A little dose of Ben Franklin’s wisdom on learning and communication

Source: peakprosperity.com
Source: peakprosperity.com

Benjamin Franklin’s love of learning and self-improvement is inspirational. In his autobiography, he talks about a self-improvement club that he formed with like-minded people. The club, which they called JUNTO, met Friday evenings. The agenda?

The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one of more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

Taking the time to think about and discuss some of the things that really matter, instead of being consumed by the minutae of daily existence is something as relevant today as it was all those years ago.

To make the most of these meetings, JUNTO followed certain principles that enabled the pursuit of truth.

Our debates were to be made under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary peculiarities.

These principles remain timeless, and the wise try to follow all these commandments. But forceful communication and surety seem to be encouraged, or tolerated, more often today. “Positiveness of opinion” can mistakenly attributed to confidence.

And yet, modern research echoes Franklin’s timeless wisdom that “power-less” communication, characterized by “asking questions than offering answers, talking tentatively than talking boldly, admitting their weaknesses than displaying their strengths, and seeking advice than imposing their views on others” is a more sustainable path to building prestige and influence, instead of forceful “there are no gaps in my thinking,” style of communication.

Do you know anyone who is feeling the pressure to be more “power-ful” in their communication? Do share this post with them! Also, if this post resonated with you, you may also like:

The really powerful communication is “power-less” communication—A lesson by Benjamin Franklin and Adam Grant

Shake-the-world-gandhi-quoteAs I was reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, I was struck by the passage below where he talks about the art of persuading people. For context, Franklin is talking about how he came to adopt the Socratic method of debate, which he took to great lengths, often entangling people with his questions in a web of their own making. He gradually let go of this practice, but retained the habit of speaking with doubt and inquiry, instead of certainty, and found this manner of speech helpful in persuading people. He writes:

I continu’d this method some few years, but gradually left it retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may be possibly disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so and so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please, or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.”

Wait a second. Is Franklin really recommending talking with “modest diffidence” and avoiding “giving the air of positiveness to an opinion?” This seems opposite to the rules for success in today’s world where a forceful, emphatic communication style is valued, and “modest diffidence” is seen as a sign of under-confidence. Would Franklin have succeeded in today’s world? Or would he have been told that he didn’t inspire confidence and needed to work on developing a more forceful communication style?

Adam Grant provides some answers in Give and Take, the book that influenced me the most this year. Adam’s research indicates that there are three common reciprocity styles: “givers” give generously without doing the math on what they’re getting in return, “takers” take as much as they can, and “matchers” are as generous as the person they’re dealing with. These reciprocity styles are in turn closely related to how each of these categories of people try to achieve influence and how they communicate with others. Adam says:

Takers are attracted to, and excel in gaining dominance. In an effort to claim as much value as possible, they strive to be superior to others. To establish dominance, takers specialize in powerful communication: they speak forcefully, raise their voices to assert their authority, express certainty to project confidence, promote their accomplishments and sell with conviction and pride. They display strength by spreading their arms in dominant poses, raising their eyebrows in challenge, commanding as much physical space as possible, and conveying anger and issuing threats when necessary.”

Well, if career self-help is anything to go by, it looks like takers are adopting the all the right tactics to get ahead.

Except, they won’t.

It turns out that dominance is not really a sustainable path to influence. A forceful communication style can backfire, especially when communicating with a skeptical audience, and the more takers try to dominate, the more the audience resists. As Franklin onserved, “…I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us…” In fact, even when the audience is receptive, dominance is not a sustainable strategy, advises Adam. Dominance is a zero sum game, and the more one person has dominance, the less  others do. And so when a more dominant person comes into the picture, the taker is likely to lose his or her dominance.

So, what is the sustainable path to influence? Building prestige, a path that givers naturally gravitate towards. Unlike dominance, prestige is not a zero sum game. We can all enjoy prestige by virtue of our thoughts and action. Prestige is not a limited commodity like dominance, and this makes it more sustainable. Adam found that givers influence those around them by virtue of the prestige they have gained,  but the manner in which they do so looks very different from the way takers try to influence.

The way givers influence and persuade remind me of Gandhi. In a gentle way, they believe they can shake the world. As Adam puts it, givers adopt a “power-less” communication style, instead of adopting a powerful communication style:

Because they value the perspectives and interests of others, givers are more inclined toward asking questions than offering answers, talking tentatively than talking boldly, admitting their weaknesses than displaying their strengths, and seeking advice than imposing their views on others.”

While a powerful communication style is considered the de facto style for success, Adam found that the powerless communication style has many benefits when presenting, selling, persuading, or negotiating. While a powerful communication style may be great for some purposes (e.g., getting a foot in the door in a job interview), a powerless communication style is actually more effective when collaborating with others and persuading them. This is something the wise Franklin knew when he said: “…never using, when I advanced any thing that may be possibly disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; bur rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so and so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.”

As I see it, underneath the power-less communication style lies the intent to listen, to learn, and do what is best for the greater good, and people respond to this energy. While a powerful communication style certainly has its merits, at its worst, it steamrolls people into consent, and we all know the result of that is never pretty. The person who confidently, certainly, loudly asserts there are no holes in their thinking and steamrolls ahead crushes the knowledge that lies with others. As Franklin warned: “If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.”

So, if you really want to be a powerful communicator, leave space in the room for people to assimilate your opinion, instead of forcing it on them. Listen more, talk less. Don’t hesitate to say you don’t know, and then go find out. See the value that others bring. Win with prestige, not dominance.

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Diligence is Not a Dirty Word

Benjamin Franklin's Gravestone
Benjamin Franklin’s Gravestone

I’m in the middle of reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which I bought while visiting Philadelphia earlier this year with a close friend. We walked through the old town, soaking in the history. We saw the Independence Hall, where the US Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, the wonderful Rodin museum, and the bustling Reading terminal market. We walked from the Liberty Bell and followed the street signs that pointed us to Franklin’s grave, which is where I acquired my copy of his autobiography, a slim volume with tiny font, sold all for a $1.99, in a world that has long forgotten that era.

As I immersed myself in reading about his life, I was struck by Franklin’s tenacity and diligence. In the paragraph below, he describes how he sought to improve his writing and his ability to frame an argument. He hadn’t done a lot of writing before, though he had dabbled in poetry, and was an avid reader.

About this time I met an old volume of Spectator. It was the third. I had never been seen of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view, I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then without looking at the book, try’d to complete the papers again, by expressing each hint at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of my thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extreamly ambitious.”

As a diligent person myself (though certainly not at Franklin’s level of dedication), I was immediately struck by his diligence. Going through my LinkedIn profile a few days back, I reflected on the unifying thread across all the recommendations I’d received: diligence.

I should have been happy, but I wondered if diligence is even considered a virtue in today’s world where “working hard” has given way to “working smart,” and the quality of networks seems to matter more than the work itself. In this environment, being diligent seems solid, but unremarkable. It feels like being diligent is like being the dependable but boring guy that girls want as a friend but not as a significant other.

So, what do you do with this “gift” in today’s times?

1. Choose environments where diligence is an asset, not a liability: A friend recently shifted from a job that required him to do lots of basic analytics to one that requires deep, advanced analytics work. In this new environment, his diligence and attention to detail is recognized and rewarded. Certain environments are simply better for people who are conscientious. In my experience, diligent people do better in environments that care about quality than environments that care about speed.

2. Overcome the worker bee perception: If you find yourself being perceived as worker bee,  it may mean that you need to use your diligence to achieve different objectives. Maybe you’re being very diligent about your routine work, which leaves you with little time for higher-level thinking. Maybe you think that your work will speak for itself, which it may, or may not. Whatever the problem is, remember that your diligence is a valuable tool in your arsenal to make the changes you need to make.

3. Be hard-working and generous, but not to your detriment : Many people love the diligent folks on their teams. These are people they can depend on to do high-quality work and go the extra mile. Yet, there are times you may be stuck working with a peer or a superior who’s a “taker,” happy to take the credit for your hard work. So, what do you do? The wise Adam Grant advises people of a hard-working, giving disposition to use “sincerity screening.” So, if you don’t find your sincerity reciprocated by takers, it might make sense to match your contributions to what you’re getting back from them. Feel free to be your generous, hard working self with all others.

4. Enjoy the process: If you’re a conscientious person, I bet being so is a source of joy for YOU. The working, the striving, the mastery. There’s a thrill to it that you wouldn’t want to trade.A feeling of satisfaction for a job well done. A sound night of sleep that will follow the work.

So, revel in your good, old fashioned industry, keep doing the hard work, the practice, and maintain those high standards, you!