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
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.
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
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.