5 Evangelization Tips from Dale Carnegie

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A friend of mine from seminary once recommended to me Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as one of the best guides to evangelization.  I admit, the title of the book was a little off-putting, but my friend softened it up a bit for me by saying, “Think of it as, How to Win Friends and Influence People…for Christ!”  Once I gave it a shot, I realized quickly that this was indeed a valuable resource for evangelization for it simply teaches human relations in an honorable way.

While the whole book is worth the read, here are my top five evangelization lessons from Dale Carnegie.

(1) Put hospitality first.

As I’ve said elsewhere, 90% of evangelization is hospitality.  We have an important message to communicate, the Good News of the offer of salvation through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus.  But before we can effectively deliver this message, we have to do the crucial groundwork of earning the right to be heard.  This is why hospitality is so critical to evangelization.

At its core, hospitality is the art of making another feel welcome and important.  Part two of Carnegie’s book lists six ways we can show this kind of hospitality to others:

  • Become genuinely interested in other people.
  • Smile.
  • Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  • Be a good listener.  Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  • Talk in terms of the other person's interests.
  • Make the other person feel important - and do it sincerely.

(2) Arouse in the other person an eager want.

The greatest motivating force is desire.  This is why our mission statement at St. Bernadette’s youth ministry begins with: “Our program aims to stir up a hunger in the hearts of the youth to experience the living God.”  Stories can be particularly effective here – stories from the Gospels, stories about saints, stories from our own lives.  Through these stories, we can demonstrate the difference that God can make in one’s life and the thrill of a life lived as a disciple of Christ.

But this isn’t about good salesmanship.  All too often, advertising attempts to conjure up a desire for something that isn’t really needed.  By contrast, Carnegie writes, “The only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it."  God has already placed the desire for Himself in each and every human heart.  So our job is to help our teens discover that God-given desire and to show them how to direct it towards the only One who can satisfy it.

(3) Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.

One of the keys to an effective small group is asking good questions.  I once had a philosophy professor who said, “The better answer to him who asks the better question.”  For some this comes naturally, but others (myself included) may need to spend time carefully preparing good questions.  Here are a few tips:

  • Draw on their experience.  Let’s face it, we all love talking about ourselves.  Questions that draw on experience will garner more enthusiastic participation.  Asking about their favorite vacation could be a lead-in to a discussion of heaven, for instance.  Or you could ask them to describe a difficult situation that they feel they handled well in conjunction with a discussion on prudence.
  • Give them a chance to be the expert.  Consider how the teens can make a unique contribution to the conversation.  For instance, they can talk about life in school with greater authority than we can.  You could ask, “What do most of your teachers think about religion?”  Or you could ask them, “What message do you think your peers most need to hear?”  They will be honored that you want to hear their expertise and will be eager to offer it!
  • Set them up for success.  Another of Carnegie’s principles is, “Never say, ‘You’re wrong,’” simply because we all hate being told we’re wrong.  While we can’t apply this absolutely in small groups (we have a responsibility to transmit authentic teaching), we can craft questions to avoid this necessity.  For instance, asking “What was the name of Noah’s first son?” has a right or wrong answer.  If they answer wrongly, they’re less inclined to participate in the conversation.  On the flip side, questions that draw on their experience, for example, set them up for success – there’s no “wrong” or “right” when you’re telling the story of a family vacation!

(4) Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly.

The goal of evangelization is not conformity to an exterior set of rules, but a living relationship with Christ.  As such, any correction we offer needs to be carefully directed towards this end.  And if we are successfully “arousing in the other person an eager want” for a deeper, more authentic relationship with Christ, many character flaws will work themselves out through self-correction.

The first question we should always ask is, “Is this something that needs to be corrected?”  Psychologists say that the affirmation to correction ratio should be about 4:1 – for every one flaw that we point out, we need to say four affirming things to balance it out!  Keeping this balance in mind will help us prioritize what things really need to be addressed.

But when correction is appropriate, Carnegie says to call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly.  For instance, if a teen is overly critical, could you address it in a future lesson on being thankful?  If the way a teen dresses is problematic, could you later hold a discussion on modesty?  If there is something that requires a more direct approach, then we should also try to keep in mind another of Carnegie’s principles: “Let the other person save face.”  For instance, being corrected in front of your peers can be an embarrassing experience, even leading to a sense of shame.  Instead, see if you can find an opportunity to casually confront the issue one-on-one.

(5) Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be "hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise."

This is my favorite.  Our teens need honest, sincere affirmation (really, we all do!).  This is especially important in the spiritual life which is a never-ending process of growth.  No matter how far we’ve come, don’t we all tend to obsess about our weaknesses and shortcomings?  One of the greatest things we can do for teens is to point out even the slightest evidence of growth.  One simple affirmation can draw us out of a place of discouragement to hope!

I love that Carnegie says to praise the slightest improvement.  It reminds me of St. Ignatius’s “ever-earlier” principle.  Take, for example, someone with a deeply ingrained habit of swearing.  Maybe a word flies off their tongue and they don’t even realize it until 5 minutes later.  The next time it happens, they realize as soon as they’ve said it.  The next time, they catch themselves in the act and manage to eke out a “shiiiishkabob.”  Finally, they catch it before it begins to roll off the tongue.  Each step is a slight improvement (ever earlier) that can be praised!  Sometimes when teens begin to get serious about a relationship with the Lord, they suddenly see a whole slew of faults they never noticed.  In the face of discouragement, we can say to them, “At least you’re noticing!  That means God’s at work in you!”