Tips on Listening

The last few years I have been working on becoming a better listener, and I am still not great at it. Advice from Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People is helpful for anyone who wants to be a better listener, and has made me a better listener during the times I have remembered it. His advice is fairly simple and summed up by one of his principles to live by, “Principle 4: Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.”

 

A funny scene occurs in a lot of movies is one where one person is doing all the talking in a scene. They may be venting about their problems, rambling on about an idea they had, or just blurting out a string of facts and opinions. The other character in the scene usually won’t have a chance to get a word in, or will be so unsure of what to actually say that they just stammer or shrug, not actually saying a word. The character who does all the talking then turns to them and comments on how good the conversation has been, when in reality there was no conversation or dialogue, just a monologue from a single person.

 

These scenes work from a comical perspective, but they are not far from reality for many of our conversations. Even Carnegie has a line in his book about talking to a botanist that aligns with that common comedy scene. “And so I had him thinking of me as a good conversationalist when, in reality, I had been merely a good listener and had encouraged him to talk.”

 

People want to be listened to for validation. They want someone to hear their ideas, to acknowledge their complaints and suffering, and to share their perspective on the world. People seek audiences.

 

We can be receptive audiences, but often times our own desire for an audience gets in the way of us being the good listening audience for others. We want to talk as much as other people in our conversations, and don’t actually want to listen to them and provide the validation, empathy, and acknowledgement that they are looking for.

 

Carnegie continues on what happens when we fail to listen, “If you want to know how to make people shun you and laugh at you behind your back and even despise you, here is the recipe: Never listen to anyone for long. Talk incessantly about yourself. If you have an idea while the other person is talking, don’t wait for him or her to finish: bust right in and interrupt in the middle of a sentence.”

 

To be a good listener you have to let others talk, and the good news is that other people love talking about themselves. Simple questions and acknowledgement of other people’s challenges and thoughts can allow them to continue to talking about themselves, and they will find you to be a good conversation partner who listens to what they really have to say. This builds trust and relationships, helping you become closer with the people around you.

The Magic of a Name

I remember that as a child I was really good with names, but not that good with faces. I could remember all 30 names of the kids in my elementary class, and in the other classrooms, but I could not always remember a face to go with the name. This kept up through about high school, but at some point it switched, and I became better at remembering faces than names. I remember growing up hearing people say they remembered faces but not names, and thinking that I must have been different for being the opposite. I’m not sure exactly what caused the change, but I suspect that somewhere along the line I started paying less attention to people, especially people I would only know for a semester in college before moving on, and as a result I only vaguely remember faces and never really got their names down.

 

In general day to day life, this probably isn’t a big deal for me. But if I am trying to build meaningful relationships with people who will be bigger parts of my life than just someone I saw at a party once or someone who made my coffee one day, then remembering names is important. Dale Carnegie explains why in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People:

 

“We should be aware of the magic contained in a name and realize that this single item is wholly and completely owned by the person with whom we are dealing … and nobody else. The name sets the individual apart; it makes him or her unique among all others. The information we are imparting or the request we are making takes on a special importance when we approach the situation with the name of the individual.”

 

Part of the power in remembering a name is just signaling. It tells the other person that we actually paid attention to them when we interacted with them in the past, enough to where we at least remembered their name. Going back to my opening paragraph, part of my suspicion of why I forget names is because I stopped paying as much attention to other people, focusing instead on my studies or class discussion, or on other trivial things like what I was going to eat for dinner.

 

Remembering someone’s name signals to them that they are valuable enough to be remembered. That you truly listened to them in the past and cared enough about them to take them seriously. Forgetting their name shows that you instantly forgot them, and that you never really cared about them in the first place. Building relationships requires that you actually like the other person you want to build a relationship with, or minimally at least respect them, and remembering their name helps make a public display of your level of sincerity in terms of your relationship building.

Self-Seeking Versus Unselfishness

“The world is so full of people who are grabbing and self-seeking. So the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage.”

 

Dale Carnegie wrote that line in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. The line comes right after he describes a day where he encountered two life insurance salesmen. The first mentioned a new life insurance option, but because he didn’t have much information, didn’t press the sale and make much of an effort. The second salesman also didn’t have much information, but showed a lot of enthusiasm, encouraged setting up an additional appointment with someone from the company who knew more, and offered to help handle some of the paperwork to get the sign up process started more quickly. The second salesman got the sale.

 

When I read the quote in isolation I thought about people hording supplies during our current social distancing efforts to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. I thought about how tempting it can be to try to make a quick buck, even if the couple hundred dollars the hoarders might make by selling marked-up toilet paper won’t really make much of a difference in the lives of most of them. I also thought about a conversation from the Ezra Klein Show, where Klein, the host, interviewed Jane McAlevey, a union organizer who discussed the way that employees could instinctive tell if you actually care about them when you show up on the job-site, or if you look down on them and think that they are not as smart and deserving as you think of yourself. To live in a world that doesn’t price gouge during a crisis, and to be effective in working with other people requires an unselfishness that recognizes that you are not better than other people, no matter what your degree, your bank account, or the social status of your job says. Being truly unselfish means that you view everyone as having at least the capacity for having the virtues that you prize in yourself, and being willing to help them express those virtues.

 

There is a difference between the way I thought about unselfishness when reading the quote in isolation versus the way that Carnegie thought while writing the quote in his book. For Carnegie, the idea is that you can use your selfish impulses and personal desires to improve the lives of others, at least if you can step into the other person’s shoes, see what they need, and fulfill that need in a way that is deserving of compensation on your end. It is a capitalistic view of selflessness, and while it is not a terrible thing on its own, it requires the possibility for Pareto efficiency, for the world to be in a state where an action can be taken that would improve the world for both you and everyone else. It requires that our actions have only positive externalities. This is the view the inspired the entire book How Stella Saved the Farm, in which a brave sheep steps us to lead a farm and creates prosperity for everyone working on and depending on the farm through an embrace of good management in a capitalistic system.

 

The other view of selflessness is a much more social form. It doesn’t ask if there is a Pareto efficiency that can be met, but instead asks if our goals and desires are really necessary. It asks if the resources we have can be better used by people who are in need. It is part of a bigger question of whether we can do things that will improve the lives of not just us and the person in front of us, but of the entire society.

 

I don’t think that either view is necessarily wrong, but I do think that both views can easily be overstretched. Thinking of selflessness in purely the context of capitalism, as Carnegie was and as is presented in How Stella Saved the Farm can be good, but it can also create a system where our core societal value is what you contribute and produce in an economic sense. As we are not Homo Economicus, this can put many of us who are not great market thinkers and are not inspired business efficiency and productivity in a tough place where we are viewed as undeserving.

 

The second view sees us as valuable and deserving simply by being human beings, but it does raise question about how we reach economic development. An argument can be made that big business and technological development are crucial for improving living standards and actually improving lives more than just social do-gooding. Indeed, Tyler Cowen has made these arguments, and while I’m not sure he fully considers how damaging many of the negative externalities can be, I think he is broadly correct.

 

In the end, I fall back on what both perspectives have in common, which is captured in another line from Carnegie’s book just a few sentences later than the line that opened this post, “If out of reading this book you get just on thing – an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view, and see things from their angle – if you get that one thing out of this book, it may easily prove to be one of the building blocks of your career.” I would switch the final word career to life, but the idea is there. Thinking about the world and others from other people’s perspectives is crucial for avoiding selfishness and for making a positive impact on the world. Whether you chose to do so through business and capitalism, through direct work with those who need it the most, or a combination of both approaches, you must first be able to see beyond your own wants and desires and understand the way that others see the world.

Different Angles

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie quotes Henry Ford on seeing things from another person’s perspective: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” 

 

I am fascinated by the mind, our perception of the universe, and how we interpret the information we take in to make decisions. There is so much data and information about the world, and we will all experience that information and data in different ways, and our brains will literally construct different realities with the different timing and information that we take in. There may be an objective reality underlying our experiences, but it is nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly what that reality is given all of our different perspectives.

 

What we can realize from the vast amount of data that is out there and by our limited ability to take it all in and comprehend it is that our understanding of the universe is woefully inadequate. We need to get the perspectives of others to really understand what is happening and to make sense of the universe. Everyone will see things slightly differently and understand the world in their own unique way.

 

Carnegie’s book addresses this point in the context of business. When we are trying to make a buck, we often become purely focused on ourselves, on what we want, on how we think it is best to accomplish our goals, and on the narrow set of things that we have identified as necessary steps to get from A to B.

 

However, we are always going to be working with others, and will need the help of other people and other companies to achieve our goals. We will have to coordinate, negotiate, and come to agreement on what actions we will all take, and we will all bring our own experiences and motivations to the table. If you approach business thinking purely about what you want and what your goals are, you won’t be able to do this successfully. You have to consider the perspectives of the other people that you work with or rely on to complete any given project.

 

Your employees motivation will be different than the motivation of the companies who partner with you. Your goal might be to become or remain the leader in a certain industry, but no one cares if you are the leader in your space. Everyone wants to achieve their own ends, and the power of adopting multiple perspectives helps you see how each unique goal can align to compound efforts and returns. Remember, your mind is limited and your individual perspectives are not going to give you the insight you need to succeed in a complex world. Only by seeing the different angles with which other people approach a given problem or situation can you successfully coordinate with and motivate the team you will be working with.

How to Influence People

“The only way on earth to influence other people,” writes Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.”

 

Carnegie’s book is one that I have heard recommended over and over by successful guests on the various podcasts that I listen to. I was excited to read it to get real insight into how to be a more likable person and how to be a more influential person in the groups and organizations that I participate with. The book, however, doesn’t provide you with any hacks to trick people into being your friend or to slyly convince people to do what you want them to do. The book focuses on relationships and the importance of being sincere and present in your relationships with others in order to develop meaningful connections with the people around you. The quote above is part of that advice.

 

We don’t influence other people’s decisions by preaching at them, by constantly yelling at them when they do something we consider to be wrong, or by nagging them to do things the way we want. We influence other people by connecting their actions, behaviors, and beliefs to larger outcomes that the other person is aiming for. In the ultimate sense, we show how the other person’s behaviors, actions, and beliefs are either in or out of alignment with their personal values.

 

In 2016 I started the Masters in Public Administration program at the University of Nevada, Reno. For years I had heard my sister tell me about the benefits of universal health care. I had heard my parents and uncles talk about the ways that welfare lead to people staying home to play video games instead of working. I had listened to people talk about trickle down economics and the values of federalism, and I wanted to enter a masters program where I could learn how to sort out all the arguments people discussed regarding public policy and governance. I wanted concrete facts so I could make rational decisions on all these topics and tell my family members who was empirically correct and who was wrong.

 

What I learned, however, is that all of these policy discussions hinge on something deeper than the cold hard rational facts. They hinge on values. As I learned what the scientific research showed about universal healthcare, tax rates, and social welfare programs, I told my family members where their ideas seemed to make sense and where they seemed to be in conflict with the actual data. My empirical evidence has meant nothing to my family members and has not changed any minds. The data is only useful when it supports the position that people want to hold based on their values. Changing minds and influencing people, therefore has to be connected to the values they already hold or that they aspire to.

 

Carnegie’s quote at the start of this post is all about connecting to values. You have to talk to people about what they want to see in life, why they want to see those things, and what values are driving the ways they hope the world turns out to be. Then you need to show them how the things you support, the ideas you think the other person should hold, and how the actions that you hope they will take help get the other person and society closer to those values.

 

For whatever reason we don’t like to talk about our values openly. Partly this is because for many of us our number one value is our own self-interest, and we don’t want to say that directly. But we also make up excuses around issues of abortion, healthcare, and taxes where we claim that economics or good health are the values we care about, but really we care much more about identity, self-interest, and whether the world is fair to us. If we could discuss those values directly, rather than hiding behind economic BS, then maybe we could actually compromise or be less hateful of those who don’t agree with us. In the end, we should remember that it is our values which underlay everything we say or due (that includes me, you, and that person on social media you hate). If we want to try to shape the world for the better, we better understand what values are driving us, what values drive others, and how we communicate our values in terms of how we think the world should operate. We won’t influence people to live better if we are not up front about our values and can’t connect other people’s actions back to the values question.

Build Relationships by Thinking of Others First

I have noticed in my own life that I become upset, frustrated, and anxious when I think first and foremost about my wants. Despite having a house, being in a good marriage, and being fit from getting to do a lot of running, I am always able to see more in my life that I want (or to see things in my life that I don’t want). I have noticed that I can become fixated on these likes or dislikes to the point where I cannot appreciate what I have. I start to look at what I have accomplished and rationalize why the things I want should fall into my lap, and why I should never have to deal with the things I don’t want.

 

This is not a helpful nor healthy way to view the world, and especially when it comes to our relationships, this can be a harmful way of thinking. When I fixate on my own wants I forget the value of the people in my life. Others become tools, objects to be used to obtain what it is I want, or to take on the burden of things that I do not want. For a person feeling discontent, this is the exact opposite way to view relationships in order to find a sense of stillness and happiness.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes, “Let’s cease thinking of our accomplishments, our wants. Let’s try to figure out the other person’s good points. Then forget flattery. Give honest, sincere appreciation.”

 

An interesting reality about humans is that our lives become more fulfilling and meaningful when we do things for others. It is not accomplishing things, it is not gaining more material possessions, and it is not obtaining fame which makes us the most happy. It is cultivating deep relationships and finding ways to help serve others which gives us the sense of contentedness that we seek.

 

Carnegie’s quote captures that essence. Focusing inward on our own desires and justifying the things we want and the possessions we have based on our achievements leaves us feeling hollow, and leaves us always desiring more. It pushes us to use people as means to our selfish ends. However, if we can turn this thinking around, we can see other people as valuable in their own right, and we can develop meaningful relationships with them. We can appreciate people for the things they do and find ways to be helpful to them, and this mindset will ultimately make us more fulfilled than a mindset focused on getting purely what we want out of life.

More On Flattery

Yesterday I wrote about the distinction between true appreciation and real compliments to people’s hard work versus empty flattery. Today’s post continues on that theme. In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie continues his thoughts on flattery writing, “That’s all flattery is – cheap praise. I once read a definition of flattery that may be worth repeating: Flattery is telling the other person precisely what he thinks about himself.”

 

I like thinking about this second quote from Carnegie on flattery. As someone who was a successful business person and leader,  Carnegie was subject to plenty of flattery. As you achieve more and become more successful people have more of an incentive to be on your good side. This means that flattery can have a bigger payoff for those individuals who want to gain something by being your friend or ally. You can become a target of flattery that makes you feel good, but potentially leaves you vulnerable to those who simply want something from you.

 

If we are someone who is vulnerable to flattery, we must remember Carnegie’s quote. Flattery is not honest feedback about who we are, about the quality of our decisions, or about our value to the organizations we are a part of. Flattery is about someone else who wants to gain something by allying themselves with us. That individual might want a promotion, might want more money, or might want more status by getting to tell others that they are part of our inner circle. The worst part is that since their flattery is insincere, it might make us overconfident about the decisions we have made, about our perspective on the future, and about our own self worth. Ultimately, this could lead us to make worse future decisions and to be overconfident and arrogant. Flattery in the end hurts the individual being flattered and the organizations they are a part of.

 

If we find ourselves to be the one dishing out the flattery, we should really reconsider what we are doing. Are we flattering another person because we feel that we can’t give them honest feedback and must flatter them? If so, we might want to find anther organization to be a part of, or we might want to band together with others to have a flattery intervention and agree to all quit flattering the person who does not deserve it. When we flatter someone else for our own gain, we are trading off long-term success and stability of something bigger than ourselves for our own personal short-term gain. This strategy might work well initially, but in the long run it will spell doom for ourselves and the organizations we are a part of.

 

Think deeply about honest feedback, and avoid flattery, because it will hurt us regardless of whether we are the giver or receiver.

The Difference Between Appreciation and Flattery

Flattery can be dangerous. It is nice to be flattered, but it can be distorting, can lead one to make rash decisions, and can make you overconfident and close-minded. We all want to be appreciated in our lives for what we do, but we should keep our guard up to recognize when someone is trying to flatter us with praise we don’t deserve.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie discusses the distinction between genuine praise and insincere flattery. He writes, “The difference between appreciation and flattery? That is simple. One is sincere and the other is insincere. One comes from the heart out; the other from the teeth out. One is unselfish; the other selfish. One is universally admired; the other universally condemned.” 

 

Carnegie’s book does not teach you how to manipulate people to like you and it does not provide a bunch of hacks to get people to think you are a great person. It is not a book about becoming famous and important to gain friends. It focuses on what other people need in their lives to feel accepted, to feel valuable, and to feel as though their needs and concerns are being addressed. How to Win Friends and Influence People is about building sincere relationships with the people in our lives.

 

Carnegie’s quote above demonstrates that idea. Flattery might get people to like you, but it is driven by selfish motives and props up people in ways that are harmful to the individual and everyone who depends on them. Flattery is ultimately more about ourselves than about other people. Carnegie encourages us to avoid flattering other people and to avoid being taken in by the flattery of others.

 

His advice is to cultivate real relationships and learn to be honest with the people around us. We should remember the names of our colleagues, learn a little about them, and find ways to engage with them and appreciate them and the quality work they do. We can praise the virtuous qualities of people in our lives without flattering them with undeserved praise. Developing real relationships and showing genuine appreciation of those in our lives will help them to become better people while flattery will create blind-spots and lead to hubris for others, setting them up for a disastrous fall.

A Feeling of Importance

“If our ancestors hadn’t had this flaming urge for a feeling of importance, civilization would have been impossible. Without it, we should have been just about like animals,” writes Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie is hitting on an interesting idea: how the desire to be important has fueled human evolution and impacted the species we are today.

 

This is an idea I wrote about in the context of both competition and coordination for our early ancestors. In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways that insecurity and limited resources drove the human brain to be deceptive and political, finding ways to cheat to obtain resources without letting on to other members of our social tribe that we were not 100% honest. Conversely, the authors write about how as a result of this cheating and politically deceptive behavior, our brains became bigger and we became more intelligent, opening up the possibility of future planning and productive social cooperation.

 

Underlying both our cooperation and competition instincts is social status. For our earliest ancestors social status meant that you could obtain a mate, and as we evolved higher social status meant that you could also command more resources and have more allies and protection within your social group. For our early ancestors, having a high social status (in the eyes of Carnegie being important) meant that your genes would continue and that you had allies and resources to make it more likely that your genes were passed on to the next generation and the following generation.

 

Today, we still maintain that need to feel important and to build our social status, even though for most of us we can pretty well guarantee the continuation of our genes with limited resources and minimal social status. Our feeling of importance remains, but its original drivers have been nullified (at least in a large way in rich countries like the United States).

 

Carnegie continues in his book to write about the sense of ego that accompanies and drives our desire for importance. It can push us to do great things, but can also have extreme negative consequences for us as individuals and for society in general. Our ego, tied to our desire for importance (or increasing social status as Hanson and Simler would say) is important for us to understand and control. At a certain point we need to acknowledge that we do things just to make ourselves seem more important, and that things that can be good for our social status can be harmful for others. We should reflect on the decisions we make in this regard, and try to make decisions that at least reduce the external harm we cause. Giving up a small measure of our own social status in exchange for having a better world to live in is the least we can do given that we are operating on evolutionary drivers that no longer match our realities.

Think About Your Measuring Sticks

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie includes the short story Father Forgets by W. Livingston Larned. The story is told from the perspective of a father, in roughly the 1920s/1930s, reflecting back on his day while standing at his sleeping son’s bedside. The father thinks about the times he criticized his son during the day, and how his son nevertheless ran into the father’s study at night to give him a hug good night. The line from the story which really stood out to me reads, “I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.”

 

The father realizes that he was treating his small child as if he were a full grown man behaving poorly. He was punishing his son for simply being a boy with the interests, the wonders, and the carefree spirit of a kid. It is a great story for any parent who is frustrated that their children don’t behave and act as perfectly as they want, and it is a great story for any of us who find ourselves criticizing the people in our lives.

 

I don’t have kids, so I won’t analyze the story and the quote that stood out to me from the perspective of a parent, but I am married and I do interact with plenty of other people who I know don’t share the same goals, the same genes, and the same history that I do. I find it easy to look at the world and find fault, especially when I see someone I can criticize for not having some virtue that I think that I possess. It is easy to take the yardstick that I measure myself with, and use it to judge others. However, when I do this, I am just like the father, using his measuring stick for evaluating his personal life, and applying that same standard to his small son.

 

Before we begin to measure others with our own yardstick, we should think about the yardsticks we use to measure our own lives. We often default to monetary yardsticks to judge the success of others, a habit that doesn’t accurately capture the value of a human being. People who are in great shape may apply a different yardstick to people, judging others for not being physically fit, without really considering the factors which may limit another person’s ability to get to the gym or buy lots of fruits and veggies. Similarly, parents might look down on people who don’t have kids, people who read a lot might look down on non-readers, and people who drive a Tesla might look down on people who drive trucks. In each instance, someone is taking a value of theirs, assigning it a certain weight, and then judging others using the measuring stick that they have built for their personal life.

 

The story about the father and his son shows us how useless this practice is, and hints at how harmful it can be. The father’s criticism is pushing his son down a path toward resentment, and the father recognizes there is still time for him to reverse the trend and recognizes that he can develop a real relationship with his child. Similarly, applying your own measurement to others is unfair because you do not know what history has shaped the person you are criticizing for not measuring up to your standards. You are not considering the environmental factors that create barriers in their lives to being the perfect person you criticize them for failing to be. People at different stages of their lives with different experiences and backgrounds may hold different values than you do, and that undoubtedly leads them to have different measuring sticks for their own lives. Additionally, it is not the responsibility of anyone else to live up to the measuring stick of your personal life. It is instead your responsibility to live in community with others, and to develop relationships to help others become the best version of themselves, meeting them where they are, understanding who they are, and helping them achieve a meaningful version of success that fits who they are and what society needs. The measuring sticks we need are not the ones we develop on our own, but are those which help us cooperate in society to encourage flourishing for all.