Specific Praise

Specific Praise

One of the points from Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People that I wrote about at length was praise versus flattery. Carnegie argues for praising people on a regular and consistent basis for quality work and good effort. But, Carnegie explicitly warns against the use of empty flattery. While praise is important, empty flattery is dangerous and can backfire.

 

To make sure that your praise is not just empty flattery and to make sure that your praise does what is intended, Carnegie suggests that you get specific, “Everybody likes to be praised, but when praise is specific, it comes across as sincere – not something the other person may be saying just to make one feel good.”

 

Being specific with praise is difficult. We focus so much on ourselves, that we easily overlook the times when our spouse cleans the counters or when an employee redesigns a spreadsheet to save everyone else some minor headaches. These positive moments might slip by, and later we might want to say something nice about the other person, but if we didn’t pay attention, then we might not be able to say more than, “I think you are great.”

 

Specific praise shows that we actually notice and pay attention to the other person. What is more, it shows that we value them and their contribution to our life or work. If we want to be sincere, and avoid empty flattery, then we need to look for moments to praise others. Whether it is noticing as soon as we get home that the counters were scrubbed or immediately sending a thank you email to our hardworking colleague, we should make an effort to be timely with our praise. That provides us with consistency and reinforces the appreciation we have for the other person and what they have done for us. Also, by calling these moments out directly, it will hopefully help us remember them for longer, so we can reference these positive moments when we are trying to be more sincere in our reflections on the other person.
On a side note, today I was reading an article on Vox by Emily Todd VanDerWerff and want to share a quick line from her that ties in with Dale Carnegie’s writing. In an article regarding President Trump, VanDerWerff writes, “he reminds me a lot of the worst boss I’ve ever had, a man who would learn one tiny detail about each of his employees, then relentlessly riff on that detail for as long as they might work for him.”

 

This ties in with Carnegie’s advice on being specific and sincere about your employees (or the people in your life in general). Remember that people change, grow, and develop new interests and ideas over time. It is great to learn something about another person, but it is not great to only learn one thing and to only reference that one thing in perpetuity. You will quickly seem out of touch, and it will show that you are insincere and don’t care about the other. Just as you should use specific praise that reflects real situations, you should also continue to learn about the people around you, so you can back-up your specific praise with context about the person who has done a good job or has done something nice and helpful for you.
Direct Requests Vs Suggestions Via Questions - The Importance of Asking Questions - Joe Abittan

Direct Requests Vs Suggestions Via Questions

A bit of advice offered by Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People reads, “Asking questions not only makes an order more palatable; it often stimulates the creativity of the person whom you ask. People are more likely to accept an order if they have had a part in the decision that caused the order to be issued.”

 

Carnegie suggest that instead of directly ordering people to do something, we should instead ask them questions about how we (as a team) can go about achieving the thing we want. This advice seems like it needs to be tied to specific situations in order for it to be practical. There are certainly times where requests need to be direct and even forceful to make sure appropriate jobs and tasks are completed accurately and timely.

 

However, if we are working on a creative project with multiple routes to completion, asking process questions might be a good approach. We could micromanage the project and interject at every point to make sure decisions were made in the way we wanted, or we could stand back and ask people what they thought would be the best approach and ask others what the pros and cons of each approach to reaching our goal might be. This seems to be the context that Carnegie envisioned for his advice.

 

With children, educators often encourage asking questions rather than telling answers. Instead of telling kids why the sky is blue, the advice is to ask children why they think the sky is blue, what could lead to it being blue, whether the sky is always blue or if its hue changes. These questions stimulate the mind and expand the conversation. Kids on their own probably won’t come up with an explanation of why the sky is blue and we will have to explain Rayleigh scattering to them, but we can at least engage them more and help them work on critical thinking skills in ways that simply answering questions directly would not allow for.

 

When working in teams where we can give authority to others, we can encourage this same type of critical thinking and build such skills by asking questions rather than by micromanaging and giving directives. We can ask what others understand to be our main goals and ask others how they think their role within the project can support those larger. This gives others a chance to take ownership of their duties in ways that simply giving orders does not. Hopefully with them engaged and supportive of the final decisions they will grow and produce better outcomes on this and future projects.

Credit for Being Who You Are

It is easy to look at other people and compare ourselves to them and feel either vastly superior or completely inadequate. But whether we feel better than someone else or worse than another person, we should recognize that these comparisons are generally meaningless. There are some people who do incredible things in the world, and others who we think could do more, but it is often the case that the individuals themselves have less control over how amazing and impressive they are than we (and they) believe.

 

For someone who is successful, it is easy and tempting for them to take all the credit. Surely they had to make smart choices and work hard to get to the place they are, and surely their success feels as if it has been earned. Simultaneously, we can apply this filter to someone who has not become our picture of success. They were lazy and didn’t make smart choices, and also deserve the place where they have landed.

 

For both successful and unsuccessful people, this perspective can be turned around. The successful person was the beneficiary of good luck, of a supportive and loving family, and maybe even inherited some wealth to help them along the way. The person who didn’t succeed maybe just didn’t get the lucky break, didn’t have someone in their life to help encourage and inspire them, and maybe had other challenges we don’t know about. For the successful person, maybe they would still be successful even if they were lazy and made poor choices. Perhaps the person we think of as a failure would have still failed even if they had worked hard and made smart choices.

 

I like to think through these exercises to remind myself that what I think of as success and failure, and what I see in my own life outcomes and the outcomes of other people are not always the results of individual actions, choices, and will power. Comparing ourselves to those who are successful and those who have failed doesn’t really give us a good picture of who is a valuable person. We all have different advantages and all face different forms of adversity. There are a lot of factors we can’t control, and we can’t take full credit for being either successful or for failing to reach the highest rung on the ladder.

 

Dale Carnegie writes about this in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, bringing a bit of a Stoic perspective to his readers:

 

“The only reason, for example, that you are not a rattlesnake is that your mother and father weren’t rattlesnakes. You deserve very little credit for being what you are—and remember, the people who come to you irritated, bigoted, unreasoning, deserve very little discredit for being what they are.”

 

We didn’t pick our genes, we didn’t pick our families, and we can’t always control our thoughts and personalities. We can certainly do the best we can with what we have, but we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly (or praise ourselves unduly) because we are not like someone else. To be where we are today was in many ways a lucky result, and we will never know exactly what extra pushes we received that others did not, or what extra advantages others had that we missed out on. All we can do is try to engage with the world in a meaningful way, and try to help those who didn’t get the advantages that we had.

Consider Other People’s Opinions Seriously

A principle that Dale Carnegie expresses in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People is, “Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, You’re Wrong.”

 

Telling someone directly that they are wrong doesn’t do much for us. What it does is put the other person in a defensive position by threatening their status and identity. Directly criticizing them and labeling them as wrong, even if it is obvious, doesn’t actually get the other person to recognize their error and change their opinion.

 

To say that someone missed a point, that they committed a logical error, or to say that their conclusion should have fallen elsewhere is a way to get around direct criticism. Better yet is trying to understand where the person came from and why they think the way they do. By doing that, we can actually connect with them and help them examine their thinking and potentially make a change.

 

Carnegie writes, “Remember that other people may be totally wrong. But they don’t think so. Don’t condemn them. Any fool can do that. Try to understand them. Only wise, tolerant, exceptional people even try to do that. There is a reason why the other man thinks and acts as he does. Ferret out that reason – and you have the key to his actions, perhaps to his personality.”

 

When we stand back and tell people they are wrong, we implicitly broadcast how right we are. We don’t consider that other people have different points of view, different experiences, and different backgrounds that shape their views and beliefs. If we can work to better understand these factors and how people ended up where they are with their beliefs, then we have a better possibility of having a real conversation with them. Failing to do so only leads to polarization and an inability to communicate. Remember also that you are probably wrong about many points, and that you have the same capacity as the other person to be wrong in one way or another.

Immediate Evaluations

I will be honest with this one. I think President Donald Trump is a despicable human being, a lazy thinker, and too incompetent (not to mention unaware of his incompetence) to serve as President of the United States. As a result of my disliking of the President, I feel that I cannot trust anything he says. This is troubling because I am likely to immediately dismiss his evaluations and policies, assuming that they are wrong and potentially corrupt. I’m not going to blame myself 100% here (the President has done many things to make me and others suspicious of what he says), but I think it is important for me to recognize and acknowledge that I immediately dismiss anything he says and immediately assume that anything he thinks is wrong.

 

The President is such a polarizing individual that he, and my reactions to him, serve as useful examples of how quickly we can make judgments about what other people say. We pick up on direct cues from others and interpret indirect identity cues to begin to make judgments about what others say, before they have even said anything.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie quotes from the book On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers, “Our first reaction to most of the statements (which we hear from other people) is an evaluation or judgment, rather than an understanding of it.”

 

When a friend that we get along with and share similar interests and identities with starts to say something about a sports team that we don’t have strong opinions about, we will probably agree with them in an instinctive manner. At the same time, when our uncle posts on Facebook about how terrible the political party we vote for is, we will likely scroll right by or block his post without actually giving it a second thought. There may not really be a reason to instantly agree with our friend about how good LeBron James is or to debate our uncle about his political philosophy, but we should nevertheless be aware of how quickly we make judgments about what other people think, say, and post on social media.

 

If we occupy a key decision-making role in a company, if we have to make decisions about our child’s education, and if we are thinking about our long-term retirement plans, it would be helpful for us to consider how quickly judgments happen. If we really like our financial adviser, we might instinctively agree with what he says, even if his advice isn’t as well researched and accurate as it should be. If we have had a combative relationship with our college-aged child, we might not be happy to hear that they switched out of a pre-med major, even if we know in our hearts that becoming a doctor might not be a good route for our son or daughter. If we understand how quickly our minds make decisions for us, we can push back and hopefully make better ore informed decisions. We can at least be aware of times when we make a snap judgment and try to seek other sources of information and consider that we might be wrong, and that the advice or decision of another are actually sound.

Motivated Reasoning – Arguments to Continue Believing As We Already Do

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the way we think. To each of us, it feels as though our thinking and our thought process is logical, that our assumptions about the world are sound and built on good evidence, and that we might have a few complex technical facts wrong, but our judgments are not influenced by bias or prejudice. We feel that we take into consideration wide ranges of data when making decisions, and we do not feel as though our decisions and opinions are influenced by meaningless information and chance.

 

However, science tells us that our brains often make mistakes, and that many of those mistakes are systematic. Also, we know people in our own lives who display wonderful thinking errors, such as close-mindedness, gullibility, and arrogance. We should be more ready to accept that our thinking isn’t any different from the minds of people in scientific studies that show the brain’s capacity to traverse off course or that we are really any different from the person we complain about for being biased or unfair in their thinking about something or someone we we care about.

 

What can make this process hard is the mind itself. Our brains are experts at creating logical narratives, including about themselves. We are great at explaining why we did what we did, why we believe what we believe, and why our reasoning is correct. Scientists call this motivated reasoning.

 

Dale Carnegie has a great explanation of it in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “We like to continue to believe what we have been accustomed to accept as true, and the resentment aroused when doubt is cast upon any of our assumptions leads us to seek every manner of excuse for clinging to it. The result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do.” 

 

Very often, when confronted with new information that doesn’t align with what we already believe, doesn’t align with our own self-interest, or that challenges our identity in one way or another, we don’t update our thinking but instead explain away or ignore the new information. Even for very small thing (Carnegie uses the pronunciation of Epictetus as an example) we may ignore convention and evidence and back our beliefs in outdated and out of context examples that seem to support us.

 

In my own life I try to remember this, and whether it is my rationalization of why it is OK that I went for a workout rather than doing dishes, or my self-talk about how great a new business idea is, or me rationalizing buying that sushi at the store when I was hungry while grocery shopping, I try to ask myself if my thoughts and decisions are influenced by motivated reasoning. This doesn’t always change my behavior, but it does help me recognize that I might be trying to fool myself. It helps me see that I am no better than anyone else when it comes to making up reasons to support all the things that I want. When I see this in other people, I am able to pull forward examples from my own life of me doing the same thing, and I can approach others with more generosity and hopefully find a more constructive way of addressing their behavior and thought process. At an individual level this won’t change the world, but on the margins we should try to reduce our motivated reasoning, as hard as it may be, and slowly encourage those around us to do the same.

We Might Be Wrong

“If you can be sure of being right only 55 percent of the time,” writes Dale Carnegie in the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “you can go down to Wall Street and make a million dollars a day. If you can’t be sure of being right even 55 percent of the time, why should you tell other people they are wrong?”

 

We always feel so sure of our judgments and conclusions. From the health and safety of GMO foods, to the impacts of a new tax, to who is going to win the Super Bowl, we are often very confident people. The world seems to always want our opinions, and we are usually very excited to offer our opinion with a staggering amount of confidence. This has lead to a lot of funny social media posts about people being incorrect about history, science, and sports, but more seriously, it can create thinking errors that lead nations to invade countries for poor reasons, lead to mechanical failures of spacecraft and oil platforms, and can cause us to loose huge sums of money when the game doesn’t turn out the way we knew it would.

 

I think a good practice is to look for areas where we feel a high degree of confidence, and to then try to ascribe a confidence level to our thoughts. We can try to tie our confidence levels back to real world events to help us ground our predictions: The percent chance of getting blackjack in a given hand is 4.83%, Steph Curry’s 3-point shooting percentage is 43.5%, and the percent chance of getting heads in a coin flip is of course 50%. Can you anchor your confidence (or the chance you are wrong) to one of these percentages?

 

I haven’t studied this (so I could be wrong – I’d wager the chance I’m wrong and this is not helpful at Steph Curry’s 3-point percentage), but I would expect that doing this type of exercise would help us recognize how overconfident we often are. It might even help us get to the next step, admitting that we might be wrong and considering different possibilities. Carnegie continues:

 

“You will never get into trouble by admitting that you may be wrong. That will stop all argument and inspire your opponent to be just as fair and open and broad-minded as you are. It will make him want to admit that he, too, may be wrong.”

 

The important thing to remember is that the world is incredibly complex, and our minds are only so good at absorbing lots of new data and articulating a comprehensive understanding of the information we synthesize. We should be more willing to consider ways in which our beliefs may be inaccurate, and more willing to listen to reasonable people (especially those who have demonstrated expertise or effective thinking skills) when they suggest an idea that does not conform to our prior beliefs. Try not to be close-minded and overly confident in your own beliefs, and you will be better at avoiding thinking errors and making better long-term decisions.

Arguing for Importance

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie shares a story about a tax consultant and an argument that the consultant had with a government auditor. The two were in a heated debate over a relatively small sum of money and whether it was assessed and taxed properly. A shouting match ensued with both parties being a bit arrogant and ego driven. In the end, the tax consultant realized that the debate was no longer about the facts of tax law or the money in question, the government auditor was arguing for his own importance.

 

The consultant, Mr. Parsons, decided that continuing the debate was not worthwhile and shifted the conversation, complimenting the auditor for the difficult work and decisions he had to make on a daily basis, often in the face of recalcitrant individuals defending questionable financial practices. He didn’t provide the tax inspector with empty flattery but acknowledged that his job was difficult, yet important in a democracy. Carnegie writes about what he learned from this story:

 

“This tax inspector was demonstrating the most common of human frailties. He wanted a feeling of importance; and as long as Mr. Parsons argued with him, he got his feeling of importance by loudly asserting his authority. But as soon as his importance was admitted and the argument stopped and he was permitted to expand his ego, he became a sympathetic and kindly human being.”

 

My wife is a human development specialist, and while she typically works with little ones from 0 to 3, her studies have provided her insights into childhood and adolescent development through early adulthood. She has talked to me about the ways that children and teenagers will seek negative attention, behaving badly and acting out, because even negative attention is a form of attention. Negative attention is still a recognition of the importance of another individual, and childish as it may be, even fully grown and professional adults may from time to time seek negative attention via conflict and arguments.

 

The tax collector in the story wanted to be recognized and wanted his authority respected. It may have been petty, he may have been on an ego and power trip, but nevertheless, becoming angry and indignant didn’t help to reduce his ego and make him a more reasonable person. What it took to get him to be more flexible and cooperative was kindness, not criticism. Positive attention may not have been 100% deserved, but honest praise (as opposed to empty flattery) provided him with a sense of importance and acknowledgement and allowed him to be comfortable with being more cooperative.

 

We should be aware of both sides of this story. We should try to recognize in ourselves how often we are making a power play, not adding much real value to the argument, discussion, market, or opinion that we are advocating for, but simply trying to be an important player. When we see that we are driven by ego and a desire to feel important, we should step back and ask if it is truly necessary, if we will really make things better for ourselves and others, or if we are just being a burden. At the same time, we should try to see this in others and avoid criticizing them for having a human desire that we share and often fall victim to ourselves. We don’t have to provide them with undue flattery, but we can adopt their perspective, recognize the positive aspects of their viewpoint, and try to provide them with recognition and acknowledgement so that we can start to cooperate and work together in a more reasoned and sensible manner.

Other People Are Important

The golden rule is basically a recognition that other people think and feel the way that we feel. If we have complex emotions, fears, desires, and feel that we are important, then surely other people do as well. From this follows the idea that we should treat people the way we would like to be treated.

 

We know that other people are important, but our actions don’t always reflect that. We often put ourselves ahead of others for no real reason. We go out of our way to make sure we have every possible desire filled, without considering the way that our behavior impacts what is available for others. We think about ourselves constantly, often forgetting that other people have valid thoughts and opinions just as we do.  Getting outside our own heads and remembering people is not just a nice thing we should do, but it is something that is vital to living a successful life. Dale Carnegie explains in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People:

 

“There is one all-important law of human conduct. If we obey that law, we shall almost never get into trouble. In fact, that law, if obeyed, will bring us countless friends and constant happiness. But the very instant we break the law, we shall get into endless trouble. The law is this: Always make the other person feel important.”

 

When we recognize that other people are important, we can take steps to actually show them that we think they are important. Often these can be small gestures, such as letting someone in line at the grocery store with just one item jump ahead of us with our full shopping cart. It can look like grabbing flowers for our partner or their favorite candy at the store as a little something extra. Sometimes it can just be listening to another person and thinking of a way to incorporate an idea they had in the office or give them credit when it is due.  Small steps like this can help foster relationships and improve our lives by helping us work and live better with the people around us.

 

Carnegie asks us to remember, “The unvarnished truth is that almost all the people you meet feel themselves superior to you in some way, and a sure way to their hearts is to let them realize in some subtle way that you recognize their importance, and recognize it sincerely.” Carnegie does not suggest we should simply give everyone around us what they want, but to remember that we can learn from others and that in some way, everyone we meet does have something they can teach us. If we see this same superiority complex in ourselves, we can learn to think beyond it, and ultimately prevent ourselves from getting into useless status measuring competitions with people who think of themselves as superior to us. Instead we can learn to let the ego fall to the side, give people recognition, and ultimately diffuse tension caused by unruly egos and work to get stuff done.

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.