If You Must Find Fault, This Is the Way to Begin

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A friend of mine was a guest at the White House for a week-end during the administration of Calvin Coolidge. Drifting into the President’s private office, he heard Coolidge say to one of his secretaries: “That’s a pretty dress you are wearing this morning, and you are a very attractive young woman.”

That was probably the most effulgent praise Silent Cal had ever bestowed upon a secretary in his life. It was so unusual, so unexpected, that the girl blushed in confusion. Then Coolidge said: “Now, don’t get stuck up. I just said that to make you feel good. From now on, I wish you would be a little more careful with your punctuation.”

His method was probably a bit obvious, but the psychology was superb. It is always easier to listen to unpleasant things after we have heard some praise of our good points.

A barber lathers a man before he shaves him; and that is precisely what McKinley did back in 1896, when he was running for President. One of the prominent Republicans of that day had written a campaign speech that he felt was just a trifle better than Cicero and Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster all rolled into one. With great glee, this chap read his immortal speech aloud to McKinley. The speech had its fine points, but it just wouldn’t do. It would have raised a tornado of criticism. McKinley didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings. He must not kill the man’s splendid enthusiasm, and yet he had to say “no”. Note how adroitly he did it.

“My friend, that is a splendid speech, a magnificent speech,” McKinley said. “No one could have prepared a better one. There are many occasions on which it would be precisely the right thing to say, but is it quite suitable to this peculiar occasion? Sound and sober as it is from your standpoint, I must consider its effect from the party’s standpoint. Now you go home and write a speech along the lines I indicate, and send me a copy of it.”

He did just that. McKinley blue-pencilled and helped him rewrite his second speech; and he became one of the effective speakers of the campaign.


Here is the second most famous letter that Abraham Lincoln ever wrote. (His most famous one was written to Mrs. Bixby, expressing his sorrow for the death of the five sons she had lost in battle.) Lincoln probably dashed this letter off in five minutes; yet it sold at public auction in 1926 for twelve thousand dollars. And that, by the way, was more money than Lincoln was able to save during half a century of hard work.

The letter was written on April 26, 1863, during the darkest period of the Civil War. For eighteen months Lincoln’s generals had been leading the Union Army from one tragic defeat to another. Nothing but futile, stupid, human butchery. The nation was appalled. Thousands of soldiers deserted from the army; and even the Republican members of the Senate revolted and wanted to force Lincoln out of the White House. “We are now on the brink of destruction,” Lincoln said. “It appears to me that even the Almighty is against us. I can hardly see a ray of hope.” Such was the period of black sorrow and chaos out of which this letter came.

I am printing the letter here because it shows how Lincoln tried to change an obstreperous general when the very fate of the nation might depend upon the general’s actions.

This is perhaps the sharpest letter Abe Lincoln wrote after he became President; yet you will note that he praised General Hooker before he spoke of his grave faults.

Yes, they were grave faults; but Lincoln didn’t call them that. Lincoln was more conservative, more diplomatic. Lincoln wrote: “There are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you.” Talk about tact! And diplomacy!

Here is the letter addressed to Major General Hooker:

“I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course, I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you.

I believe you to be a brave and skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable if not an indispensable quality.

You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm, But I think that during General Burnside’s command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honourable brother officer.

I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you command.

Only those generals who gain successes can set up as dictators. What I now ask of you is military success and I will risk the dictatorship.

The Government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticizing their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you, as far as I can, to put it down.

Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such spirit prevails in it, and now beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories.”


You are not a Coolidge, a McKinley, or a Lincoln. You want to know whether this philosophy will operate for you in everyday business contacts. Will it? Let’s see. Let’s take the case of W. P. Gaw of the Wark Company, Philadelphia. Mr. Gaw is an ordinary citizen like you and me. He was a member of one of the courses I conducted in Philadelphia, and he related this incident in one of the speeches given before the class.

The Wark Company had contracted to build and complete a large office building in Philadelphia by a certain specified date. Everything was going along according to Hoyle, the building was almost finished, when suddenly the subcontractor making the ornamental bronze work to go on the exterior of this building declared that he couldn’t make delivery on schedule. What! An entire building held up! Heavy penalties! Distressing losses! All because of one man!

Long-distance telephone calls. Arguments! Heated conversations! All in vain. Then Mr. Gaw was sent to New York to beard the bronze lion in his den.

“Do you know you are the only man in Brooklyn with your name?” Mr. Gaw asked as he entered the president’s office. The president was surprised. “No, I didn’t know that.”

“Well,” said Mr. Gaw, “when I got off the train this morning, I looked in the telephone book to get your address, and you are the only man in the Brooklyn phone book with your name.”

“I never knew that,” the president said. He examined the phone book with interest. “Well, it’s an unusual name,” he said proudly. “My family came from Holland and settled in New York almost two hundred years ago.” He continued to talk about his family and his ancestors for several minutes. When he finished that, Mr. Gaw complimented him on how large a plant he had, and compared it favourably with a number of similar plants he had visited. “It is one of the cleanest and neatest bronze factories I ever saw,” said Gaw.

“I have spent a lifetime building up this business,” the president said, “and I am rather proud of it. Would you like to take a look around the factory?”

During this tour of inspection, Mr. Gaw complimented him on his system of fabrication, and told him how and why it seemed superior to those of some of his competitors. Mr. Gaw commented on some unusual machines, and the president announced that he himself had invented those machines. He spent considerable time showing Mr. Gaw how they operated and the superior work they turned out. He insisted on taking Mr. Gaw to lunch. So far, mind you, not a word had been said about the real purpose of Mr. Gaw’s visit.

After lunch, the president said: “Now, to get down to business. Naturally, I know why you are here. I did not expect that our meeting would be so enjoyable. You can go back to Philadelphia with my promise that your material will be fabricated and shipped, even if other orders have to be delayed.”

Mr. Gaw got everything that he wanted without even asking for it. The material arrived on time, and the building was completed the day the completion contract expired.

Would this have happened had Mr. Gaw used the hammer-and-dynamite method generally employed on such occasions?

To change people without giving offence or arousing resentment, Rule 1 is: