I was manager at
the time for Sir Ross Smith.
During the war, Sir Ross had
been the Australian
ace out in Palestine; and shortly
after peace was
declared, he astonished the world by lying halfway around it in thirty days. No such feat had
ever been attempted before. It created a tremendous
sensation. The Australian government awarded him fifty
thousand dollars; the King of England knighted him;
and, for a while, he was the most talked-about man
under the Union Jack. I was attending a banquet one
night given in Sir Ross’s honor; and during the dinner,
the man sitting next to me told a humorous story which
hinged on the quotation “There’s a divinity that shapes
our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”
The raconteur mentioned that the quotation was from
the Bible. He was wrong. I knew that, I knew it positively.
There couldn’t be the slightest doubt about it.
And so, to get a feeling of importance and display my
superiority, I appointed myself as an unsolicited and unwelcome
committee of one to correct him. He stuck to
his guns. What? From Shakespeare?
Impossible! Absurd! That quotation was from
the Bible. And he knew it.
The storyteller was sitting on my right; and Frank
Gammond, an old friend of mine, was seated at my left.
Mr. Gammond had devoted years to the study of Shakespeare,
So the storyteller and I agreed to submit the
question to Mr. Gammond. Mr. Gammond listened,
kicked me under the table, and then said: “Dale, you are
wrong. The gentleman is right. It is from the Bible.”
On our way home that night, I said to Mr. Gammond:
“Frank, you knew that quotation was from Shakespeare,”
“Yes, of course,” he replied, "Hamlet, Act Five, Scene
Two. But we were guests at a festive occasion, my dear
Dale. Why prove to a man he is wrong? Is that going to
make him like you? Why not let him save his face? He
didn’t ask for your opinion. He didn’t want it. Why argue
with him? Always avoid the acute angle.” The man who
said that taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. I not
only had made the storyteller uncomfortable, but had
put my friend in an embarrassing situation. How much
better it would have been had I not become argumentative.
It was a sorely needed lesson because I had been an
inveterate arguer. During my youth, I had argued with
my brother about everything under the Milky Way.
When I went to college, I studied logic and argumentation
and went in for debating contests. Talk about being
from Missouri, I was born there. I had to be shown.
Later, I taught debating and argumentation in New
York; and once, I am ashamed to admit, I planned to
write a book on the subject. Since then, I have listened
to, engaged in, and watched the effect of thousands of
arguments. As a result of all this, I have come to the
conclusion that there is only one way under high heaven
to get the best of an argument - and that is to
avoid it .
Avoid it as you would avoid rattlesnakes and earthquakes.
Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of
the contestants more firmly convinced than ever that he
is absolutely right.
You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you
lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why?
Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot
his argument full of holes and prove that he is non compos
mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what
about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have
hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph. And man convinced against his will
Is of the same opinion still.
Years ago Patrick J. O’Haire joined one of my classes.
He had had little education, and how he loved a scrap!
He had once been a chauffeur, and he came to me because
he had been trying, without much success, to sell
trucks. A little questioning brought out the fact that he
was continually scrapping with and antagonizing the
very people he was trying to do business with, If a prospect
said anything derogatory about the trucks he was
selling, Pat saw red and was right at the customer’s
throat. Pat won a lot of arguments in those days. As he
said to me afterward, "I often walked out of an office
saving: ‘I told that bird something.’ Sure I had told him
something, but I hadn’t sold him anything.”
Mv first problem was not to teach Patrick J. O’Haire to
talk. My immediate task was to train him to refrain from
talking and to avoid verbal fights.
Mr. O’Haire became one of the star salesmen for the
White Motor Company in New York. How did he do it?
Here is his story in his own words: “If I walk into a
buyer’s office now and he says: ‘What? A White truck?
They’re no good! I wouldn’t take one if you gave it to
me. I’m going to buy the Whose-It truck,’ I say, ‘The
Whose-It is a good truck. If you buy the Whose-It, you’ll
never make a mistake. The Whose-Its are made by a fine
company and sold by good people.’
“He is speechless then. There is no room for an argument.
If he says the Whose-It is best and I say sure it is,
he has to stop. He can’t keep on all afternoon saying,
‘It’s the best’ when I’m agreeing with him. We then get
off the subject of Whose-It and I begin to talk about the
good points of the White truck.
“There was a time when a remark like his first one
would have made me see scarlet and red and orange. I
would start arguing against the Whose-It; and the more
I argued against it, the more my prospect argued in favor
of it; and the more he argued, the more he sold himself
on my competitor’s product.
“As I look back now I wonder how I was ever able to
sell anything. I lost years of my life in scrapping and
arguing. I keep my mouth shut now. It pays.”
As wise old Ben Franklin used to say:
If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve
a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because
you will never get your opponent’s good will.
So figure it out for yourself. Which would you rather
have, an academic, theatrical victory or a person’s good
will? You can seldom have both.
The Boston Transcript once printed this bit of significant
Here lies the body of William Jay,
Who died maintaining his right of way.
He was right, dead right, as he sped along,
But he’s just as dead as if he were wrong.
You may be right, dead right, as you speed along in
your argument; but as far as changing another’s mind is
concerned, you will probably be just as futile as if you
Frederick S. Parsons, an income tax consultant, had
been disputing and wrangling for an hour with a government
tax inspector. An item of nine thousand dollars was
at stake. Mr. Parsons claimed that this nine thousand
dollars was in reality a bad debt, that it would never be
collected, that it ought not to be taxed. “Bad debt, my
eye !" retorted the inspector. “It must be taxed.”
“This inspector was cold, arrogant and stubborn,” Mr.
Parsons said as he told the story to the class. “Reason
was wasted and so were facts. The longer we argued,
the more stubborn he became. So I decided to avoid
argument, change the subject, and give him appreciation.
"I said, ‘I suppose this is a very petty matter in comparison
with the really important and difficult decisions
you’re required to make. I’ve made a study of taxation
myself. But I’ve had to get my knowledge from books.
You are getting yours from the firing line of experience.
I sometime wish I had a job like yours. It would teach
me a lot.’ I meant every word I said.
“Well.” The inspector straightened up in his chair,
leaned back, and talked for a long time about his work,
telling me of the clever frauds he had uncovered. His
tone gradually became friendly, and presently he was
telling me about his children. As he left, he advised me
that he would consider my problem further and give me
his decision in a few days.
“He called at my office three days later and informed
me that he had decided to leave the tax return exactly as
it was filed.”
This tax inspector was demonstrating one of the most
common of human frailties. He wanted a feeling of
importance; and as long as Mr. Parsons argued with him,
he got his feeling of importance by loudly asserting his
authority. But as soon as his importance was admitted
and the argument stopped and he was permitted to expand
his ego, he became a sympathetic and kindly
Buddha said: “Hatred is never ended by hatred but by
love," and a misunderstanding is never ended by an argument
but by tact, diplomacy, conciliation and a sympathetic
desire to see the other person’s viewpoint. Lincoln once reprimanded a young army officer for
indulging in a violent controversy with an associate. “No
man who is resolved to make the most of himself,” said
Lincoln, "can spare time for personal contention. Still
less can he afford to take the consequences, including
the vitiation of his temper and the loss of self-control.
Yield larger things to which you show no more than
equal rights; and yield lesser ones though clearly your
own. Better give your path to a dog than be bitten by
him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog
would not cure the bite.”
In an article in Bits and Pieces,* some suggestions are
made on how to keep a disagreement from becoming an
Welcome the disagreement. Remember the slogan, “When
two partners always agree, one of them is not necessary.” If
there is some point you haven’t thought about, be thankful
if it is brought to your attention. Perhaps this disagreement
is your opportunity to be corrected before you make a serious
Distrust your first instinctive impression. Our first natural
reaction in a disagreeable situation is to be defensive. Be
careful. Keep calm and watch out for your first reaction. It
may be you at your worst, not your best.
Control your temper. Remember, you can measure the size
of a person by what makes him or her angry.
Listen first. Give your opponents a chance to talk. Let them
finish. Do not resist, defend or debate. This only raises barriers.
Try to build bridges of understanding.
Look for areas of agreement. When you have heard your
opponents out, dwell first on the points and areas on which
Be honest, Look for areas where you can admit error and
say so. Apologize for your mistakes. It will help disarm your
opponents and reduce defensiveness.
Promise to think over your opponents’ ideas and study
them carefully. And mean it. Your opponents may be right.
It is a lot easier at this stage to agree to think about their
points than to move rapidly ahead and find yourself in a
position where your opponents can say: “We tried to tell
you, but you wouldn’t listen.”
Thank your opponents sincerely for their interest. Anyone
who takes the time to disagree with you is interested in the
same things you are. Think of them as people who really
want to help you, and you may turn your opponents into
Postpone action to give both sides time to think through
the problem. Suggest that a new meeting be held later that
day or the next day, when all the facts may be brought to
bear. In preparation
meeting, ask yourself some hard questions:
Could my opponents be right? Partly right? Is there truth
or merit in their position or argument? Is my reaction one
that will relieve the problem, or will it just relieve any frustration?
Will my reaction drive my opponents further away
or draw them closer to me? Will my reaction elevate the
estimation good people have of me? Will I win or lose?
What price will I have to pay if I win? If I am quiet about it,
will the disagreement blow over? Is this difficult situation
an opportunity for me?
* Bits and Pieces, published by The Economics
Press, Fairfield, N.J.
Opera tenor Jan Peerce, after he was married nearly
fifty years, once said: "My wife and I made a pact a long
time ago, and we’ve kept it no matter how angry we’ve
grown with each other. When one yells, the other should
listen-because when two people yell, there is no
just noise and bad vibrations.”