Building upon yesterday’s message, I would like to share another flaw in my personality that leads to arguments and puts up barriers to achievement on teams and in relationships. You can tell people they are wrong by a look or an intonation or a gesture just as eloquently as you can in words—and if you tell them they are wrong, do you make them want to agree with you? Never! For you have struck a direct blow at their intelligence, judgment, pride and self-respect. That will make them want to strike back. But it will never make them want to change their minds.
When Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House, he confessed that if he could be right 75 percent of the time, he would reach the highest measure of his expectation. 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 percent of the time, you can go down to Wall Street and make a million dollars a day. If you can’t be sure of being right even 55 percent of the time, why should you tell other people they are wrong?
Men must be taught as if you taught them not
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
Over three hundred years ago Galileo said: You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself.
Lord Chesterfield said to his son: Be wiser than other people if you can; but do not tell them so.
Socrates said repeatedly to his followers in Athens: One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.
Here is an approach used by Dale Carnegie. “You will never get into trouble by admitting that you may be wrong. That will stop all argument and inspire your opponent to be just as fair and open and broad-minded as you are. It will make him want to admit that he, too, may be 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.”
From 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 aspirn, 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.
Carl Rogers, the eminent psychologist, wrote in his book On Becoming a Person:
I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself to understand the other person. The way in which I have worded this statement may seem strange to you. Is it necessary to permit oneself to understand another? I think it is. Our first reaction to most of the statements (which we hear from other people) is an evaluation or judgment, rather than an understanding of it. When someone expresses some feeling, attitude or belief, our tendency is almost immediately to feel “that’s right,” or “that’s stupid,” “that’s abnormal,” “that’s unreasonable,” “that’s incorrect,” “that’s not nice.” Very rarely do we permit ourselves to understand precisely what the meaning of the statement is to the other person.
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. 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.
“I made it a rule,” said Franklin, “to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiment 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 fixed 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 denied 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 appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed 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 earned so much weight with my fellow citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points.”
Martin Luther King was asked how, as a pacifist, he could be an admirer of Air Force General Daniel “Chappie” James, then the nation’s highest-ranking black officer. Dr. King replied, “I judge people by their own principles—not by my own.”
Two thousand years ago, Jesus said: “Agree with thine adversary quickly.”
And 2,200 years before Christ was born, King Akhtoi of Egypt gave his son some shrewd advice—advice that is sorely needed today. “Be diplomatic,” counseled the King. “It will help you gain your point.”
In other words, don’t argue with your customer or your spouse or your adversary. Don’t tell them they are wrong, don’t get them stirred up. Use a little diplomacy. Dale Carnegie. “How to Win Friends & Influence People.”