Ben Franklin’s Relationship Building Secrets

Have you come to hate the word “networking?” Join the club. Dozens of books on the subject encourage us to frenetically “ping” dozens of people each day—perhaps leaving messages on their voice mail after hours so we don’t actually have to chat with them. We are told to go to networking events, talk with everyone on the airplane, and hand out business cards to any willing recipient. All of this advice ignores the fact that most professionals need to spend a lot of their time building a small group of trusted relationships. It also makes it sound as if we just invented the idea of relationship-building to get ahead. Hardly. Benjamin Franklin is a fascinating case-in-point.

In 1721, the printer James Franklin launched a newspaper called the New England Courant. One morning, to his delight, a well-crafted, humorous letter appeared under his door written by “Silence Dogood” – a pseudonym, unknown to James, adopted by his sixteen-year-old brother Benjamin.

Whereas James made direct attacks on public figures in his articles and editorials, Silence Dogood used prodding humor and irony to satirize everything from Harvard University to Boston politicians. A few months later, James was arrested and jailed. He left Benjamin, at the age of a typical tenth-grader today, as the editor and publisher of the Courant.

Ben Franklin had learned his lesson: Humor and indirect questioning produced many friends and few enemies, while drawing attention to the important issues.  This was only one of many qualities that made Franklin a master at building relationships. It might not have been so. As biographer H.W. Brands writes in The First American, “Genius is prone to producing envy. Yet it was part of Franklin’s genius that he produced far less than his share, due to an unusual ability to disarm those disposed to envy.” He adds that Franklin, “learned to deflect credit for some of his most important inventions. He avoided arguments altogether. Laughing, his opponents listened and were persuaded.”

Another quality that endeared Franklin to everyone who came into contact with him was his focus on ideas and relationships rather than money. Some of us may think of Franklin as he prototypical American capitalist, and while he was an enormously successful businessman, making money was never his primary objective. In 1740, for example, Franklin invented the free-standing wood stove – then called the “Pennsylvania fireplace,” today known as the Franklin stove. The governor of Pennsylvania offered Franklin the exclusive rights to sell his new fireplace in the province, an arrangement that would have made Franklin a very wealthy man, but he refused. “That as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others,” he wrote, “we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.”

Franklin exemplified the consummate relationship builder. He knew how smart he was but rarely let it show. He had many of the answers but preferred to ask provocative questions. Although he quickly discerned others’ faults, he allowed them to discover them for themselves through his humor and indirect approach. He was one of the most knowledgeable men on the planet, but his insatiable curiosity and zest for learning new things never flagged.

Not a bad approach for building client relationships in the twenty-first century.

What has helped you develop your own “Relationship Capital”? And what personal qualities do you find most likeable and endearing in others? 

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