I’ve just begun re-reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People in preparation for Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio. So far, it’s a bit painful.
The first principle — “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain” — certainly has some application. You don’t want that negative mode with people to be your default. You need to be careful about when you go negative with other people — and the manner in which you do it. Certainly, you don’t want to be a self-righteous and demanding jackass. That’s not just ruinous to relationships: it’s ineffective too.
The simple fact is that people appreciate being treated with a basic measure of respect. So when problems with people emerge, assuming those problems to be the product of their stupidity, carelessness, unconcern, immorality, malice, or other failings is unjust — and likely counterproductive. Instead, people should be assumed to be rational, intelligent, and concerned — with decent (even if mistaken) reasons for their actions. Using that approach, problems can be recognized and solved together, hopefully without animosity or recalcitrance.
Ultimately, of course, if you must conclude that a person is hopeless or unworthy, then do that… but don’t start with such assumptions! Oh, and if most of the people in your life aren’t worthy of such respect then you need to make some major changes to your life, pronto.
Alas, Dale Carnegie doesn’t qualify his principle — “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain” — in any way. Even worse, his justification for it is basically that every person is an unthinking emotionalist, unwilling to ever consider that he might have done wrong — just like the criminals and corrupt politicians he tells us about throughout the chapter. His core argument seems to be that every person needs to be pandered to and petted gently, because if even the worst people won’t recognize their vile wrongs, then no one else can be reasonably expected to do so. OY!
So in the opening pages, after telling a series of stories about vicious and violent criminals who claimed to be good men at heart, Carnegie claims that ordinary people are no better because “ninety-nine times out of a hundred, people don’t criticize themselves for anything, no matter how wrong it may be.” Hence, he concludes:
Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.
Later, he writes:
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.
It’s a very dismal view of humanity he paints, in my view… and so very wrong! Happily, the chapter isn’t entirely awful. Carnegie’s stories of how to solve problems effectively — i.e., without prickly, blustering criticism — are quite good. For example:
George B. Johnston of Enid, Oklahoma, is the safety coordinator for an engineering company. One of his responsibilities is to see that employees wear their hard hats whenever they are on the job in the field. He reported that whenever he came across workers who were not wearing hard hats, he would tell them with a lot of authority of the regulation and that they must comply. As a result he would get sullen acceptance, and often after he left, the workers would remove the hats.
He decided to try a different approach. The next time he found some of the workers not wearing their hard hat, he asked if the hats were uncomfortable or did not fit properly. Then he reminded the men in a pleasant tone of voice that the hat was designed to protect them from injury and suggested that it always be worn on the job. The result was increased compliance with the regulation with no resentment or emotional upset.
Basically, Mr. Johnston was able to solve a problem by treating these workers with respect, rather than barking commands at them. Fancy that!