A little while back, when I was in my early 20s, I first read Dale Carnegie’s perennial bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People. Many of the approaches described within it were things I knew, or affirmed what I felt, but sometimes the best kind of advice is this way; you think you’re doing things right, and then someone far more experienced than you comes along and says, “Yep, you’ve got it. In fact, take what you’re doing now and do it more.”
Because it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve read it, most of its lessons have faded from my mind, and all I remember about it was one key lesson from it. However, that lesson has influenced how I’ve dealt with people in such a profound way that I don’t think I’ll ever forget it no matter how much time passes.
[edit: was rolling Napoleon Hill’s Laws of Success up as one of Carnegie’s works... forgive the brain fart]
Yet, pound-for-pound, the key takeaway from Win Friends and Influence People for me has been one of the best takeaways from any book I’ve yet read period.
Before I tell you what that is, let me tell you what I’ve noticed about how most people communicate with one another.
I was in earshot once while in Asia of a friend’s phone conversation as she tried to negotiate with a landlord for an apartment she wanted to rent. She’d been shown a place by an agent who was going to charge her an upfront fee of $800, but she’d managed to get the landlord’s phone number to sign the lease with him directly instead, and bypass the agent.
(In some parts of Asia, real estate agents are so pervasive that
it’s impossible to find an apartment without going through them; they
spam-call owners trying to rent out their places until the owners
finally relent because the only calls they get all day are agents’
calls, and they spam-list apartment listings with copied images onto
the classifieds, so that even if you try to find an apartment on your
own, all the numbers you’ll come up with are agents’, because the
owners’ listings are quickly buried under the deluge of duplicate agent
posts. So, most people feel no remorse about going around them if they
can, since the agents themselves serve as highly unethical middlemen
trying to carve out profit where there probably shouldn’t be nearly as
The landlord was happy to sign with my friend... but only if a chunk of those extra savings she afforded herself by getting around the agent were passed onto him in the form of higher rent.
“That doesn’t make any sense!” my friend said. “I’m the one who was going to be paying the agent fee; it doesn’t have anything to do with you!”
“The total amount you’re paying for the apartment goes down by cutting out the agent,” the owner said. “We need to distribute that fairly.”
“The agent fee has nothing to do with you!” my friend replied, exasperated. “You didn’t have to pay anything! I’m the one who had to do all the work of running around the compound trying to find someone who had your phone number to contact you directly. I’m the one who took the initiative to find a way for us to sign an agreement without the middle man!”
“All the same, it isn’t fair for you to save on the agent fee but I still charge a lower rent price,” said the landlord.
The two of them squabbled like this on the phone a little while longer, then hung up. The landlord had had his apartment on the market for 9 months and on the market it would remain; my friend found another apartment she liked more not long after, but not without having to run around more and get more frustrated first.
Yet, what I pointed out to her shortly after her phone call was this: neither of you handled that conversation well at all.
Alexander and Parmenio
When most folks communicate, their communication is all about themselves.
It’s primarily about things like this:
- Here’s what I want
- Here’s how hard I’ve worked
- Here’s how much I deserve this
- Here’s what I’m going to do if I don’t get it
That wouldn’t be so much of a problem, except that most of the time, you end up with two people telling each other what each of them wants.
But when all you’re talking about is what you want, and all I’m talking about is what I want, we very quickly find ourselves at an impasse.
There’s an old rebuttal in English, not used so much anymore, that goes like this:
“You are thinking of Parmenio, and I of Alexander.”
The saying relates to a story about Parmenio, right-hand man to both Alexander the Great and his father before him, Phillip II of Macedon, who was telling Alexander what he felt he ought to receive, while Alexander was busy thinking of what he ought to give him.
Those might sound like the same thing, but they’re actually very different.
The first is thinking, “I’ve worked so hard / deserve this so much – here’s what you should give me!”
The other is thinking, “Well, here’s the value this individual is providing to me – here’s what I should give him.”
It’s important to note the main difference here: what and how people value things is always, always, always DIFFERENT for every individual. And most people do not realize this at all.
Let me give you some examples.
Valuation Differences in Negotiations
One of the discussions I’ve had repeatedly with writers for Girls Chase has been article length and pay rate.
When you’re a writer, your product is your writing. When you write more of it, you want to be paid more. It’s pretty natural and intuitive from the writer’s perspective to assume that more work should = higher pay. Right? That just makes sense.
Yet, from a business point of view, longer articles do NOT = more revenue for Girls Chase.
I spent about a year writing super-long articles, in part because I wanted to, but also in part as an experiment. “If I write 5,000- to 10,000-word articles, do they perform 2.5 to 5x as well as 2,000-word ones?” I was curious to know. I thought that they would.
After a year of that experiment, I looked at the data, and came away with some interesting takeaways: longer articles do perform slightly better than shorter ones, but on a scale of quickly diminishing returns.
In other words, paying someone twice as much for an article that’s twice as long doesn’t make good business sense.
But if you’re a writer, writing 4,000 words really is twice as much work as writing 2,000 words. The amount of time you put in doesn’t shrink as you go along. It’s just as much work. So if you write more, you want just as much pay.
Therefore, one of the conversations I’ve ended up having several times with various people has been that of, “Much as I would love to, I can’t pay you more for longer articles without breaking the bank... because they don’t earn more for the business.”
Seems simple enough when you put it that way, but if I didn’t realize I needed to communicate like this, a writer would simply ask, and I would refuse, and they’d think I was being unreasonable for not being willing to pay more for their hard work and I’d think they were being unreasonable for trying to suck the lifeblood out of me for no extra value to the business and we’d both go away feeling resentful toward one another.
I have a very strong suspicion that 95% of labor union disputes occur solely because of a lack of communication between the business and the workers about what value their work provides to the business and what else they can do to generate more value if they want to earn higher pay.
Here’s another example of values crisscrossing.
We recently had a guy write in to announce that he would NEVER pay for information, and therefore never would subscribe to this website or buy one of the programs here, however, he’d like to cut a deal: he’d noticed a number of grammar errors and typos on various articles, and he’d be willing to go through and clean these up in exchange for unlimited access to the site.
Sounds like a good deal, right?
But here’s the thing: he started off his email by saying he’d never
pay for what I’ve been working on full-time for the past 3 years or so.
So emotionally, he’s already told me my work isn’t as valuable to him
as, say, a Starbucks coffee or a new pillowcase for his pillow. That
doesn’t really put me in the most receptive of moods.
Next, I’ve trained multiple editors to work on this site. It took me 8 months and 5 editors to find one we could stick with. Why’d it take so long? Because when you’re dealing with the nuances of social dynamics at an expert level, which is a very sensitive topic, 99% of editors out there do not realize the importance of how things are phrased in articles, and make little tweaks that alter the entire tone of a piece. Eventually I came across a pretty sharp editor, and then devoted a fair bit of time to working hands-on with him to help him figure out what to edit and what to not edit in articles to get to the point where he wasn’t doing the same kind of over-editing that had plagued all our previous editors (and that he’d started off doing as well), and now we’re in good shape.
So now, the very first thing I think about when someone tells me he wants to edit is, “Ugh... another month of critiquing and training and providing lots of feedback, and he may not even work out.”
And there’s another thing. It’s one you quickly learn when you run a business. Bringing people in to do things for privileges rather than pay that aren’t inherently enjoyable has an extremely high attrition rate.
A guy may start out thinking, “No problem – I’ll edit 6 articles a week and have unfettered access to the site,” but once he starts editing and realizes what a slog it is, then he starts wanting to get paid, or his motivation dries up.
“But he’s getting site access!” you might say. “Surely that’s pay enough!”
Ah – but he’s already shown us that emotionally, he doesn’t value the information on the site enough to pay for it. It’s essentially value-less to him. So he offers his labor to get access, but once he HAS access his desire to do labor will vanish extremely fast. It’s something I’ve seen happen several times, and it’s a very predictable pattern. People only work for future rewards – if you’ve already received the reward (e.g., “Well, I’ve GOT access”), the motivation to keep doing high-concentration work like editing goes away very quickly.
I might’ve been able to train the fellow up and get more of my money’s worth of editing out of him than I’d have received from an average subscription from him... but it’d also have sucked up a lot of my time and focus training him and managing him and staying on top of him to make sure he was doing his edits and not slacking off because he’d already gotten his reward and there were no more coming.
In the end, he no doubt felt like he was making a generous offer and I’m some sort of robber baron for wanting to charge for the information I have to offer, while I felt like the deal I was being offered in exchange devalued the learning I’ve spent years and years accumulating, codifying, and making understandable to others wasn’t a good one to take.
And this is what happens in normal people negotiations.
Including in your relationships and when you are trying to convince women to do what you want – it’s the same thing with everyone you interact with.
What’s the inherent flaw in all the communication/negotiation examples above?
Assumptions. Assumptions about what the other side wants, how it must value things, and how it will respond to value offerings:
My friend assumed the landlord would realize she’d done all the work to skirt the agent fee, and happily sign the contract with her directly at no extra cost
The landlord assumed my friend realized that he’d set his rental price at the price he had, and not higher, because he was assuming that any renter he took on would be paying an agent’s fee, and without that fee he’d want his “non-discounted” rent
Parmenio assumed that because he’d done whatever he’d done, he should be able to demand what he saw as a fair price for his deeds
Alexander assumed that Parmenio should accept whatever he felt worth offering to him, and that Parmenio should understand that the value of his deeds ought to be determined by the one paying for them, rather than the one doing them
The fellow offering to trade his proofreading and editing skills in exchange for site access assumed that I’d be able to just plug him in and he’d be off to the races editing and cleaning up articles, providing some great value in exchange for a free subscription
The writers assumed that by writing more, they should be paid more
Now here’s the thing: all of these assumptions are perfectly reasonable.
All of them.
Every single one.
Even if all of them are also incomplete, and completely miss the other side’s ability to capture value from the offer... because they only take one side of the negotiation into consideration.
What Carnegie Knew
Carnegie shared a story about a man who wanted to cut a deal with a successful businessman. I don’t remember the exact tale; it’s been a long while since I read it. The businessman had a reputation for being a hard case who shot down just about any offer that came his way.
The other man went into the businessman’s office, and for the first hour, all he did was listen to the businessman and tell the businessman about that businessman’s own business and interests and desires and goals. In other words, he spent an hour deep diving him about his business.
Then, only when he felt certain he knew the businessman’s goals, wants, desires, and ambitions inside and out did he propose his own offer, and tell the businessman how his offer was going to help the businessman reach his own objectives.
By that point, the businessman so trusted him and felt so understood that he could easily see the value in the other man’s proposal, and that other man walked out of there with a contract in hand that made him his fortune.
When I read this anecdote, I thought it was an interesting and valuable one, and then I filed it away mentally and thought to myself, “If ever I find myself in a hard business negotiation, I’ll pull this one out.”
Yet, over the years, I found myself pulling it out more and more for not business negotiations, but for any kind of misunderstanding I ran into.
Any time where I found myself trying to explain something to one person, and they weren’t getting it, and they were trying to explain something to me, and I was thinking they were nuts, I’d circle back to this and realize, “We’re talking past each other. Each of us is so busy trying to tell the other what he wants that neither of us is serving as bridge-builder here.”
And so, rather than standing stubbornly in place and insisting on my way of seeing things, I began to build bridges every time I ran into these straits instead.
How Bridge-Building Works
The process of bridge building is simple... provided you can override your own natural urge to blurt out your own point and trample the other person’s.
It works like this:
Start off every argument, disagreement or negotiation by seeking to understand the other side first. Before you start talking about what you want, as soon as you realize that you and the other person are not 100% on the same page, it’s time to set aside what you want and focus entirely on what the person you’re talking with believes and what he’s trying to achieve.
Focus on things that don’t make sense to you. Rather than look for common ground, start digging into why the other person thinks the way he does and believe the thing he does and values what he values as he does. Why’s it so important? Get to the root cause – you won’t be able to deal with him at all until you do.
Feed back his root causes to him. Before you start talking about you, you need to make sure he knows that you get him through and through. This means feeding back his core feelings, emotions, and values to him so that he understands that you understand.
Only then do you focus on explaining your root causes to him. Now that you know why the things that are important to him, before you talk about specific things you want, you need to talk root causes. That is, explain your underlying value system to him, and why it’s important.
Next, state the specifics of what you want. Now you can talk details on what YOU want.
Finally, tie your wants to his wants. The last thing you do is to say, “Here’s how what I want can work together with what you want so that we can both get what we want.”
That’s the abstract. Now let me give you an example.
Let’s say you’re fighting with your girlfriend. She’s angry because you had a night out on the town with the boys last night; you’re annoyed because she’s trying to control you.
Now, you can either yell at each other, or you can get to the root of it.
Quit talking about what you want (for her to stop trying to control you) and start figuring out what she wants... because you can bet that your first instinct (”She wants to control me!”) probably isn’t 100% on the money.
It’ll go like this:
You: Okay, so you’re angry with me because I went out drinking with my friends last night.
Her: No, it’s fine.
You: ... and you think that I’m going to meet some other girl and start dating her and break up with you. So you don’t want me to go to make sure you can hang onto me.
Her: No, that’s not it at all!
[Focusing first here on the thing that
doesn’t make sense to him (why
does she care about this so much?). Since she isn’t forthcoming with
her reasons, you list out what YOU think she cares about (you tell her
your assumptions), and let her tell you if they’re right or wrong]
You: Well then what is it?
Her: It’s that we haven’t been spending that much time together, and I thought we were going to spend Thursday night together like usual, and then suddenly you just said sorry, can’t, I’m going out with my friends. And I was like, “Am I even still in a relationship anymore?”
You: Ah, so that’s it then – you’ve been feeling like we haven’t been spending enough time together, and then I suddenly canceled on a night you’d be planning to spend with me, and it felt like I was just pulling away from you more and more, so you got upset.
Her: I just feel like you haven’t been as close recently.
[Here you’ve gotten to the root of her
feelings, and fed them back to her. She’s agree with you that you
understood her correctly]
You: All right, that makes sense. And I can’t speak to a general trend you’ve been sensing – we’d have to sit down and look at how much time we’ve been spending together and if that’s been going down. Last night in particular one of my buddies was in town and it was the only night that I could have seen him.
Her: I understand that; I want you to meet your friends. It’s good to have friends.
You: I appreciate that. And for my part, I probably should’ve given you more notice that I wouldn’t be able to see you Thursday, even if that isn’t something we have set in stone... we’ve been seeing each other there regularly enough that it’s become kind of a routine, and almost an implicit thing on the schedule.
Her: I mean, it’s fine, I just...
[You’ve skipped discussing the root here
that you don’t want to be controlled because it wasn’t necessary in
this case – she isn’t trying to control you. Instead, you went straight
to specifics, discussing why the prior night played out the way it did]
You: No, I should’ve given you a heads up. I’ll be more considerate of implicit schedules in the future and notify you more in advance if I think I need to bend or break them.
Her: Okay. You know, it’s okay, I feel fine now.
[Now you provide a solution that
meets both of your needs – you’ll still have your freedom to do what
you want, so long as you ping her in advance, and she won’t feel
slighted by you so long as you’re showing her that you care by showing
some consideration toward you. If you actually have been spending less
time on her and want to remedy that, you might also propose having a
special day or chunk of time during the week that is your time with her]
You: You just needed to affirm that I still cared, right?
Her: No, that’s not it... I just... it’s fine. I’m okay now.
You: Well, I think that’s what it was, at least subconsciously, and now that you’ve seen that I do you feel okay again.
Her: That might be it.
... and the end part here is a bit more wrap up on the psychological back end if you feel like going the extra mile and reinforcing that you REALLY get what she’s all about (she just wanted to feel like you cared).
You Should Use This with Everything
Adopting this style has changed the way I communicate with people across the board for the better.
You must be patient though – I’ve interacted with people who try to use this style, but then seize on the first reason you provide before you’re finished providing it and begin tackling that as their, “Ah ha! Now I get you!” reason for understanding you, even as you struggle to say, “No, you don’t have the full picture – you still don’t get it,” and they just plow ahead with their incomplete picture of what you’re after and it ends up not working and you still both end on opposite sides of the table. You’ve really got to carefully get down to the heart of the matter, or this is still useless.
The key to this style is getting others to understand you by first understanding them. There are some types it doesn’t work on – cluster B and low / no empathy individuals are immune to this, because no matter how well you show them you understand them, they will never put themselves in your shoes to understand you empathetically – and for those types, really the only thing you can do is lure them in with things they want or bludgeon them into accepting your frames.
But for people who are willing to see your side IF you see theirs FIRST – and that’s 95% of people out there – this works some absolute magic.
It’s simple enough to learn. Just focus on making it that the moment you realize you’re in a disagreement and neither of you is convincing the other, stop trying to disagree, because you’re obviously getting nowhere...
... and instead, focus on finding out what the other person’s core values are and WHY this thing is so important to them / they must do things the way they feel they must do things.
Once you understand them, what seemed like senseless behavior to you will at once make all the sense in the world... and they will then almost always be willing to listen to your side of the coin, and do so with an empathetic ear that will want to get you on the same page as them as well.
If you want to have your cake with other people and eat it to, this is the simplest, most consistent, and best way to do it.
And while I’m sure there’ve been plenty of people who’ve pieced it together themselves throughout human history, I, for one, have Dale Carnegie to thank for it – among a lot of other great lessons. So here’s to Dale.