Early in his life, Benjamin Franklin fell into conversation with a friend of his. As Franklin retells the story in his autobiography, “a Quaker Friend…kindly inform’d me that I was generally thought proud.”
The Friend went on to describe Franklin’s behavior as insolent and overbearing. And he said that in conversation, being merely being right about something was not enough for Franklin, he had to rub his opponent’s nose in the fact that they were wrong.
Does this describe you or someone you know? Have you ever worked for someone like this? Read on, and we’ll look at how Franklin reacted to this revelation, and see how being humble can make you a more influential leader.
Learning How to be Humble
After his friend gave several examples of this behavior, Franklin had to admit to himself that it was true. At the time he was in the midst of establishing a list of virtues by which he planned to live his life. The list ended at 12, but now he felt compelled to add one more: humility.
His goal became to cure himself of pride by learning how to be humble.
From that point forward he forbid himself from using words that indicated that his mind was made up and that he had a fixed opinion about something. Thus, words like certainly, and undoubtedly were stricken from his vocabulary.
Instead he adopted in their place phrases like “I conceive….” “I apprehend...,” and “I imagine…” In stating his opinion, he might say, “I imagine a thing to be so…or so it appears to me at present…”
When someone made an assertion that Franklin believed to be wrong, instead of directly contradicting them, he would admit that “perhaps under certain conditions what they said might be true, but to him it appeared or seemed to be different.”
He took this approach, as he says, with some “violence to [his] natural Inclination” but it eventually became a habit, especially when he started to see what happened when he talked with people this way.
Before long, he found that his new approach had several positive effects:
• Conversations themselves were much more pleasant
• People were more receptive to the points he made
• Others were more willing to actually change their minds and join his side on an issue
• He was less embarrassed when it turned out that he was wrong about something
Reflecting back on his long and influential life 50 years later, Franklin credits two key characteristics for his early success: Integrity and humility.
Even More Important Today
Franklin added humility to his list in the 1730s, but his little discovery is even more important today. As Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib found in their Harvard Business Review post, no one person can have all the answers. Humility creates space for others to contribute, and it creates space for you to learn.
As issues arise, take a page from Franklin’s book:
- Approach conversation as a dialogue, not a debate; seek to strengthen the relationship as a result of your interaction.
- Make an effort to genuinely listen; when you do this it’s more likely others will too.
- Show that you are willing to consider their points of view. they may do likewise.
- Leave room for everyone to save face; after all, it may be your own embarrassment you are avoiding.
As Franklin discovered, speaking in absolute terms and from a fixed point of view led to hardened attitudes and a battle of pride and ego. The casualties were relationships and reason.
When he softened his approach, spoke in a respectful manner, and left room for people to change their minds without loss of face, others found it easier to trust him, and were willing to engage. As a result he became more influential.
Franklin never claims to have completely overcome his pride. Writing about this change over 50 years later, he found pride to be one of the most difficult of man’s passions to subdue.
Even so, he believed that he was at least able to provide the appearance of humility, which went a long way to helping him become an effective leader among his peers.
Ending the passage in his book, Franklin quips that perhaps pride can never be fully subdued:
“For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my Humility.”