Why is this dusty old book still recommended so often today? First published in 1937, How to Win Friends and Influence People continues to be a bestseller. But does it have any advice that is still relevant for modern people?
After carefully studying the book, I can tell you: Yes, absolutely!
Social norms change with each new generation, but human psychology is timeless. Understanding how other people’s minds and emotions work can help us in so many ways. It can help us get along with others, become a more effective leader, and build strong business relationships.
Before we begin, you should know this book is divided into four parts:
- Basic people skills, the author calls it ‘handling people.’
- Charisma, he calls it making people like you.
- Influence, he calls it winning people to your thinking.
- Leadership, he calls it changing people without resentment.
About the author
Dale Carnegie (official organization website) was born in 1888 and grew up in a poor family on a farm in Missouri. To give you an idea of his ‘privilege,’ as a teenager, he woke up early every day to take care of the pigs and cows. He graduated high school, then Teacher’s College, then became a successful salesman of bacon, lard and soap.
Then he launched his career in ‘self help’ by teaching public speaking courses at the YMCA. These became so popular that he began traveling to other cities to give lectures. Eventually, over 450,000 people went through his courses in his lifetime. He also wrote books based on his material that sold millions of copies, and continue to resonate with readers today.
1. Apply and Repeat: We improve only through action and self-reflection
How to Win Friends and Influence People begins with “nine suggestions” to get the most value out of the book. I believe the 9 tips can be summed up as:
- Apply what you’re learning in real life, as you learn it.
- Regularly review what you learned, so you don’t forget it.
I believe that when we’re trying to learn new stuff, not every method works equally for everyone. We’ve gotta try and see what works for us. Some of the tips offered in this chapter include: highlighting sentences while reading, regularly re-reading sections of the book, and writing a weekly journal of self-reflection.
Of course, the best way to learn any new knowledge is to use it—then it really sticks in our minds! Think of it like this: Someone can lecture for 5 hours about how to play a video game, but we can often learn more simply by listening for 5 minutes and then picking up the controller ourselves. Trying and failing. That’s how we really learn most things.
You’ll hear some online critics say a lot of what’s in this book is common sense. Okay, but are we following what should be common sense… when we are actually talking with people? That is the most important question, folks!
Another classic you may want to read is Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. That book great for understanding the psychology behind achieving any goal. It focuses on financial goals, but the same process can be used for any of our goals. Here’s a quote I like:
“Wishing will not bring riches. But desiring riches with a state of mind that becomes an obsession, then planning definite ways and means to acquire riches, and backing those plans with persistence which does not recognize failure, will bring riches.”
To really learn this book, we must regularly go back to review the information and—most importantly—apply the tips in real life over and over again.
2. Be Enthusiastic Towards People: Sincere friendliness is a contagious emotion
Everyone likes dogs, right? Who doesn’t like dogs? (Well, besides those angry aggressive ones!) But in general, people are always happy to see a dog. Why? Because dogs are always happy to see us! In the same way, we can become more charismatic by being clearly enthusiastic and interested when we meet other people.
Here are some quick tips from Ol’ Dale Carnegie:
- Smile. Yup—show those pearly whites! When we look happy to meet someone, they will naturally feel glad to see us too. This is probably the simplest tip in the book, but how many of us are guilty of forgetting to smile?
- Show genuine interest. Are you curious about other people? Or do you give off a vibe like you’re too good for everyone? This is not about faking anything, but about really wanting a better connection with the human in front of you. And the best way to show genuine interest is to…
- Listen more than you talk. Listening is not rocket science. Just make sure you ask more questions and let them talk more than you…
Stephen Covey, a super-popular self help author, said that most of us fail at connecting with others because we do NOT really listen to them. Instead, we are usually busy thinking about what we will say next to respond. He wrote “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
And his cure for this bad habit is to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” For example, we can show that we understood someone by reflecting back what they just said in slightly different words, which is called paraphrasing. Then only later offering our own thoughts.
Dogs have an infectious natural charisma, which we can copy by being more immediately enthusiastic when meeting people. We show genuine interest through listening more, asking questions, and smiling.
3. Make Them Feel Bigger: Everyone has a primary need to feel important
This is worth reading twice: People have a deep human need for a feeling of importance. In other words, we all crave to be noticed and appreciated. Dale Carnegie considers this idea so important, that in the book he repeats the exact phrase “a feeling of importance” about 28 times! This is such a valuable idea because we can become a lot more charismatic by giving a feeling of importance to others.
Here are some tips for how to do it:
- Treat everyone with respect and politeness. The great moral teachers gave us the Golden Rule (Wiki) to “Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.” This is especially important—and especially noticed—in how we treat others of a lower social position than us.
- Give sincere compliments. This is not about manipulative flattery, but making an effort to notice things about other people that we sincerely admire. Unfortunately, it is usually other people’s flaws that grab our attention, so we have to make an active effort to notice the good.
- Use their name. Everybody loves to hear their own name being spoken. Just don’t overdo it—you don’t want to sound ridiculous like: “Wow Bob, that’s so great Bob, I’m really understanding you Bob!”
One of the deepest human needs is a feeling of importance. People like us more when we give them that feeling. We can give the feeling: by using their name, offering sincere compliments, and treating others how we’d like to be treated.
4. Never Attack Their Pride: Direct confrontation rarely changes anyone’s mind
As a young man, Dale Carnegie often contradicted, debated, and argued with others. Over time, he became wiser and stopped doing that, because he learned that winning an argument is really impossible. Even if you appear to defeat their logic, the direct confrontation creates defensiveness and resentment in the other person towards you.
When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.
Here are some tips for influencing others in a more gentle way:
- Never give direct criticism or disapproval. When we condemn someone for an immoral idea or bad behavior, we may feel better, but it rarely accomplishes anything. Because even the worst criminals find ways of justifying what they did in their minds. (The book shares a striking quote from the brutal gangster Al Capone, who privately saw himself as only “helping [people] have a good time.”)
- Mention mistakes indirectly. Instead of complaining of what some people are doing wrong, we can instead publicly praise a positive example of someone doing it the right way. An example that came to my head: a teacher can mention how certain students show up to class on time and why that will be good for their future success.
- Use questions to guide the conversation. Socrates was probably the most important philosopher ever. What was really unique about him was that he never told people they were wrong. Instead, he asked lots of questions, questions that guided the other person step-by-step to changing their own mind. This “Socratic Method” (ThoughtCo.com) is still used today in law classrooms.
- Confess that you may be wrong. When we are disagreeing with someone, we can lower defensiveness by showing humility at the start. As a modern example, the popular comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan may say “I’m kind of dumb…” before offering his opinion on a serious issue.
We hurt someone’s pride and provoke their defensiveness when we argue, criticize, condemn, or tell someone they’re wrong.We can influence people more easily by using a gentler indirect approach—by showing humility, admitting we may be wrong, and guiding them with questions.
5. Speak to Their Wants: Forget what you want and understand what they want
We can communicate more effectively by keeping in mind what the other person is thinking, wanting and feeling. This is another one of those ‘common sense’ ideas that we forget to use so often when speaking with people in real life. It reminds me of an idea from psychology called “Theory of Mind,” which is kind of like our inner blueprint of how other people’s minds work. Having a good Theory of Mind (Nature.com) helps us predict how others are going to react to what we say, so it helps us to say the right thing at the appropriate time.
Here are some tips from clever Dale to improve our emotional intelligence in conversation:
- Offer friendly admiration first. In a negotiation, most of us set ourselves up as a hostile opponent. Instead, what if we began with recognizing the best in the other person? In the book, someone received a reduction in their apartment rent with this friendly approach. They sincerely complimented their landlord, while at the same time informing them they couldn’t pay the new rent increase.
- Assume they have positive motivations. Most of the things we do are based on both positive and negative, selfless and selfish motivations. If you want to alienate someone quickly, then only talk about their possible negative and selfish motivations for doing something.
- Ask the right questions and pay close attention…
Most of us imagine a great salesperson to be a smooth talker whose mouth can’t stop moving. However, the sales expert Brian Tracy says the best salespeople actually spend most of their time listening, not talking. Listening is how they uncover each person’s unique “hot buttons” or desires, and learn what features of the product they need to highlight. One of Brian’s great example questions is: “If anything would convince you to buy this product, what would that be?”
Keeping in mind what others are wanting and feeling will make our communication far more effective. We can do this: offering friendly admiration at the beginning,assuming they are acting from positive motivations, and asking questions about what they want.
6. Lead with Encouragement: Easily offer appreciation and approval
Let’s say you’re in a position of leadership at work, and the people you’re in charge of are not doing their work right. Should you try to motivate them through criticism or praise? At first, criticism may feel like the more effective method because it does create a strong negative emotion quickly. However, Charles Schwab (a great businessperson in Dale Carnegie’s time) said the best way to motivate employees is by creating enthusiasm, and he did that with lots of appreciation and encouragement.
Bob Iger was recently the CEO of Disney for 15 years. Before that, he spent decades at ABC managing some of the most talented and creative people in the world. When it comes to leadership, he wrote, “It’s a delicate thing, finding the balance between demanding that your people perform and not instilling a fear of failure in them.” And the basic rule that he came up with for offering feedback was:“Don’t start negatively, and don’t start small.”For example, when giving feedback to the new director of Black Panther, Iger started by saying that he had faith in the director and trusted him to do a good job.
Here are some practical tips for positive leadership from How to Win Friends and Influence People:
- Don’t give orders, but ask for suggestions. For example, if you need to improve how an employee is writing emails, you could ask “Do you think this is the best way to write this paragraph?” They will understand the message that the paragraph needs to be improved, while feeling respected and valued for their input.
- Celebrate small improvements often. When kids are learning or dogs are training, they are given lots of enthusiastic praise, which motivates them to continue. Let us realize that adults are not wired much differently, but we may need to be more subtle about our praise than a dog trainer!
- Give them an important title. In the book, a store owner made a careless employee into the official “Price Tag Supervisor” which immediately improved their work behavior. The right title can make an employee take more pride, ownership and responsibility in their work.
The productivity expert James Clear says that one of the most powerful human drives is identity, or who we see ourselves to be. He wrote, “The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say I’m the type of person who wants this. It’s something very different to say I’m the type of person who is this.” And so it is often easier to build a new habit by adopting a new identity, not through sheer willpower. For example, many people begin living healthier by becoming a runner, a cyclist, a vegetarian, etc.
Important business leaders say it is better to motivate through appreciation and encouragement, not criticism. We can do this by celebrating small improvements, giving respected titles, and offering suggestions rather than orders.
- Choose to be curious. A core principle in this book is being interested and enthusiastic towards people we meet. But what if the person is boring? Well, in my experience we can often make a choice to be curious and engaged, rather than bored. Maybe we can keep in mind a question like “What does this person know that I don’t?”
- Look for 3 things to praise today. Normally, negative things grab our attention. But when we’re always pointing out flaws and criticizing, then others will feel resentment towards us. What if we kept our attention pointed towards what other people were doing right more often? Then we will be using positive reinforcement, which is both effective and strengthens goodwill.
- Mention your own mistakes first. The next time you’re giving critical feedback or disagreeing with someone, you can soften the impact by first talking about how you are often wrong and have made many mistakes in the past. This automatically lowers the other person’s defensiveness and opposition.