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Thoughts on "How to Win Friends and Influence People"

When I was a growing up my parents paid me to read books they thought had value for my personal growth. I suspect the first was The Little Engine that Could, a sort of early introduction to positive thinking.

I can't remember the names of most of those books, but one did stick with me, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.

I remember telling some friends about it in high school or college, and their reaction was basically that it sounded a bit hokey and old-fashioned. After a few similar reactions, I eventually stopped trying to recommend what I found to be so useful. I added the book to the pile of other old-fashioned quirky things that I personally love, but others find a bit dusty. (My friends can confirm I have a rather big pile) 🙂

So it was with great delight that Peldi enthusiastically mentioned to me a few months back that there was an old book he had just learned about from the 1930's about working with people. "By Dale Carnegie?" I replied, smiling.

The fact is, the book is very old. And dated too. Even though there was a newer edition published in 1981, nearly all the stories are from the original version. So the examples are about companies and people few of us now know, and he uses some terms and slang that today are giggle-worthy. But the thing that is so amazing is it shows that more or less, people haven't really changed that much. The skills he talks about are rudimentary and timeless ways to communicate in a positive way with the humans (and the human nature) that surround us.

I can't say I've always upheld the values and techniques Dale Carnegie suggests - I've certainly had my share of failed interactions with people, either out of my own carelessness, stress, or inexperience - but more or less I've tried to keep improving how I interact with people in ways he's described. It's not always easy, but the positive outcomes I've seen, have given me encouragement to keep trying.

One memorable experiment was when I worked as a dresser at La Jolla Playhouse, a regional theatre in California. As a dresser, you have an awkward role from the start, as one of your major jobs is to help people take their clothes off, and put them back on again (often in a ridiculously quick way), but thrown on top of this is working under the pressure of a live performance, with a group of people (oh, dear, beloved actors) that are not always gentle and docile by nature. 🙂

It would have been easy to respond to irrational behavior, or anger misdirected at me, with sharp retorts, pointing out why they were wrong, or demanding an apology. But really, starting a battle when you work that closely with someone, in such a pressured situation, is going to net few results, except disaster. In the end, I wanted them to have a great performance, and I wanted to be able to do my job keeping the drama on the stage, not in the wings.

The best path? As much wisdom of human nature as my 22 year old self could gather. Here are the top 5 Principles from Dale Carnegie's golden list for this situation:

  • Make the person feel important--and do it sincerely
  • If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically
  • Let the other person save face
  • Be sympathetic to the other person's ideas and desires
  • Smile*

*Perhaps the simplest, but wisest principle of all. 🙂

What usually happened after the 8 weeks I spent with people as their dresser? They were usually gentler and kinder in our interactions, and quite appreciative of me. We developed a rapport and a smooth and easy way of working with each other.

Though of course it doesn't always work successfully, over and over, I have found the way in which I choose to interact with people changes both of us.

At Balsamiq, the philosophy of Dale Carnegie fits us well. He doesn't teach you to be kind and helpful to people merely so that it gets you what you want. We aren't looking to trick anyone into buying something they don't need, feigning interest in their needs.

Our goal is to be genuinely kind and helpful to customers, not because it helps our bottom line, but because we value dealing with people in this way. The great mixed-up treasure of this is, having our customers' interests at heart, seems to result in a win for everyone.

We're not perfect, lest this blog post make you think we are customer service gurus. Though we're striving always to improve, we stumble too. But we hope by working on having patience, kindness, and thoughtfulness in our support of customers, we'll all make the world (and software too) a little better.


P.S. Peldi would like to express his gratitude to Amy Hoy for exposing him to the book during her excellent talk at Microconf 2012.

Natalie for the Balsamiq Team

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