Modesty in Conversation: Ben Franklin’s Persuasion Techniques

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“Immodest words admit but this defense, That want of modesty is want of sense.” – Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

I make conscious effort to sound sure of my opinions. I think confidence in conversation is looked at as a valuable.  I think confidence gives greater persuasive power in conversation, sales, leadership, and relationships.  Confidence and certainty might play a positive role occasionally, but it has a negative side. It prevents me from learning the opinions and knowledge of others, creates enemies that are silent rather than vocal about their opposition, and can cause others to lose attention because there is no debate to be had and nothing valuable to say.


“… as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or be informed, to please or persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner….”

Constant curiosity is a core principle I’ve always tried to keep in mind.  My firm opinions probably have made others less likely to debate me and caused me to learn less.  Franklin said both teaching and learning are goals of conversation.  The person with no modesty doesn’t learn and I have failed to learn things because of this fault.  Immodest people become less knowledgeable than their peers because their peers never raise their voices to argue. This lack of knowledge only leads to being more opinionated and falsely certain.  Speaking in definite or certain terms might not be the opposite of being curious, but they might be inversely correlated

“If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.”

Certainty in conversation creates silent opposition instead of vocal debate. If there is opposition I want to know that it is there instead of it sneaking up on me. When I make mistakes I definitely want others to help me correct them. I think it is interesting that someone who is polarizing in the public eye can create outcry from their opposition, but there would likely be no private debate between two individuals with opposing fixed opinions.  Since most people don’t hold a public position I think having a fixed opinion has almost no value for the majority of people.

“For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention.”

When it’s clear that I am seeking the opinion of others they show candid attention. They have a valuable response because they believe that I am looking for their opinion instead of just sharing mine. Even if I have no desire to learn from someone and my goal is to teach them or persuade them gaining their candid attention has value and because of this trying to learn from every is important to being influential .  Franklin wraps up his thoughts on these ideas with a quote for Alexander Pope: “Men should be taught as if you taught them not, And things unknown propos’d as things forgot.”

I am going to commit to using phrases like, “I think,” “I’m not sure but,” and “What do you think about…?” moving forward.