Breaking The Wheel

A stack of pancakes

Friday Short Stack, September 30th Edition

Friday Short Stack posts are shorter, more bite-sized pieces – a little nugget of buttery knowledge before you head off for the weekend. Because everybody love pancakes! This week, it’s three of my favorite books for developing your “soft skills” – those esoteric abilities that help you work with (and in some cases around) people and their hang-ups, quirks, and egos. These are the three books that have provided me with the most utility, personally and professionally. If you find yourself struggling managing up, managing down, or just getting along, you could do worse than these weighty tomes.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

The title makes the book sound kind of conniving, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Carnegie’s classic tome is remarkably straightforward. Be nice. Be genuine. Show others that you’re interested in them and their thoughts by asking lots of questions, rather than dominating the conversation. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Be humble. And as Carnegie repeats throughout the book: “Be hearty in your approbations and lavish in your praise.” Let others know when they’ve done great work.

This isn’t some product of the self-esteem movement for millennials: Carnegie died in 1955. He just intuitively understood the managerial value of praise. And he wasn’t wrong: a recent study found that public praise was a more effective motivator than food or money.

Influence By Robert Cialdini

I have recommended this book over and over again. Influence is just straight-up awesome. Cialdini’s central premise is that we all use heuristics – small decision-making shortcuts –  all the time. If we want to pick between two products, we might just assume the more expensive one is better. Or that the busier restaurant has better food. Or that the best dressed person must be the wealthiest or most successful. We don’t do it because we’re lazy. We do it because we are faced with a non-stop river of decision points, and if we gave each one it’s due, we’d never get anything done. And as we are increasingly bombarded with information through the ever evolving media landscape, our reliance on heuristics will only intensify. If you understand how some of the more common heuristics work, you can use them to influence behavior.

Now to be fair, this does get into some nebulous ethical gray areas. Where does “influence” stop and manipulation begin? Unfortunately, you need to figure that out for yourself. But, I offer two additional heuristics in that regard:

  1. If you are upfront about what you want (for instance, you tell someone you want them to vote for your idea), then it’s influence. If you are hiding your true intentions – for instance, you don’t ask people to vote for your idea, but instead use heuristics to discredit someone else’s idea in the hopes that people will vote for yours) then it’s manipulation
  2. Use the famous “Mom Test”: if you wouldn’t willingly tell your mother about why and how you’re using Cialdini’s ideas, there’s a good chance you’re in manipulation territory

The Power of a Positive No by Robert Ury

Ury is a legend in the world of negotiations. And he’s certainly hit some real roadblocks in his time. The Power of a Positive No sounds like it might by some hippy, granola, super-squishy love fest. In fact it is a super simple, highly practical framework for diffusing ugly points of contention without burning bridges. In short, first acknowledge the other side’s good (or at least understandable) motivation/s for its position. Then point out why you cannot say acquiesce to the request or demand in question. Then say what you can offer instead. And always have a contingency plan in case the other side is steadfast in its demand.

I’ve used Ury’s technique in my professional life, and God Damn is it effective – not just in helping resolve a conflict but also in helping keep a handle on your emotions in challenging times.


So that’s the list – if I could only recommend three books on soft skills, it would be those three. But if you have recommendations of your own, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

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