Tuesday, August 31, 2010

DC4W: Arguments, Opinions, and Errors

Technique Tuesday

Continuing our on-going series on Dale Carnegie for Writers (DC4W), the first three principles in the Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking, the third section in How to Win Friends and Influence People, are:
  1. Avoid arguments.
  2. Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never tell someone they are wrong.
  3. If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
The title of this section, "Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking" may sound, at first, as though we've crossed the line into salesmanship. But look at it this way: convincing someone to invest ten hours in reading your words is fundamentally about wining people to your way of thinking. Your way of thinking is a fundamental part of your voice. People who become readers do so because they want to hear your story in your voice, all of which is a product of your way of thinking.

1. Avoid arguments.

How often have you felt compelled to read a book (perhaps because everyone else is talking about it and you don't want to be left out)? I commented in an earlier post about my reluctance to join the bandwagon if something becomes too popular. I often don't enjoy the thing that is popular because very few works can meet the expectations created by that much hype. Or to put it in Carnegie terms, I've not been won to the author's way of thinking, rather I've lost an "argument" with popular opinion. Arguments are all about compulsion. Compulsion will never win anyone to your way of thinking.

I think this advice is particularly appropriate for writers who receive criticism from a writing group, agents/editors, or reviewers. Arguing that the person offering the criticism doesn't "get it" isn't going to help them "get it." They'll simply dig in and reinforce their position.

The same is true with rejection. Argument simply confirms the rejector's opinion.

The best policy is to listen and learn. You may need clarification, but take care that your request for clarification doesn't put the other party on the defensive.

2. Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never tell someone they are wrong.

This principle flows naturally from the first. Telling someone they are wrong is the first salvo in an argument.

Notice, by the way, that the key word here is "opinions." If it truly is a matter of fact (and very few thing are), and the error could cause harm, that's another matter. But publishing is a deeply subjective business (which is a diplomatic way to say that nobody really knows what works in an objective or, more importantly, predictive sense).

Again, for writers, this is particularly important to remember when dealing with rejection. First, once someone has decided they can't sell your project, that opinion becomes their truth and you won't get their best efforts if you force the issue. Second, with the knowledge that it is the other person's opinion, you can move on confident that the rejection is not an objective condemnation but simply means it wasn't the right project for them.

3. If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

Admitting your mistakes quickly and emphatically is a good idea for more reasons that I can cover in a paragraph or two. It's a powerful way to defuse a potentially confrontational situation.

As a writer, this principle betokens a fundamental willingness to learn and improve. That willingness should apply to both your craft and the conduct of your public relationships.

And if none of that makes sense, consider that the most interesting protagonists are not perfect. As the protagonist of your own story, you don't have to be perfect either. Indeed, our culture generally views someone who is candid about their shortcomings far more charitably than someone who denies they have any short comings.


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