How to Handle People: 3 Techniques You Can Use

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to know how to handle people in difficult situations? How can you get through to people and help you communicate?

Learning how to handle people can help you navigate through stressful relationships and conversations. This is a useful skill both in your personal and professional life and you can use these techniques to figure out how to handle difficult people.

Read more about how to handle people and why it matters.

How to Handle People: Fundamental Techniques

The How to Win Friends and Influence People summary starts with general principles that underlie the other chapters. The idea that “people crave importance” is repeated the most often throughout the book, so it’s worth paying special attention to. Keep reading to. find out how to handle difficult people.

1.Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. (It makes them defensive and rationalize their actions.)

Step one in learning how to handle people is not to criticize. This may be tempting but it’s not helpful in the conversation.

  • People don’t criticize themselves for anything, no matter how wrong they may be.
  • Criticizing people nearly always puts them on the defensive. They dig in their heels, rationalizing their actions as just.
    • Even Al Capone lamented that he was just helping others have a good time during Prohibition, and all he got was abuse.
    • Family members of criminals frequently go into denial, blaming the system instead of the person for the crimes.
  • Criticism hurts a person’s pride and sense of importance.
    • “Remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.”
  • It may feel good to tell someone off, but this is usually net negative in the long term. People continue to justify their actions and condemn you for the criticism. People can harbor resentments for insults that last a literal lifetime.
  • Consider the information that you don’t have about the situation. Consider the most favorable scenario in which the supposedly poor performance was made, and whether you should think more kindly of the mistake.
    • Don’t criticize them – they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.
    • During the Civil War, as Lee retreated, Lincoln ordered General Meade to cross a river and engage. Meade refused. Lincoln thought to excoriate Meade on how he had single-handedly lost the Union the war, but he instead imagined being on the frontlines of battle – seeing the deaths of thousands of your men, hearing the screams of the injured.
    • It’s common for parents to criticize their children for failing to meet the yardstick of their own years. You ask too much – remember they are just children, and that you once took your parents’ criticism the same way.
  • “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain – and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”
  • Even when someone commits the gravest mistake, consider not lambasting her, but rather encouraging her to rise to her otherwise high standards of excellence.
    • Bob Hoover’s plane crashed when the mechanic inserted jet fuel instead of gasoline. Instead of lashing, he threw his arm around the guy and said, “To show you I’m sure that you’ll never do this again, I want you to service my F-51 tomorrow.”
    • [This maybe works only if the person already recognizes the error.]
  • Before you send an angry email, wait overnight. More often than not you’ll dial back the anger.
  • Examples
    • A wife asked a husband for 6 ways she could improve herself. Instead of listing a hundred, he waited a day to think, then bought her 6 roses and said “I wouldn’t change anything about you – I like you the way you are.”
    • A safety coordinator found employees not wearing hard hats. Instead of rebuking them for violating safety code, he reminded the men that the hat was designed to protect them from injury and that if they cared about their safety, it should be worn on the job. [As described later, this phrases things in the employees’ interests.]

2. Give honest and sincere appreciation. (People crave importance.)

Next in learning how to handle people is to give honest and sincere appreciation.

  • People crave importance almost as much as they do food and air. 
    • This spurs people to boast about their children, attract attention through their appearances, signal wealth by buying cars and houses, donate money to help others, have mountains and stars named after them. 
    • Unhealthily, it spurs criminals to achieve notoriety, getting a place in the news alongside sports stars and presidents. It pushes people to become invalids, attracting help and pity when they don’t need it.
    • [This is likely a deeply evolved drive, as those who craved importance tended to do the things that put them in better positions of resource and social standing, which enabled more successful reproduction, creating more people who craved importance.]
    • It’d be a crime to deprive people of six days of food. Yet we withhold praise for six months at a time.
    • [Connect to the idea that depression is more common in an era of mass media, when it’s easy to feel chronically unimportant in comparison to the best of the world’s 7 billion people.]
  • Appreciation arouses enthusiasm. Criticism kills ambitions.
    • Schwab: “I have yet to find the person, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism.”
  • When someone makes a mistake, praise them for the silver lining.
    • When Rockefeller’s partner lost a large sum overseas, the boss didn’t chastise, but rather praised him for saving 60% of the money invested, better than what they sometimes retained from errors.
  • Leave little signs of appreciation throughout your daily life.
    • Let a tired serviceperson know she had an exemplary attitude.
    • Every public speaker knows the crushing feeling of not receiving any praise for their sermon.
  • Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that, I learn of him.
  • Do not stray into flattery, which is insincere. You should only praise what you genuinely appreciate.
    • Commonly, flattery is praising others for things only you value yourself.
  • Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise. (Schwab)
  • Praise people publicly to make them feel important.
  • Examples
    • Stevie Wonder, blind from childhood, had never been appreciated for blindness. One day his teacher asked him to help her find a lost mouse in the classroom, as he alone had the hearing to do it. He said this set off a new life.

3. Arouse in the other person an eager want. Appeal to their interests. (Don’t fish with cheesecake.)

Technique 3 of how to handle people is to appeal to what they need.

  • Say you like cheesecake. When you go fishing, you don’t string cheesecake at the end of your line. You attach what the fish wants, which is a worm.
    • Why do you treat people any differently? 
    • Of course you’re interested in what you want. But no one else is. Everyone else is just like you – we all want what we want.
  • The only way to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it. Every person in the world knows what they want, and cares about what they get. Approach them in this vector. The only way to get anyone to do anything is to make the other person want to do it. Appeal to their self-interest for doing anything.
    • Before you speak, pause and ask, “what can the other person get out of this?”
    • Even challenge yourself to not say anything about what you want. 
  • Show other people relentlessly that you want to help them.
    • The world is full of people who are self-seeking. So the rare person who unselfishly serves others has an enormous advantage.
    • Go out of your way to do things unrelated to your ask. 
      • Like a real estate agent who learns about a client’s personal problem and suggests a solution after a meeting.
  • Don’t talk about how great you or your company is, then ask other people to help you get greater. Start with what the other person is missing out on by not doing something, and the benefits they gain by following your suggested action.
    • A freight terminal wanted a supplier to send its trucks earlier to avoid the afternoon congestion, which slowed down the whole system. The natural way is to start with the terminal’s own problems and requesting that the supplier conform with its expectations. Instead, the better way is to frame it in the supplier’s interests – delayed trucks cause congestion, which causes delays from getting the supplier’s goods delivered on time.
    • [This often sounds disingenuous to me from people I know who are employing this trick and disguising their own intention. A possible way around this is to disarm them by acknowledging your intent upfront, then break down the advantages they get.]
  • Break down explicitly what the advantages and disadvantage of the person’s proposed course of action is. Your suggestion is usually the inverse of this – get the person to see the benefits.
  • If words don’t work, sometimes showing works better.
    • A Shell territory manager was having trouble with one underperforming store. He invited the store’s manager to a brand-new, top of the line, top-selling station. Seeing the new store aroused a visceral want.
  • Examples of how to handle people:
    • Andrew Carnegie’s had a sister-in-law whose kids never wrote letters back. He bet someone he could get a reply without asking for one. He wrote letters, at the end mentioning that he was sending a five-dollar-bill (but omitting it). Sure enough, they replied, thanking him for writing and of course asking where the money was.
    • A child didn’t want to go kindergarten. The parents made a list of all the reasons the child should be excited to go to kindergarten, like fingerpainting. They then excitedly fingerpainted, and as the child begged to participate, said, “oh no! You have to go to kindergarten first to learn how to fingerpaint.”
    • When applying to jobs, tell them how you can meet the company’s goals.
    • Salespeople don’t sell products. They show how products solve problems, and people want to buy them. Customers like to feel they are buying – and not being sold.
    • When getting people to participate in a social event, don’t talk about what you want and how lonely you are. Excite them about the possibility of the fun event.
    • Don’t tell your kid to stop smoking. Show them how it’ll make them look at age 40.
    • A child may be a stubborn eater. Connect successful eating with success in another problem in her life. Maybe she’s being bullied, and growing stronger faster will get her to whip the bully quickly.
  • Henry Ford: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

Use these techniques to figure out how to handle people in any situation, including how to handle difficult people.

How to Handle People: 3 Techniques You Can Use

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full How to Win Friends and Influence People summary:

  • The 6 ways to make people like you
  • How you can give feedback to others and improve their behavior
  • An essential checklist for handling arguments in a productive way

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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