Taking a lesson from President Lincoln

“A drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” (Abraham Lincoln)

I will admit, I have used this quote before but never really checked what the definition of “gall” was in this context before writing this piece. It turns out that it is just what I expected. Gall is the contents of the gall bladder, proverbially known for its bitterness. I am not sure that anyone was slinging buckets of actual gall around in the mid-19th century, but I am equally sure that everyone in Lincoln’s time knew exactly what he meant.

Our mission in this set of principles is to “win people to our way of thinking”. It should seem self-evident that to do so we must start with a bit of sweetness when there is a disagreement, but once again our instinct tells us otherwise. Once again we are betrayed by our emotions and when someone is at odds with us, we want to go in there and tell them a thing or two. Of course, that rarely works.

Let me tell you two stories about camping trips I was on. At the end, you can judge for yourself which had the better outcome.

The first year that my wife and I owned our camper, we went on a long trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We spent the weekend at one site, then travelled further into the peninsula to the Westernmost reaches for our weeklong stay. On the first day in that site, after we were all set up, I was exhausted and decided to take a nap. My wife decided to use this time to explore the nearby beach, so I was in the camper alone. While I was dozing I heard a strange sound, like something was running under my bed. I was new to camping in a camper, and hadn’t gotten used to the fact that just below my bed was an open space outside, which contributed to my disorientation. When I was finally conscious enough to know what was happening, I realized that a small dog was doing a racetrack pattern, barking and enjoying itself, under my camper.

If you are a camper you know that all campsites require dogs to be on leashes, and that pets are kept within the confines of a person’s assigned site. This pup was violating both of those rules. I was so tired, that I just went back to sleep. Later, while sitting at our table having dinner, it happened again. This time I was fully awake and had had enough. I rose from my seat, stormed outside, and loudly informed my neighbor that “I HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS! Please obey the rules of camping and keep your dog from running around my camper.” When I tell you that I was loud, I am not exaggerating. I was loud enough that conversation stopped in some of the nearby sites. I stomped back into my camper, sure that I was in the right. There was stony silence from the neighboring site that night, and first thing the next morning they pulled up stakes and left. Most likely that was their plan all along, but who is to say?

The next summer we were at a different site. On a sunny Friday I had decided that I was going to spend my day sitting in the shade of a tree reading a book. My wife, again, was off on her own doing some exploring. Our site was at the end of a loop, and nearby were woods. In those woods there was a path that ran along the edge of all the loops, and also to the nearby lake. As I was sitting there, 3 teenage boys were walking and walked directly through my campsite. Well, half way through. I saw them, and stopped them. I wished them a good afternoon, and asked if they were enjoying their time in camp. They smiled and said they were. I told them that I was having a great afternoon of reading under this tree, and that it was a perfect day. I then asked them if they realized they were walking right through my site, and the one next to me? They said that they weren’t aware, so I reminded them that it was polite to use the path in the woods so as not to disturb the site next to mine, where I knew a child was asleep in their tent. They apologized, backed out of my site, and went the few feet into the woods to resume their walk. I saw them a few more times during the day, and each time we waved at each other.

Which approach was the better one? Both actually got the same results in that my campsite was no longer encroached by those individuals. But in one case the result was stony silence, while the other involved friendly waves.

There are several differences to be seen between the approaches, but they all start at the beginning. At the start of one, I hurled a bucket of gall at my neighbors. In the second I tried a drop of honey.

President Lincoln was right then, and he’d be right today. There is far more to be gained when we…

Principle 13 – Begin in a friendly way

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