Dogmatic to Diplomat — Ben Franklin’s Journey

By Dale Carnegie, excerpted from his book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

One day, when Ben Franklin was a blundering youth, an old Quaker friend took him aside and lashed him with a few stinging truths, something like this: Ben, you are impossible. Your opinions have a slap in them for everyone who differs with you. They have become so offensive that nobody cares for them. Your friends find they enjoy themselves better when you are not around. You know so much that no man can tell you anything. Indeed, no man is going to try, for the effort would lead only to discomfort and hard work. So you are not likely ever to know any more than you do now, which is very little.

One of the finest things I know about Ben Franklin is the way he accepted that smarting rebuke. He was big enough and wise enough to realize that it was true, to sense that he was headed for failure and social disaster. So he made a right-about-face. He began immediately to change his insolent, opinionated ways.

“I made it a rule,” said Franklin, “to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiment of others, and all positive assertion of my own, I even forbade myself the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as ‘certainly,’ ‘undoubtedly,’ etc., and I adopted, instead of them, ‘I conceive,’ ‘I apprehend,’ or ‘I imagine’ a thing to be so or so, or ‘it so appears to me at present.’

When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition: and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevaile’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

“And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it principally owing that I had earned so much weight with my fellow citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points.”

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