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When Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House, he confessed that if he could be right 75 per cent of the time, he would reach the highest measure of his expectations.
If that was the highest rating that one of the most distinguished men of the twentieth century could hope to obtain, what about you and me?
If you can be sure of being right only 55 per cent of the time, you can go down to Wall Street, make $1 million a day, buy a yacht, and marry a chorus girl. And if you can’t be sure of being right even 55 per cent of the time, why should you tell the other people they are wrong?
You can tell a man he is wrong by a look or an intonation or a gesture just as eloquently as you can in words— and if you tell him he is wrong, do you make him want to agree with you? Never! For you have struck a direct blow at his intelligence, his judgment, his pride, his self-respect. That will make him want to strike back. But it will never make him want to change his mind. You may then hurl at him all the logic of a Plato or an Immanuel Kant, but you will not alter his opinion, for you have hurt his feelings.
Never begin by announcing, “I am going to prove so and so to you.” That’s bad. That’s tantamount to saying: “I’m smarter than you are. I’m going to tell you a thing or two and make you change your mind.”
That is a challenge. That arouses opposition, and makes the listener want to battle with you before you even start.
It is difficult, under even the most benign conditions, to change people’s minds. So why make it harder? Why handicap yourself?
If you are going to prove anything, don’t let anybody know it. Do it so subtly, so adroitly that no one will feel that you are doing it.
“Men must be taught as if you taught them not
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.”
As Lord Chesterfield said to his son:
“Be wiser than other people, if you can; but do not tell them so.”
I believe now hardly anything that I believed twenty years ago—except the multiplication table; and I begin to doubt even that when I read about Einstein. In another twenty years, I may not believe what I have said in this book. I am not so sure now of anything as I used to be. Socrates said repeatedly to his followers in Athens: “One thing only I know; and that is that I know nothing.”
Well, I can’t hope to be any smarter than Socrates; so I have quit telling people they are wrong. And I find that it pays.
If a man makes a statement that you think is wrong— yes, even that you know is wrong—isn’t it better to begin by saying: “Well, now, look! I thought otherwise, but I may be wrong. I frequently am. And if I am wrong, I want to be put right. Let’s examine the facts”?
There’s magic, positive magic, in such phrases as: “I may be wrong. I frequently am. Let’s examine the facts.”
Nobody in the heavens above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth will ever object to your saying: “I may be wrong. Let’s examine the facts.”
That is what a scientist does. I once interviewed Stefansson, the famous explorer and scientist who spent eleven years up beyond the Arctic Circle and who lived on absolutely nothing but meat and water for six years. He told me of a certain experiment he had conducted, and I asked him what he tried to prove by it. I shall never forget his reply. He said: “A scientist never tries to prove anything. He attempts only to find the facts.”
You like to be scientific in your thinking, don’t you? Well, no one is stopping you but yourself.
You will never get into trouble by admitting that you may be wrong. That will stop all argument and inspire the other fellow to be just as fair and open and broadminded as you are. It will make him want to admit that he, too, may be wrong.
If you know positively that a man is wrong, and you tell him so bluntly, what happens? Let me illustrate by a specific case. Mr. S——, a young New York attorney, was arguing a rather important case recently before the United States Supreme Court (Lustgarten v. Fleet Corporation 280 U.S. 320). The case involved a considerable sum of money and an important question of law.
During the argument, one of the Supreme Court justices said to Mr. S.: “The statute of limitations in admiralty law is six years, is it not?”
Mr. S—— stopped, stared at Justice —— for a moment, and then said bluntly: “Your Honour, there is no statute of limitations in admiralty.”
“A hush fell on the court,” said Mr, S——, as he related his experience to one of the author’s classes, “and the temperature in the room seemed to go down to zero. I was right. Justice —— was wrong. And I had told him so. But did that make him friendly? No. I still believe that I had the law on my side. And I know that I spoke better than I ever spoke before. But I didn’t persuade. I made the enormous blunder of telling a very learned and famous man that he was wrong.”
Few people are logical. Most of us are prejudiced and biased. Most of us are blighted with preconceived notions, with jealousy, suspicion, fear, envy, and pride. And most citizens don’t want to change their minds about their religion or their hair-cut or Communism or Clark Gable. So, if you are inclined to tell people they are wrong, please read the following paragraph on your knees every morning before breakfast. It is from Professor James Harvey Robinson’s enlightening book, The Mind in the Making.
“We sometimes find ourselves changing our minds without any resistance or heavy emotion, but if we are told we are wrong, we resent the imputation and harden our hearts. We are incredibly heedless in the formation of our beliefs, but find ourselves filled with an illicit passion for them when anyone proposes to rob us of their companionship. It is obviously not the ideas themselves that are dear to us, but our self-esteem which is threatened. . . . The little word ‘my’ is the most important one in human affairs, and properly to reckon with it is the beginning of wisdom. It has the same force whether it is ‘my’ dinner, ‘my’ dog, and ‘my’ house, or ‘my’ father, ‘my’ country, and ‘my’ God. We not only resent the imputation that our watch is wrong, or our car shabby, but that our conception of the canals of Mars, of the pronunciation of ‘Epictetus’, of the medicinal value of salicin, or of the date of Sargon I is subject to revision. .. . 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.”
I once employed an interior decorator to make some draperies for my home. When the bill arrived, I caught my breath.
A few days later, a friend called and looked at the drapes. The price was mentioned, and she exclaimed with a note of triumph: “What? That’s awful. I am afraid he put one over on you.”
True? Yes, she had told the truth, but few people like to listen to truths that reflect on their judgment. So, being human, I tried to defend myself. I pointed out that the best is eventually the cheapest, that one can’t expect to get quality and artistic taste at bargain-basement prices, and so on and on.
The next day another friend dropped in, admired the draperies, bubbled over with enthusiasm, and expressed a wish that she could afford such exquisite creations for her home. My reaction was totally different. “Well, to tell the truth,” I said, “I can’t afford them myself. I paid too much. I’m sorry I ordered them.”
When we are wrong, we may admit it to ourselves, And if are we handled gently and tactfully, we may admit it to others and even take pride in our frankness and broad mindedness. But not if someone else is trying to ram the unpalatable fact down our aesophagus. . . .
Horace Greeley, the most famous editor in America during the time of the Civil War, disagreed violently with Lincoln’s policies. He believed that he could drive Lincoln into agreeing with him by a campaign of argument, ridicule, and abuse. He waged this bitter campaign month after month, year after year. In fact, he wrote a brutal, bitter, sarcastic, and personal attack on President Lincoln the night Booth shot him.
But did all this bitterness make Lincoln agree with Greeley? Not at all. Ridicule and abuse never do.
If you want some excellent suggestions about dealing with people and managing yourself and improving your personality, read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography—one of the most fascinating life stories ever written, one of the classics of American literature. Borrow a copy from your public library or get a copy from your book-store.
In this biography, Ben Franklin tells how he conquered the iniquitous habit of argument and transformed himself into one of the most able, suave, and diplomatic men in American history.
One day, when Ben Franklin was a blundering youth, an old Quaker friend took him aside and lashed him with a few stinging truths, something like this:
“Ben, you are impossible. Your opinions have a slap in them for everyone who differs with you. They have become so expensive that nobody cares for them. Your friends find they enjoy themselves better when you are not around. You know so much that no man can tell you anything. Indeed, no man is going to try, for the effort would lead only to discomfort and hard work. So you are not likely ever to know any more than you do now, which is very little.”
One of the finest things I know about Ben Franklin is the way that he accepted that smarting rebuke. He was big enough and wise enough to realize it was true, to sense that he was headed for failure and social disaster. So he made aright-about face. He began immediately to change his insolent, bigoted ways.
“I made it a rule [said Franklin] to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbade myself the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as ‘certainly’, ‘undoubtedly’, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, ‘I conceive’, ‘I apprehend’, or ‘I imagine’ a thing to be so or so; or ‘it so appears to me at present’, When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition: and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly.
The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.
“And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to this habit (After my character of integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points.”
How do Ben Franklin’s methods work in business? Let’s take two examples.
F. J. Mahoney, of 114 Liberty Street, New York, sells special equipment for the oil trade. He had booked an order for an important customer in Long Island. A blueprint had been submitted and approved, and the equipment was in the process of fabrication. Then an unfortunate thing happened. The buyer discussed the matter with his friends. They warned him he was making a grave mistake. He had had something pawned off on him that was all wrong. It was too wide, too short, too this, and too that. His friends worried him into a temper. Calling Mr. Mahoney on the phone, he swore he wouldn’t accept the equipment that was already being manufactured.
“I checked things over very carefully and knew positively that we were right,” said Mr. Mahoney as he told the story, “and I also knew that he and his friends didn’t know what they were talking about, but I sensed that it would be dangerous to tell him so. I went out to Long Island to see him, and as I walked into his office, he leaped to his feet and came toward me, talking rapidly. He was so excited that he shook his fist as he talked. He condemned me and my equipment and ended up by saying: ‘Now, what are you going to do about it?”
“E told him very calmly that I would do anything he said. ‘You are the man who is going to pay for this,’ I said, ‘so you should certainly get what you want. However, somebody has to accept the responsibility. If you think you are right, give us a blueprint and, although we have spent $2,000 making this job for you, we’ll scrap that. We are willing to lose $2,000 in order to please you. However, I must warn you that if we build it as you insist, you must take the responsibility. But if you let us proceed as we planned, which we still believe is the right way, we will assume the responsibility.’
“He had calmed down by this time, and finally said: ‘All right, go ahead, but if it is not right, God help you.’
“It was right, and he has already promised us another order for two similar jobs this season.
“When this man insulted me and shook his fist in my face and told me I didn’t know my business, it took all the self-control I could summon up not to argue and try to justify myself. It took a lot of self-control, but it paid. If I had told him he was wrong and started an argument, there would have been a lawsuit, bitter feelings, a financial loss, and the loss of a valuable customer. Yes, I am convinced that it doesn’t pay to tell a man he is wrong.”
Let’s take another example—and remember these cases I am citing are typical of the experience of thousands of other men, R, V. Crowley is a salesman for the Gardner W. Taylor Lumber Company, of New York. Crowley admitted that he had been telling hard-boiled lumber inspectors for years that they were wrong. And he had won the arguments too. But it hadn’t done any good. “For these lumber inspectors”, said Mr. Crowley, “are like baseball umpires. Once they make a decision, they never change it.”
Mr. Crowley saw that this firm was losing thousands of dollars through the arguments he won. So while taking my course, he resolved to change tactics and abandon arguments. With what results? Here is the story as he told it to the fellow members of his class:
“One morning the phone rang in my office. A hot and bothered person at the other end proceeded to inform me that a car of lumber we had shipped into his plant was entirely unsatisfactory. His firm had stopped unloading and requested that we make immediate arrangements to remove the stock from their yard. After about one-fourth of the car had been unloaded, their lumber inspector reported that the lumber was running 55 per cent below grade. Under the circumstances, they refused to accept it.
“I immediately started for his plant, and on the way turned over in my mind the best way to handle the situation. Ordinarily, under such circumstances, I should have quoted grading rules and tried, as a result of my own experience and knowledge as a lumber inspector, to convince the other inspector that the lumber was actually up to grade, and that he was misinterpreting the rules in his inspection. However, I thought I would apply the principles learned in this training.
“When I arrived at the plant, I found the purchasing agent and the lumber inspector in a wicked humour, all set for an argument and a fight. We walked out to the car that was being unloaded, and I requested that they continue to unload so that I could see how things were going. I asked the inspector to go right ahead and lay out the rejects, as he had been doing, and to put the good pieces in another pile.
“After watching him for a while it began to dawn on me that his inspection actually was much too strict and that he was misinterpreting the rules. This particular lumber was white pine, and I knew the inspector was thoroughly schooled in hard woods, but net a competent, experienced inspector on white pine. White pine happened to be my own strong suit, but did I offer any objection to the way he was grading the lumber? None whatever. I kept on watching and gradually began to ask questions as to why certain pieces were not satisfactory. I didn’t for one instant insinuate that the inspector was wrong. I emphasized that my only reason for asking was in order that we could give his firm exactly what they wanted in future shipments.
“By asking questions in a very friendly, co-operative spirit, and insisting continually that they were right in laying out boards not satisfactory to their purposes, I got him warmed up and the strained relations between us began to thaw and melt away. An occasional carefully put remark on my part gave birth to the idea in his mind that possibly some of these rejected pieces were actually within the grade that they had bought, and that their requirements demanded a more expensive grade. I was very careful, however, not to let him think I was making an issue of this point.
“Gradually his whole attitude changed. He finally admitted to me that he was not experienced on white pine and began to ask me questions about each piece as it came out of the car. I would explain why such a piece came within the grade specified, but kept on insisting that we did not want him to take it if it was unsuitable for their purpose. He finally got to the point where he felt guilty every time he put a piece in the rejected pile. And at last he saw that the mistake was on their part for not having specified as good a grade as they needed.
“The ultimate outcome was that he went through the entire carload again after I left, accepted the whole lot, and we received a cheque in full.
“In that one instance alone, a little tact and the determination to refrain from telling the other man he was wrong, saved my company one hundred and fifty dollars in actual cash, and it would be hard to place a money value on the good will that was saved.”
By the way, I am not revealing anything new in this chapter. Nineteen centuries ago, Jesus said: “Agree with thine adversary quickly.”
In other words, don’t argue with your customer or your husband or your adversary. Don’t tell him he is wrong, don’t get him stirred up, but use a little diplomacy.
And 2,200 years before Christ was born, old King Akhtoi of Egypt gave his son some shrewd advice—advice that is sorely needed to-day. Old King Akhtoi said one afternoon, between drinks, four thousand years ago: “Be diplomatic. It will help you gain your point.”
So, if you want to win people to your way of thinking, Rule 2 is:
SHOW RESPECT FOR THE OTHER MAN’S OPINIONS. NEVER TELL A MAN HE IS WRONG.