Office Chitchat Isn’t Necessarily a Time Waster

When Employees are Happy, They Work Better

Office Chitchat Isn't Necessarily a Time Waster Managers who disapprove and clamp down on impromptu encounters that people have at their desks, in the hallways, by the elevators, in the lunchroom, or by the water coolers can create a work environment that’s unpleasant, even repressive.

If truth be told, what may seems like idle chitchat actually forges links between people and encourages a culture of openness that can help people work toward common goals.

Informal, spontaneous conversations between coworkers, especially between colleagues from different departments, will not only give people a chance to know each other better, but also create a feeling of collaboration. The camaraderie that grows from employees sharing a little fun can go a long way toward fostering a feeling that they’re part of a team.

Chitchat is About Building Relationships

During those inconsequential “idle moments” of office conversations, important information is being exchanged. You’re learning much about others and offering details about yourself.

  • Whom can you trust? Who possesses strong convictions? Who has a broad experience or in-depth knowledge?
  • Who is a stimulating brainstormer? Who has the wherewithal for workarounds to problems?
  • Who can open doors for you? Who can facilitate otherwise hard-to-get connections?
  • Who can influence the leadership decisions? Who can evangelize your project to the right people? Who can bend the leadership’s ear? Who can be your cheerleader?
  • Who can lend a consoling ear in moments of problems or crisis? Who sees the bright side of problems?
  • Who can help you with questions on software, help you decide health insurance plans, or fix the printer?

Casual Conversations are About Networking and Leaving Positive Impressions

Small talk and casual conversations are an important element of collegial workplaces. People like talking about themselves, so if you can remember a nugget of information from the last time you met (kids, pets, and travels are great topics) bring it up.

To be respectful of others’ time, remember this two-minute rule: unless you’re discussing a topic of some importance, try to wrap up your small talk and casual chats in two minutes. Pay attention to your listener’s non-verbal cues and adjust the extent of your conversation. You can always arrange to convene later, “I’d love to hear more, but I’m in a rush. Why don’t I call you afterhours? How about we meet up for coffee this weekend?”

Nevertheless, don’t let chatter go too far and negatively impact your productivity or those of others. If you’re considered as too chatty, others may to resent bumping into you. If you tend to talk too much about yourself, you’ll be judged self-absorbed and interpersonally clueless.

Likeability is Important in How You Will Be Perceived in Your Workplace

Likeability is Important in How You Will Be Perceived in Your Workplace Cordiality is a significant persuasive technique because people are much more likely to feel warmly towards those they like. They’ll do things for you if you earnestly show interest in them, chat with them on a regular basis, and make them feel good about themselves.

Colleagues who don’t chat can come across as arrogant or abrupt. Highly competent but unpopular professionals don’t thrive as well as their moderately competent, but popular counterparts.

Small Talk is a Critical Tool for Creating a Personal Bond with Your Coworkers

Even though an office is primarily a place of business, chatting about non-work topics and establishing rapport with coworkers is important. People who know and like each other tend to have each other’s backs and help out when necessary.

Even if, eventually, you’ll be accepted or rejected based on the more tangible aspects of your work, the fact of the matter is that these interpersonal impressions matter a great deal along the way and can even shape how people judge your more actual work.

Idea for Impact: Balance your dedication to your workload with a cooperative nature, you will gain needed allies to get things done and to help your career progression in the company.

Curry Favor with Customers?

People know there’s great fame with getting things named after them.

The Scottish-American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) was fully mindful of this.

Carnegie started with his empire-building (read biography) by manufacturing steel rails for America’s burgeoning railroad industry. With great fanfare, he named his first steel plant after his most important customer, Edgar Thomson, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Edgar Thomson Steel Works has been in action since 1872.

Obsequious flattery is clever marketing indeed!

Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire

Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire People tend to have contempt for ideas that they disagree with. What’s worse is the possibility that some people, when presented with information that goes against their beliefs, may not only snub their challengers, but also double down on their original viewpoints. Cognitive psychologists call this the backfire effect.

For instance, voters have been shown to judge the political candidate they support even more favorably after the candidate is attacked by the other party. In the same way, parents opposed to vaccinations have been shown to become more convinced of their alleged apprehension that vaccination causes autism after reviewing studies showing that vaccinating their kids is the best course of action.

The backfire effect explains why, when people argue against conflicting information strongly enough, they wind up with more supportive arguments for their cause, which further aligns them with their preexisting positions.

The backfire effect is related to confirmation bias—the rampant propensity to seek, interpret, synthesize, and recall information in a way that substantiates one’s preconceptions. For instance, when people read an article that describes both sides of an issue, they tend to select that side that they happen to agree with—thus reinforcing their viewpoints.

See also: the phenomenon of group polarization explains why people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs.

Incentives Matter

Incentives are Powerful Extrinsic Motivators

Incentives are Powerful Extrinsic Motivators The bedrock premise of economics is that incentives matter. This is a powerful device because it applies to almost everything that humans do.

Changes in incentives—monetary and nonmonetary—can sway human behavior in foreseeable ways.

For instance, if a resource becomes more expensive or scarce, people will be less likely to choose it. Higher prices will reduce the quantity of goods sold. Fewer people visit outdoor recreational areas on chilly and rainy days. Whenever fuel prices soar through the roof over a prolonged period, consumers buy less gasoline—they eliminate less important trips, carpool more, and purchase fuel-efficient cars.

Incentives Shape Behavior

If the payback from a specific choice increases, people are more likely to choose it. Students focus in classes when their professors declare what course material will be on the examinations. Pedestrians are more prone to leaning down and picking up a quarter than they would a penny. Traditional incentive systems for executives give rise to corporate “short-termism”—executives’ annual bonuses are often awarded for achieving targets that are insubstantially linked to long-term value creation.

Incentives shape behavior. The economics of wrongdoing and crime suggest that fines be increased to offset the rewards from lawbreaking—for example, traffic fines for speeding are typically doubled in construction zones. Ryanair, Ireland’s pioneering discount airline, purposefully uses exasperating fees for checked bags, airport check-ins, and printing boarding passes to “reshape passenger behavior” and focus on getting passengers punctually to their destinations with the least overhead costs.

Incentives Can Backfire Even If Launched with the Best of Intentions

Incentives Can Backfire Even If Launched with the Best of Intentions The “incentives matter” framework of economics explains why bad behavior happens whenever the payoff for such behavior is high and the odds of getting caught and reprimanded are low.

People will scheme—even perpetrate fraud—to achieve the incentives they’re offered. If targets are impracticable and employees realize that they can achieve those targets by cheating, then they will cheat.

Incentive structures are partially to blame for the recent Wells Fargo accounts scandal. Even if Wells Fargo established incentive arrangements with the best of intentions, it tied a substantial percentage of employee compensation to immoderate sales targets. This compelled employees to open millions of sham bank accounts and credit cards in customers’ names, infringing on their trust, and costing them millions of dollars in fees for services they did not willingly sign-up for. As this case makes obvious, incentives intended to stimulate people to do their best can sometimes push them to do their worst.

Idea for Impact: A Little Incentive Goes a Long Way

Incentives matter. They influence choices that humans make. Changes in incentives influence their choices. However, designing effective incentives is a painstakingly difficult problem. Do not underestimate or ignore potential undesired results—increase in dishonest behavior, over-focus on one area while overlooking other parts of the business, imprudent risk-taking, deterioration of organizational culture, and diminished intrinsic motivation.

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness is Dangerous

Group Polarization Strengthens of the Opinions of Each Person in the Group

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness Is Dangerous When people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs—they become extreme in their views. In other words, a group of likeminded people will reinforce one another’s viewpoints. This phenomenon is called group polarization.

Social psychologists reason that people use the choices and persuasions of others as heuristics to steer their lives in this complex world. As the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

Social Media and Group Polarization

As people converge to likeminded people in virtual neighborhoods, they tend to operate in intellectual bubbles. Given that social media allows participants to curate their sources of information, it is easier than ever before for people to cruise through their day-to-day lives without meeting anyone who disagrees with them. Studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks makes people more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals.

Group polarization explains partly the proliferation of fake news on social media—people accept dubious claims that support their own viewpoint while disregarding facts that conflict with their views. In the confusing times we live in, people get lost in the unstructured, unattributed noise of headlines and repeat the loudest declarations as facts without checking their soundness.

The Persuasive Ability of Social Proof in Consumer Behavior

'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion' by Robert Cialdini (ISBN 006124189X) In the bestselling Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, psychologist Robert Cialdini observes that advertisers tend to describe their products as “fastest-growing,” “#1 in the market,” or “best-selling.” Advertisers believe that consumers need to hear not only that a product is good, but also that others think so.

As per group polarization, when people are considering what to do or buy, they often look to what others are doing or have done, and take their cue from others. When a product, service, or an idea strikes out as particularly admired or prevailing, consumers intuitively take social proof that this is the right—and acceptable—choice.

Idea for Impact: Hanging Around with Like-Minded People is a Dangerous Intellectual Trap

The French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre once wrote, “Seek those who find your road agreeable, your personality and mind stimulating, your philosophy acceptable, and your experiences helpful. Let those who do not, seek their own kind.”

Look for people who respect your worldview—even if drastically different from theirs—but can present alternative perspectives.

Regular exposure to differing views serves to sharpen your thinking and reasoning abilities—and may perhaps even reexamine your positions. As I’ve said before, wisdom comes from facing counter-arguments. The only test of a well-constructed opinion is that it can defend itself.

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.

One of the Tests of Leadership is the Ability to Sniff out a Fire Quickly

One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster

I’ve previously stressed the importance of problem-finding as an intellectual skill. I’ve also highlighted why risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process. In this article, I’ll write about being proactive in identifying problems before they evolve into crises.

How Wells Fargo Failed to Recognize a Problem and Address it before it Became a Bigger Problem

As the Wells Fargo accounts scandal unfolded, it was clear that Wells Fargo’s leadership was well aware of the burgeoning problems early on, but failed to act decisively and nip the problem in the bud.

Given impossible sales quotas to reach, Wells Fargo’s “high pressure sales culture” opened as many as two million bank and credit card accounts on behalf of its customers without their consent. Employees were rebuked or even fired for not meeting aggressive cross-selling targets.

Human nature is such that high-pressure demands can deplete the willpower people need to act morally and resist temptations. And such demanding circumstances encourage people to go into defensive mode, engage in self-interested behaviors, and consider only short term benefits and dangers.

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal: “A Stitch in Time Indeed Saves Nine”

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal Wells Fargo’s leadership reportedly had data about ethical breaches, but they ignored or misjudged the impact of the problem. Wells Fargo even held a two-day ethics workshop in 2014 unequivocally telling their employees not to do that. As per an internal review, managers knew that 1% of employees had been fired for “sales integrity” violations.

Wells Fargo’s leadership didn’t act quickly and decisively to mitigate the effects of the crisis. Warren Buffett, one of the Wells Fargo’s biggest investors, summarized this leadership inaction at the 2017 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting:

There were three very significant mistakes, but there was one that was worse than all the others … The main problem was that they didn’t act when they learned about it … at some point if there’s a major problem, the CEO will get wind of it. And at that moment, that’s the key to everything, because the CEO has to act. It was a huge, huge, huge error if they were getting, and I’m sure they were getting, some communications and they ignored them or they just sent them back down to somebody down below.

Leadership: “Only the Paranoid Survive”

Andy Grove (1936–2016,) the illustrious cofounder and CEO of Intel, was a famous worrier. At Intel, the focal point of Grove’s leadership style was worry and skepticism. He believed that business success contains the seeds of its own destruction, and that in order for an organization to have longevity, it needs to continue to worry about the future.

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Grove’s principle was immortalized in his famous proclamation, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” He eloquently explained his worrisome mantra in his bestselling corporate memoir, Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) He wrote in the preface:

The things I tend to be paranoid about vary. I worry about products getting screwed up, and I worry about products getting introduced prematurely. I worry about factories not performing well, and I worry about having too many factories. I worry about hiring the right people, and I worry about morale slacking off. And, of course, I worry about competitors. I worry about other people figuring out how to do what we do better or cheaper, and displacing us with our customers.

At Intel, worrying about the future created a culture of triumph that propelled change and innovation. Grove never let Intel rest on its laurels and led the company to break boundaries in microprocessor innovation. During his tenure as CEO from 1987—98, Intel’s stock price rose 32% a year. Grove also said, “A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation.”

Idea for Impact: Learn to Sniff out a Fire Better than Anyone Does

The principal tasks of leadership are (1) identifying the biggest risks and opportunities, and (2) allocating organizational resources. Therefore, one of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster. If identified and addressed early, nearly any problem can be resolved in a way that is beneficial for everyone involved.

Many leaders tend to be reactionary—they claim, “why fix something that isn’t broken.” Even when they see an impending problem, they may assume that the problem “isn’t that big of a deal” and wish the problem will just go away. Alas, many problems never go away; they only get worse.

To become a good leader, be paranoid—always assume that “there’s no smoke without fire.” If, according to Murphy’s Law, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, the paranoid leader has an advantage.

Whenever you are doing anything, have your eyes on the possibility of potential problems and actively mitigate those risks. Never allow a problem to reach gigantic proportions because you can and must recognize and fix it in its early stages.

As the medieval French philosopher and logician Peter Abelard (1079–1142) wrote, “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.”

Our Vision of What Our Parents Achieved Influences Our Life Goals: The Psychic Contract

Understanding Others’ Motivations is a Key to Building Better Relationships

Psychic Contract Theory: Children are Programmed to Want to Do as Well as or Better Than Their Parents Understanding others’ deep-held motivations involves recognizing what drives them, why and how they want to work, work styles they may adopt in various circumstances, and what levers you have to motivate them.

Take for example Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a motivation hypothesis used widely for several decades now. Represented as a pyramid, this hypothesis proposes that people are motivated to fulfill basic subconscious desires such as food and shelter before trying to fulfill higher-level needs such as affection and prestige. Even though academics have extensively debated its specifics, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has provided a handy framework to value the multifaceted composition of human motivation and to understand how to engage others.

The Relationship between Your Own Vision of Success and Your Parental Influence

'The Anatomy of a Great Executive' by John Wareham (ISBN 0887305059) One less-known framework for understanding the provenance of people’s life goals—their deep-seated aspirations for want to achieve in life—is the “Psychic Contract” hypothesis, a concept that dominates The Anatomy of a Great Executive (1991) by John Wareham, a leadership psychologist from New Zealand.

According to Wareham, a psychic contract is a set of “deals” we subconsciously strike with our parents early in life. Our life-goals are defined primarily by our own vision of what our parents achieved—and what they failed to achieve:

As we grow we absorb the values of our parents, and are conditioned to improve (albeit marginally) upon their achievements. We strike a psychic contract with them whereby “success” in life is defined by the attainment of a similar social positioning, which we later embark upon attaining, sometimes very consciously, but often entirely unconsciously.

Throughout our lives, we unintentionally adhere to our psychic contracts, despite the limitations they place on us. We use our psychic contracts to not only define and approach our life goals but also think about how we measure success.

We consciously measure success in terms of milestones and standards instilled by our parents.

As a rule of thumb, about three quarters or more of people in westernized culture seek first to equal, then marginally to improve upon the lifestyle or status level perceived to exist in the childhood home.

Psychic Contract Theory: Children are Programmed to Want to Do as Well as or Better Than Their Parents

Our Vision of What Our Parents Achieved Influences Our Life Goals: The Psychic Contract In The Anatomy of a Great Executive, Wareham goes into depth explaining how we can know our own psychic contracts and how we can reset our goals to give ourselves permission to succeed. Here are some other prominent learning points:

  • Our psychic contract is based on our birth order, our parents’ birth order, and roles we play relative to our parents in our families.
  • The so-called “prime parental injunction” sits at the heart of our conscious. We go through our lives trying to become the people our parents wanted us to be. Even people who spend their lives trying to become exactly the opposite of what their parents wished are still influenced by this injunction.
  • Every person has a pre-programmed financial comfort level. Most of us strive to reach this level; but once there, we slow down—not because we are lazy, but because we have fulfilled our inner desires and don’t need more. Wareham cites the example of commission-based sales people who, after earning adequate commission to reach their financial comfort level, tend to be less aggressive in selling cars to customers for the rest of the month.

Idea for Impact: “Psychic Contract” is a handy and thought provoking—if unsubstantiated—hypothesis to understand how your and other people’s deep-seated life goals are established. It can give you one more data point in trying to figure people out.

Become a Smart, Restrained Communicator Like Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, America’s founding father, statesman, and polymath, was a doyen of the self-improvement movement. His methods for self-mastery are worth taking a serious look at if you’re interested in getting better at anything in life.

In his wonderful Autobiography (1791,) Franklin discusses his once-foolish delight in spinning artful arguments and doggedly winning over his opponents.

Winning an Argument Aggressively is but a Short-term Ego Victory

'The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin' by Benjamin Franklin (ISBN 1492720941) As a young man, Franklin had a habit of fervently arguing his case in all matters and alienating people around him. He frequently ensnared his challengers with hard-hitting rhetoric:

I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it, practis’d it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.

However, Franklin ultimately recognized that his take-no-prisoners approach of arguing was by no means endearing him to other people. His realized that his brash way of outwitting his challengers had been self-defeating.

Benjamin Franklin, Doyen of the Self-improvement Movement

Arguing, if it is to Be Constructive, Must Be Done Tactfully

In an attempt to develop amenable character traits, Franklin radically improved the way he interacted with others. He let go of all expressions of conceit and bold self-confidence. He stopped using words such as “certainly” and “undoubtedly” in his speaking and replaced them with phrases that signified personal opinions—for instance, “It appears to me, or I should think it so or so for such & such Reasons, or I imagine it to be so, or it is so if I am not mistaken.”

I continu’d this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire. [Alexander] Pope says, judiciously:

“Men should be taught as if you taught them not,
And things unknown propos’d as things forgot;”

farther recommending to us

“To speak, tho’ sure, with seeming diffidence.”

Learn to Resolve Important Issues through Sensible Discourse

'How to Win Friends & Influence People' by Dale Carnegie (ISBN 0671027034) Franklin realized that this measured conversation and gentler interactions was helpful in preventing conflicts and softening resistance in those he wanted to influence. He writes, “This Habit, I believe, has been of great Advantage to life, when I have had occasion to inculcate my Opinions & persuade Men into Measures I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting.”

This rule of skilful conversation and interpersonal relationships later became one of the foundational principles in Dale Carnegie‘s masterful self-help manual How to Win Friends and Influence People—specifically, that our ticket to success in life is the ability to make others feel good about themselves.

Persuasion is Not About Outmaneuvering Others and Proving Them Wrong

The ability to communicate effectively, plead your case, and influence others is one of the most useful skills for succeeding in the modern world.

  • Learn to resolve important issues through sensible and mindful discourse.
  • Be assertive where you must, but never aggressive.
  • Be open-minded, understand the other person’s perspective, and keep your emotions under control.
  • Never insult, disgrace, or cause the other person to lose face.

Views, opinions, and judgments can differ, and these can and should be discussed civilly. However, to debate such differences vigorously so as to cause bad feelings toward is not necessary and is almost always counterproductive.

Idea for Impact: Arguing for the sake of deciding a winner is never constructive. When an argument starts, persuasion stops.

Rapoport’s Rules to Criticize Someone Constructively

'Intuition Pumps' by Daniel Dennett (ISBN 0393082067) In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, philosopher Daniel Dennett lists Anatol Rapoport‘s rules of constructive argument and debate:

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view—and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harboring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack. But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament).

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).

This comports with the following sage advice gentle art of criticizing people effectively:

  • “If you disagree with somebody, you want to be able to state their case better than they can. And at that point you’ve earned the right to disagree with them. Otherwise you should keep quiet.”
    Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner (see this article)
  • “The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down—such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.”
    —Roman Orator Cicero (see this article)
  • “I have yet to find a more efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person’s knowledge and seriousness about an issue than asking them to explain the other side’s perspective.”
    —Entrepreneur Ben Casnocha (see this article)
  • “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.”
    —Philosopher Anthony Weston in Rulebook for Arguments (see this article)
  • “When you think you can nail someone with your argument, take a breath & see if you can phrase it as a face-saving question.”
    —Career Coach Marty Nemko