Listening to Understand Instead of Talking to be Understood


Dawn Onley

In his seminal, self-help book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie gave a great analogy about influence that went something like this:

I like strawberries and cream. I also like to fish. I know that if I try to put strawberries and cream on the bait to catch a fish, it won’t work. What I like won’t influence the fish to take the bait because it’s not something that the fish likes. It is the same way with people. Why not use the same common sense when fishing for people? We try to influence them over to our way of thinking without realizing that this isn’t what they want. This isn’t what they like. Our way will not win them over. We need to become genuinely interested in what other people like and not waste time on what we think they should like.

The same holds true for seeking to change bad behavior. Carnegie said we want an intended result from a person and so we approach the person in a way that is not conducive to the results that we’re after. He gave an example of how it may not be effective to try to get your teenage son to not smoke if you merely talk about the dangers to his health. He’s young and feeling invincible and might not have an immediate reaction to that scare tactic. Instead, Carnegie instructed, try relating the perils of smoking to something that he does care about, like his ability to play baseball or run track.

Although Carnegie wrote the book in 1936, his advice is as timeless as ever on how to strengthen relationships in business and in life. Carnegie extols the values of being kind, being thoughtful, listening to understand and being complementary in our dealings with people that we know, people that we deal with on our jobs, and even complete strangers that we encounter. He includes countless stories of how these values usually lead to better outcomes in influencing people to get the results that we’re after rather than the results we get by being inconsiderate or angry or constantly talking too much about ourselves.


What Carnegie wasn’t talking about was flattery. He wasn’t a fan of flattery and called it insincere. He meant developing an honest interest in people and listening to what they tell us, offering up kind words that are true to what we believe in our heart, dropping our defensive armor, and our need to talk so much about ourselves. He questioned why people feel the need to inject themselves into so many conversations. Instead, he advised everyone to take a step back, listen more and learn.

This struck a chord with me because it’s essentially about gaining an appreciation for people, learning what motivates them to act, what they care about most, what makes them sad, angry, ambivalent, fulfilled. It’s about letting people know that they’re important and that they matter. It’s why I wanted to be a journalist – to find common ground, to listen, to understand.

We should spend less time trying to be understood and more time seeking to understand. We should spend less time talking and more time listening. It seems everyone wants to be heard, but no one wants to hear.

So it should be no surprise that we suck so bad at communicating with one another. Sometimes it seems that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see eye to eye with people that share different religions, political affiliations, ideologies, life experiences, etc. Carnegie’s book gives us tools to bridge the gaps and to improve the way we communicate with others. I find his book as needed and as relevant today as ever.


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