Talk About Your Own Mistakes First

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A few years ago, my niece, Josephine Carnegie, left her home in Kansas City and came to New York to act as my secretary. She was nineteen, had graduated from high school three years previously, and her business experience was a trifle more than zero. Today she is one of the most perfect secretaries west of Suez; but; in the beginning, she was—well, susceptible to improvement. One day when I started to criticize her, I said to myself: “Just a minute, Dale Carnegie; just a minute. You are twice as old as Josephine. You have had ten thousand times as much business experience. How can you possibly expect her to have your viewpoint, your judgment, your initiative – mediocre though they may be? And just a minute, Dale, what were you doing at nineteen? Remember the asinine mistakes, the fool blunders you made? Remember the time you did this… and that… ?”

After thinking the matter over, honestly and impartially, I concluded that Josephine’s batting average at nineteen was better than mine had been—and that, I’m sorry to confess, isn’t paying Josephine much of a compliment.

So after that, when I wanted to call Josephine’s attention to a mistake, I used to begin by saying : “You have made a mistake, Josephine, but the Lord knows, it’s no worse than many I have made. You were not born with judgment. That comes only with experience; and you are better than I was at your age. I have been guilty of so many stupid, silly things myself. I have very little inclination to criticize you or anyone, But don’t you think it would have been wiser if you had done so and so?”

It isn’t nearly so difficult to listen to a recital of your own faults if the criticizer begins by humbly admitting that he, too, is far from impeccable.

The polished Prince Bernhard von Bülow learned the sharp necessity of doing this back in 1909. Von Bülow was then the Imperial Chancellor of Germany, and on the throne sat Wilhelm II-Wilhelm, the haughty; Wilhelm the arrogant; Wilhelm, the last of the Kaisers, building an army and navy which he boasted could whip their weight in wild cats.

Then an astonishing thing happened. The Kaiser said things, incredible things, things that rocked the continent and started a series of explosions heard around the world. To make matters infinitely worse, the Kaiser made these silly, egotistical, absurd announcements in public, he made them while he was a guest in England, and he gave his royal permission to have them printed in the Daily Telegraph. For example, he declared that he was the only German who felt friendly towards the English; that he was constructing a navy against the menace of Japan; that he, and he alone, had saved England from being humbled in the dust by Russia and France; that it was his plan of campaign that enabled England’s Lord Roberts to defeat the Boers in South Africa; and so on and on.

No other such amazing words had ever fallen from the lips of a European king in peacetime within a hundred years. The entire continent buzzed with the fury of a hornet’s nest. England was incensed. German statesmen were aghast. And in the midst of all this consternation, the Kaiser became panicky, and suggested to Prince von Bülow, the Imperial Chancellor, that he take the blame. Yes, he wanted von Bülow to announce that it was all his responsibility, that he had advised his monarch to say these incredible things.

“But, Your Majesty,” von Bülow protested, “it seems to me utterly impossible that anybody either in Germany or England could suppose me capable of having advised Your Majesty to say any such thing.”

The moment those words were out of von Bülow’s mouth, he realized he had made a grave mistake. The Kaiser blew up.

“You consider me a donkey,” he shouted, “capable of blunders you yourself could never have committed!”

Von Bülow’s knew that he ought to have praised before he condemned; but since that was too late, he did the next best thing. He praised after he had criticized. And it worked a miracle—as praise often does.

“I’m far from suggesting that,” he answered respectfully, “Your Majesty surpasses me in many respects; not only, of course, in naval and military knowledge, but, above all, in natural science. I have often listened in admiration when Your Majesty explained the barometer, or wireless telegraphy, or the Rontgen rays. I am shamefully ignorant of all branches of natural science, have no notion of chemistry or physics, and am quite incapable of explaining the simplest of natural phenomena. But,” von Bülow continued, “in compensation, I possess some historical knowledge and perhaps certain qualities useful in politics, especially in diplomacy.”

The Kaiser beamed. Von Bulow had praised him. Von Bülow had exalted him and humbled himself. The Kaiser could forgive anything after that. “Haven’t I always told you,” he exclaimed with enthusiasm, “that we complete one another famously? We should stick together, and we will!”

He shook hands with von Bülow, not once, but several times. And later in the day he waxed so enthusiastic that he exclaimed with doubled fists: “If anyone says anything to me against Prince von Bülow, I shall punch him in the nose!

Von Bülow saved himself in time—but, canny diplomat that he was, he nevertheless had made one error: he should have begun by talking about his own shortcomings and Wilhelm’s superiority—not by intimating that the Kaiser was a half-wit in need of a guardian.

If a few sentences humbling oneself and praising the other party can turn a haughty, insulted Kaiser into a staunch friend, imagine what humility and praise can do for you and me in our daily contacts. Rightfully used, they will work veritable miracles in human relations.

To change people without giving offence or arousing resentment, Rule 3 is:

TALK ABOUT YOUR OWN MISTAKES BEFORE CRITICIZING THE OTHER PERSON.