Dale Carnegie's famous book has sold more than 30 million copies. Dale Carnegie's famous book has sold more than 30 million copies.
Finance Work How to become a world-class conversationalist Updated:

How to become a world-class conversationalist

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How to Win Friends and Influence People is a timeless classic. For more than 60 years, Dale Carnegie’s book has carried thousands of now famous people up the ladder of success in their business and personal lives. First published in 1936, it was named as number 19 on Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential books in 2011.

Some time ago, I attended a bridge party. I don’t play bridge — and there was a woman there who didn’t play bridge either.

She had discovered I had once been Lowell Thomas’ manager before he went on the radio and that I traveled in Europe a great deal while helping him prepare the illustrated travel talks he was then delivering.

So she said: “Oh, Mr Carnegie, I do want you to tell me about all the wonderful places you have visited and the sights you have seen.”

As we sat down on the sofa, she remarked that she and her husband had recently returned from a trip to Africa. “Africa!” I exclaimed. “How interesting! I’ve always wanted to see Africa, but I never got there except for a 24-hour stay once in Algiers. Tell me, did you visit the big game country? Yes? How fortunate. I envy you. Do tell me about Africa.”

how-to-win-friendsThat kept her talking for 45 minutes. She never again asked me where I had been or what I had seen. She didn’t want to hear me talk about my travels. All she wanted was an interested listener, so she could expand her ego and tell about where she had been.

Was she unusual? No. Many people are like that.

For example, I met a distinguished botanist at a dinner party given by a New York book publisher. I had never talked with a botanist before, and I found him fascinating. I literally sat on the edge of my chair and listened while he spoke of exotic plants and experiments in developing new forms of plant life and indoor gardens (he even told me astonishing facts about the humble potato).

I had a small indoor garden of my own and he was good enough to tell me how to solve some of my problems.

As I said, we were at a dinner party. There must have been a dozen other guests, but I violated all the canons of courtesy, ignored everyone else, and talked for hours to the botanist.

Midnight came. I said good night to everyone and departed. The botanist then turned to our host and paid me several flattering compliments. I was “most stimulating”. I was this and I was that, and he ended by saying I was a “most interesting conversationalist”.

An interesting conversationalist? Why, I had said hardly anything at all. I couldn’t have said anything if I had wanted to without changing the subject, for I didn’t know any more about botany than I knew about the anatomy of a penguin. But I had done this: I had listened intently. And he felt it. Naturally that pleased him. That kind of listening is one of the highest compliments we can pay anyone.

“Few human beings,” wrote Jack Woodford in Strangers in Love, “are proof against the implied flattery of rapt attention.”

I went even further than giving him rapt attention. I was “hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise”.

I had told him that I had been immensely entertained and instructed — and I had. I told him I wished I had his knowledge — and I did. I told him I should love to wander the fields with him — and I have. I told him I must see him again — and I did.

And so I had him thinking of me as a good conversationalist when, in reality, I had been merely a good listener and had encouraged him to talk.

What is the secret, the mystery, of a successful business interview? Well, according to former Harvard president Charles W Eliot, “There is no mystery about successful business intercourse. … Exclusive attention to the person who is speaking to you is very important. Nothing else is so flattering as that.”

Eliot himself was a past master of the art of listening. Henry James, one of America’s first great novelists, recalled: “Dr Eliot’s listening was not mere silence, but a form of activity. Sitting very erect at the end of his spine with hands joined in his lap, making no movement except that he revolved his thumbs around each other faster or slower, he faced his interlocutor and seemed to be hearing with his eyes as well as his ears. He listened with his mind and attentively considered what you had to say while you said it. … At the end of an interview the person who had talked to him felt that he had had his say.”

dale carnegie
Dale Carnegie’s bestselling novel from the 1930s remains hugely popular today. You are reading chapter four. Photo: Getty

Self-evident, isn’t it? You don’t have to study for four years in Harvard to discover that. Yet I know and you know department store owners who will rent expensive space, buy their goods economically, dress their windows appealingly, spend thousands of dollars in advertising and then hire clerks who haven’t the sense to be good listeners — clerks who interrupt customers, contradict them, and all but drive them from the store.

A department store in Chicago almost lost a regular customer who spent several thousands of dollars each year in that store because a sales clerk wouldn’t listen. Mrs Henrietta Douglas, who took our course in Chicago, had purchased a coat at a special sale. After she had brought it home she noticed there was a tear in the lining.

She came back the next day and asked the sales clerk to exchange it. The clerk refused even to listen to her complaint. “You bought this at a special sale,” she said. She pointed to a sign on the wall. “Read that,” she exclaimed. ‘”All sales are final.’ Once you bought it, you have to keep it. Sew up the lining yourself.”

“But this was damaged merchandise,” Mrs Douglas complained.

“Makes no difference,” the clerk interrupted. “Final’s final.”

Mrs Douglas was about to walk out indignantly, swearing never to return to that store ever, when she was greeted by the department manager, who knew her from her many years of patronage. Mrs Douglas told her what had happened.

The manager listened attentively to the whole story, examined the coat and then said: “Special sales are ‘final’ so we can dispose of merchandise at the end of the season. But this ‘no return’ policy does not apply to damaged goods. We will certainly repair or replace the lining, or if you prefer, give you your money back.”

What a difference in treatment! If that manager had not come along and listened to the customer, a long-term patron of that store could have been lost forever.

Listening is just as important in one’s home life as in the world of business. Millie Esposito of Croton-on-Hudson, New York, made it her business to listen carefully when one of her children wanted to speak with her.

One evening she was sitting in the kitchen with her son, Robert, and after a brief discussion of something that was on his mind, Robert said: “Mum, I know that you love me very much.”

Mrs Esposito was touched and said: “Of course I love you very much. Did you doubt it?”

Robert responded: “No, but I really know you love me because whenever I want to talk to you about something you stop whatever you are doing and listen to me.”

The chronic kicker, even the most violent critic, will frequently soften and be subdued in the presence of a patient, sympathetic listener — a listener who will be silent while the irate fault-finder dilates like a king cobra and spews the poison out of his system.

To illustrate: The New York Telephone Company discovered a few years ago that it had to deal with one of the most vicious customers who ever cursed a customer service representative. And he did curse. He raved. He threatened to tear the phone out by its roots. He refused to pay certain charges that he declared were false. He wrote letters to the newspapers. He filed innumerable complaints with the Public Service Commission, and he started several suits against the telephone company.

At last, one of the company’s most skilful ‘trouble-shooters’ was sent to interview this stormy petrel. This ‘troubleshooter’ listened and let the cantankerous customer enjoy himself pouring out his tirade. The telephone representative listened said “yes” and sympathised with his grievance.

“He raved on and I listened for nearly three hours,” the troubleshooter said as he related his experiences before one of the author’s classes.

“Then I went back and listened some more. I interview him four times, and before the fourth visit was over I had become a charter member of an organisation he was starting. He called it the ‘Telephone Subscribers’ Protective Association’. I am still a member of this organisation, and, so far as I know, I’m the only member in the world today besides Mr ——-.

“I listened and sympathised with him on every point that he made during these interviews. He had never had a telephone representative talk with him that way before, and he became almost friendly. The point on which I went to see him was not even mentioned on the first visit, nor was it mentioned on the second or third, but upon the fourth interview, I closed the case completely, he paid all his bills in full, and for the first time in the history of his difficulties with the telephone company he voluntarily withdrew his complaints from the Public Service Commission.”

Doubtless Mr ——- had considered himself a holy crusader, defending the public rights against callous exploitation. But in reality, what he had really wanted was a feeling of importance. He got this feeling of importance at first by kicking and complaining. But as soon as he got his feeling of importance from a representative of the company, his imagined grievances vanished into thin air.

One morning years ago, an angry customer stormed into the office of Julian F Detmer, founder of the Detmer Woolen Company,  which later became the world’s largest distributor of woollens to the tailoring trade.

“This man owed us a small sum of money,” Mr Detmer explained to me. “The customer denied it, but we knew he was wrong. So our credit department had insisted that he pay. After getting a number of letters from our credit department, he packed his grip, made a trip to Chicago, and hurried into my office to inform me not only that he was not going to pay that bill, but that he was never going to buy another dollar’s worth of goods from the Detmer Woolen Company.

“I listened patiently to all he had to say. I was tempted to interrupt, but I realised that would be bad policy. So I let him talk himself out. When he finally simmered down and got into a receptive mood, I said quietly: ‘I want to thank you for coming to Chicago to tell me about this. You have done me a great favour, for if our credit department has annoyed you, it may annoy other good customers, and that would be just too bad. Believe me, I am far more eager to hear this than you are to tell it.’

“That was the last thing in the world he expected me to say. I think he was a trifle disappointed, because he had come to Chicago to tell me a thing or two, but here I was thanking him instead of scrapping with him. I assured him we would wipe the charge off the books and forget it, because he was a very careful man with only one account to look after, while our clerks had to look after thousands. Therefore, he was less likely to be wrong than we were.

“I told him that I understood exactly how he felt and that, if I were in his shoes, I should undoubtedly feel precisely as he did. Since he wasn’t going to buy from us anymore, I recommended some other woollen houses.

“In the past, we had usually lunched together when he came to Chicago, so I invited him to have lunch with me this day. He accepted reluctantly, but when we came back to the office he placed a larger order than ever before. He returned home in a softened mood and, wanting to be just as fair with us as we had been with him, looked over his bills, found one that had been mislaid, and sent us a check with his apologies.

“Later, when his wife presented him with a baby boy, he gave his son the middle name of Detmer, and he remained a friend and customer of the house until his death 22 years afterwards.”

Years ago, a poor Dutch immigrant boy washed the windows of a bakery shop after school to help support his family. His people were so poor that in addition he used to go out in the street with a basket every day and collect stray bits of coal that had fallen in the gutter where the coal wagons had delivered fuel.

That boy, Edward Bok, never got more than six years of schooling in his life; yet eventually he made himself one of the most successful magazine editors in the history of American journalism. How did he do it? That is a long story, but how he got his start can be told briefly. He got his start by using the principles advocated in this chapter.

He left school when he was 13 and became an office boy for Western Union, but he didn’t for one moment give up the idea of an education. Instead, he started to educate himself. He saved his carfares and went without lunch until he had enough money to buy an encyclopedia of American biography — and then he did an unheard-of thing.

He read the lives of famous people and wrote them asking for additional information about their childhoods. He was a good listener. He asked famous people to tell him more about themselves. He wrote General James A Garfield, who was then running for president, and asked if it was true that he was once a tow boy on a canal; and Garfield replied.

He wrote General Grant asking about a certain battle, and Grant drew a map for him and invited this 14-year-old boy to dinner and spent the evening talking to him.

Soon our Western Union messenger boy was corresponding with many of the most famous people in the nation: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Longfellow, Mrs Abraham Lincoln, Louisa May Alcott, General Sherman and Jefferson Davis.

Not only did he correspond with these distinguished people, but as soon as he got a vacation, he visited many of them as a welcome guest in their homes. This experience imbued him with a confidence that was invaluable. These men and women fired him with a vision and ambition that shaped his life. And all this, let me repeat, was made possible solely by the application of the principles we are discussing here.

Isaac F Marcosson, a journalist who interviewed hundreds of celebrities, declared that many people fail to make a favourable impression because they don’t listen attentively.

“They have been so much concerned with what they are going to say next that they do not keep their ears open. … Very important people have told me they prefer good listeners to good talkers, but the ability to listen seems rarer than almost any other good trait.”

And not only important personages crave a good listener, but ordinary folk do too. As the Reader’s Digest once said: “Many persons call a doctor when all they want is an audience.”

During the darkest hours of the Civil War, Lincoln wrote to an old friend in Springfield, Illinois, asking him to come to Washington. Lincoln said he had some problems he wanted to discuss with him.

The old neighbour called at the White House, and Lincoln talked to him for hours about the advisability of issuing a proclamation freeing the slaves. Lincoln went over all the arguments for and against such a move, and then read letters and newspaper articles, some denouncing him for not freeing the slaves and others denouncing him for fear he was going to free them.

After talking for hours, Lincoln shook hands with his old neighbour, said good night, and sent him back to Illinois without even asking his opinion. Lincoln had done all the talking himself. That seemed to clarify his mind.

“He seemed to feel easier after that talk,” the old friend said.

Lincoln hadn’t wanted advice. He had wanted merely a friendly, sympathetic listener to whom he could unburden himself. That’s what we all want when we are in trouble. That is frequently all the irritated customer wants, and the dissatisfied employee or the hurt friend.

One of the great listeners of modern times was Sigmund Freud. A man who met Freud described his manner of listening: “It struck me so forcibly that I shall never forget him. He had qualities which I had never seen in any other man. Never had I seen such concentrated attention. There was none of that piercing ‘soul penetrating gaze’ business. His eyes were mild and genial. His voice was low and kind. His gestures were few. But the attention he gave me, his appreciation of what I said, even when I said it badly, was extraordinary. You’ve no idea what it meant to be listened to like that.”

If you want to know how to make people shun you and laugh at you behind your back and even despise you, here is the recipe: Never listen to anyone for long. Talk incessantly about yourself. If you have an idea while the other person is talking, don’t wait for him or her to finish: bust right in and interrupt in the middle of a sentence.

Do you know people like that? I do, unfortunately; and the astonishing part of it is that some of them are prominent.

Bores, that is all they are — bores intoxicated with their own egos, drunk with a sense of their own importance.

People who talk only of themselves think only of themselves. And “those people who think only of themselves,” Dr Nicholas Murray Butler, longtime president of Columbia University, said, “are hopelessly uneducated. They are not educated no matter how instructed they may be.”

So if you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments.

Remember that the people you are talking to are a 100 times more interested in themselves and their wants and problems than they are in you and your problems.

A person’s toothache means more to that person than a famine in China which kills a million people. A boil on one’s neck interests one more than 40 earthquakes in Africa. Think of that the next time you start a conversation.

This is an edited extract from How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia and available now.