Recently, I took out an old copy of the well-known book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. The book has the prominence of being in print for 85 years. It was originally published in 1936 and its original focus had little to do with couples relationships. Yet, I can’t help but recognize how relative the content is as I read it from a lens of a couples therapist, a therapist who believes that it is better to change oneself than it is to work hard to change your partner.
The first three chapters could be used as a guide on how to change the negative sentiment in a couple's relationships. In chapter one, Carnegie takes on the concept of criticism. I watch couples in therapy attempt to wield criticism unrestrained, desperately attempting to get their partner to behave differently. However, criticism rarely creates change and is more likely to create excuses, counter-attacks and resentment. Criticism puts people on the defense and usually makes them strive to justify themselves. Carnegie compares criticism to a homing pigeon; like a homing pigeon, criticism will always come back to where it began. So, not only does it not influence your partner in the way you hope to move them, you create a defensive response and likely will get criticized back. Resist criticizing.
In chapter two, Carnegie talks about an alternative to criticism. He shares Charles Schwab's comments on his success in making millions. Schwab stated, "I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among my people the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a person is by appreciation and encouragement". He was able to assemble a workforce through encouragement that made him highly successful.
I know that offering appreciation sounds like such a simple concept and you may think that it lacks any power to change your partner. However, Schwab goes on to say, "I have yet to find a person… who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under his spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism". To change your partner and the relationship, appreciation may not be sufficient, but it is certainly necessary. Resist criticizing and give honest and sincere appreciation.
Lastly, Carnegie talks about the importance of arousing an "eager want". Yes there is certainly something that you want from your spouse or partner. How can you go about arousing an eager want for the things that you want in the relationship? Carnegie highlights that people do things when there is a benefit to them. People are more willing to do things when they have the choice to do so and will resist when they are told to do so.
Arousing an eager want will first require you to see the situation from your partner's perspective. From that perspective, why might your partner want this desperately as you? It will take your excitement and enthusiasm to arouse in your partner an eager want. Help your partner meet their goal as they meet yours. Help them understand how your idea will benefit them. Resist criticizing, give honest and sincere appreciation and arouse an eager want.
To me this is good wisdom from 80 years ago that we can apply to couples relationships. To change your partner, create within yourself a spirit of appreciation and not one of criticism, while inspiring your partner to share in the goals you have for the relationship.
Experiential Activity: Ask your partner to read this blog (or better yet, read the first three chapters of Carnegie's book) then do an experiment. For one week, agree that each of you will resist criticism, offer each other a good helping of appreciation and inspire each other to have the relationship that you want. After one week, sit together and discuss what changes you have noticed within yourself and between each other. Then as a couple, develop one goal for your relationship that you will implement for the next month. Maybe you will find that small changes over time will make a huge difference.
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Carnegie, D. (1998). How to win friends and influence people. Pocket Books. New York, NY.