascal also advises empathy – again, a very common recommendation for persuaders and receivers (of persuasive attempts) alike. “Eloquence … persuades by sweetness, not by authority… Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way — (1) that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel interested so that self-love leads them more willingly to reflect upon it.”  

The arguments I mentioned above – the ones that seem impolite at best and virulently hostile at times, are hardly empathic. And yet, that is precisely what is needed – both for greater hopes at successful persuasion as well as relating with each other. It seems that Blaise Pascal was an intelligent – and thoughtful – inventor and philosopher who was hundreds of years ahead of his time.  

Dale Carnegie tells some great stories, and he uses this one to illustrate his point quite well. I’ll retell it here as an abbreviated version and in the 3rd person (Dale tells it in the 1st person, of course).  [You can find the story in its entirety and better described starting on page 111 – part III, chapter 1.]  

Dale worked for Sir Ross Smith, the Australian WWI air ace, who, after the war with three others, flew halfway around the world (England to Australia) in 28 days.  At a banquet in Sir Ross’s honor, a tablemate of Dale’s told a humorous story that used the quote, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” 

According to this gentleman, the source of the quote was the Bible. Dale knew this to be factually incorrect – there was no doubt that it was by William Shakespeare in Hamlet. As Dale readily admits, “… to get[ting] a feeling of importance and display my superiority …” he decided to correct this gentleman. The storyteller “stuck to his guns” and insisted it was from the Bible, much to Dale’s amazement and frustration. 

Coincidentally, sitting on the other side of Dale was a friend, Mr. Frank Gammond, an expert on Shakespeare, having studied his works for many years. Dale and the storyteller agreed – they’d ask Mr. Gammond to arbitrate and decide who was correct. It made sense to both men. 

As Dale tells it, “Mr. Gammond listened, kicked me under the table, and then said: ‘Dale, you are wrong. The gentleman is right. It is from the Bible.’” Dale was smart enough not to argue or protest it there. But on the drive home, he asked Frank why he said it was from the Bible when he knew it was from Shakespeare.  

Frank admitted as much to Dale, “Yes, of course, Hamlet, Act V, scene 2. But we were guests at a festive occasion, my dear Dale. Why prove to a man he is wrong? Is that going to make him like you? Why not let him save face? He didn’t ask for your opinion. He didn’t want it. Why argue with him?” And here is Frank’s wonderful concluding alliterative advice – “Always avoid the acute angle.”  

I pondered that pithy quote (or perhaps I should say that “adept admonition”). I did some searching and mostly found references to an acute angle, which, if you recall, since I did enjoy geometry class, I knew its mathematical meaning. My gut reaction was, “an angle less than 90 degrees – what?” But then I looked up just the definition of and synonyms for “acute.” Of course, I found more useful help – “Reacting readily to stimuli or impressions; sensitive, sharp, severe, intense.”

Ah yes, of course! Always avoid a sensitive or severe response – the acute angle. That makes perfect sense! If I’d only learned that fantastic advice earlier in life, I might have avoided inducing severe responses in others over the years.  

Of course, there is a heck of a lot more to persuasion, but this is an excellent place for us to start the conversation. We’ll cover more of the research in future micro-blog posts in this series. I hope you’ll come back and join me.  

And so, Dale’s rule #1 for part three is, “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.” I quite agree. And it turns out, so does a 17th-century French physicist, mathematician, philosopher, and inventor. I’m persuaded – are you?  



Next: If you think it’s a contest, you’ve already lost

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