Productivity is a multi-player game. We all need help to do meaningful work, whether it’s asking someone for information or leaning on friends during tough times. And when we emerge out the other side with something important to share, we need to reach out to our audience and excite them. This means people skills are as important as calendar skills for productivity enthusiasts. Neglect this area of your development and you’ll be efficient but not effective.
My favourite book on this topic is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Despite the corny-sounding title, it’s a timeless guide to building better relationships. Chapter-by-chapter, Carnegie unveils how to be a sincere and decent human being, without a hint of manipulation. His approach to winning friends is simple – become naturally likeable by how you treat others.
In this essay I share three lessons from the book that have stuck with me and boosted my productivity.
Lesson 1: Criticism is Harmful and Avoidable
Being critical is a common trait among self-improvement enthusiasts. We constantly reflect on what could be better, hence we see all the flaws in ourselves and the world.
Yet, no-one else wants to hear our criticism. It sours the conversation and puts the recipient on the defensive. As Carnegie writes:
“When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.”
– Dale Carnegie
It’s easy to criticise others and often satisfying to do so. But I’ve found it achieves nothing. When I reduced my critical comments, friends and family didn’t lapse into terrible habits without my constant prodding. Of course not. Most criticism is after the fact and changes nothing. It’s just noise that makes you less likeable.
Fortunately, since cutting back on criticism, my productivity has improved. I’ve found it easier to give and receive feedback. When I receive constructive feedback, I accept it more graciously and remind myself to take it less personally. When I give feedback, I reduce criticism to its minimal possible level. I’m now more likely to highlight the positives than dwell on the negatives.
This mindset of positive focus has helped in other areas. I’ve been a strong believer in pursuing opportunities, since reading this quote from The Effective Executive:
It is more productive to convert an opportunity into results than to solve a problem – which only restores the equilibrium of yesterday.
– Peter Drucker
It surprised me how reducing criticism led to me spotting more opportunities. My mind was being retrained to see the positive possibilities rather than the negative problems.
Put it Into Practice
Becoming less critical is a fake-it-till-you-make-it activity. You can’t switch off your critical brain overnight, nor would you want to. Instead, you must learn to suppress your comments, whilst developing new skills in mindful appreciation.
- Set a regular alarm on your phone to remind you to be less critical. For me, this is the most effective way to change behaviour. I recommend using an alarm rather than a reminder since alarms are harder to ignore.
- Concentrate on biting your tongue (not literally). Critical thoughts will inevitably appear. The trick is to acknowledge them internally and avoid sharing them with others.
- Your habits will shift and you can reduce the frequency of alarms and eventually stop them entirely.
- Meanwhile, boost your appreciation by writing down three things you’re grateful for in a daily journal. This will train the other side of your brain to find the positives in every situation.
Lesson 2: How to Get People to Do Things
To be productive, you need to harness the people around you. As an employee in a company, you can do very few tasks in isolation. You need information and feedback from those around you. As an entrepreneur, you need even more goodwill from early customers, suppliers, friends and so on.
Sometimes you have levers that make things happen. If you are the boss, you can generally tell people what to do. But there are many circumstances where this isn’t the case. And even when you have power over others, it’s best used infrequently when really needed.
Consequently, learning how to get other people to help you is a critical life skill. Carnegie provides a masterclass on this topic in chapter eight. Here’s the opening quote:
There is only one way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything. Did you ever stop to think of that? Yes, just one way. And that is by making the other person want to do it. Remember, there is no other way.
– Dale Carnegie
This chapter transformed the way I approach people when I need something.
It’s not possible to twist every request into an attractive proposition. But it really helps to think about the issue from another’s perspective. This can help shape the background information you provide with a request. I find I paint a broader picture, which shows how the request affects the company and ideally the person who I’m speaking with. It still has to end with an ask for some effort, but with suitable context, it becomes a more attractive proposition.
There’s no manipulation involved. It’s just about considering the situation from someone else’s shoes.
Put it Into Practice
Next time you make a request for something, whether big or small, ask yourself the following questions:
- Why am I asking for this?
- How does it help other people? This could be your company or society as a whole.
- How does it benefit the person I’m asking?
Asking the questions in that order gives you the best hope of finding a link between your request and the other person’s interests and needs.
When you make the request, you can provide the answers to those questions as the background context.
Lesson 3: To Learn More, Listen More
Becoming a good listener is a shortcut to becoming more likeable. If you’re genuinely interested in what someone is saying and you give your undivided attention, they’ll repay you in friendship and support.
This is critical for productive people because we all need to lean on others occasionally. The best time to grow your network is before you need it. And one of the most effective ways is to become a better listener.
Carnegie nails this by considering it from the reverse perspective:
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.
– Dale Carnegie
Even the most likeable people let themselves down by jumping eagerly into a conversation before their turn. As soon as they have the gist of what the question might be, they launch into an enthusiastic answer. A famous example of this is Neil deGrasse Tyson. A cooler cat could hardly be found, yet he’s so eager to answer questions on podcasts he sounds rude. Sometimes he answers the wrong question as a result.
When you interrupt someone, whether mid-question or mid-sentence, you only get half the information. And you have no idea what you missed. Since learning to avoid interruption, I’ve been struck by how many times people have said something unexpected because I gave them time to speak.
This leads us to the heart of being a good listener. It’s not about just avoiding interruption, nodding or making “hmm” noises. It’s about genuinely being interested to learn something from a fellow human being. Most of us think we are listening well if we keep quiet, yet our brains are often more focused on our clever response than the words we are hearing. Which is not in our best interest, since we already know the information we are planning to say, but we don’t know what the other person might say next.
Put it Into Practice
If you want to improve your listening skills, you need a regular reminder to listen more effectively:
- Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to have a listening-focused conversation. Alternatively, schedule something in your calendar.
- When the alarm sounds, find a reason to have a chat with someone. During the conversation, focus on learning as much as you can. Treat it like a first date – be fascinated by what you hear and keep encouraging the other person to tell you more.
- Here’s the tough bit – try to finish the conversation without saying any of the witty, smart stuff that’s been brewing in your mind.
Read the Book
I’ve just scratched the surface of the skills I’ve developed thanks to How to Win Friends and Influence People. I strongly suggest you grab a copy and check it out.
Productivity advice is often very focused on hard skills, like managing calendars and processing email. While these skills are important, few of us can operate in a vacuum. The more genial we can become, the easier we can navigate the complex business environment of today.