THE BLOG
12/19/2007 05:26 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Twelve Tips to Avoid Seeming Like an Arrogant, Know-It-All Jerk

I've been doing thinking a lot about the qualities of pride and humility.

A lot of people go through the motions of being humble, but you really have to mean it. A few months ago, I sat next to a guy I didn't know, and when I asked him what he did for a living, he said jokingly, "It's too boring, let's not talk about it." But he didn't offer up any other topics for conversation, but just waited for me to ask him leading questions. He probably thought he was being winningly self-deprecating, but instead, he was making me do all the conversational work. (Of course, it was my pride that made me annoyed by this.)

Humility is having consideration for others, appreciation for their views, curiosity about their lives, openness to correction and education by them, willingness to be interested and amused, a sense of deference, respect, and fellowship.

Here are some tips for showing humility:

1. Offer meaningful compliments: "You have a good memory," "You obviously know a lot about this subject." Empty, automatic compliments like "Great tie!" don't count.

2. Give credit to others: "The team did all the work," "Pat came up with this idea." It's pointless to begrudge others their due, because being generous with giving credit does NOT minimize your own contribution.

3. Ask questions and allow others to supply information. I've even seen some good leaders ask questions to which they knew the answers, merely to allow others the chance to demonstrate what they know. This is a challenge for me. I am a real know-it-all. It's hard for me to ask for help, to say, "I don't know" or keep quiet while others respond.

4. Admit error! It's SO HARD to say "You were right, I was wrong" or "This was my fault," but so important. Also, it's a key to leadership. As my father once told me, "If you'll take responsibility for failure, you'll be given responsibility for decisions."

5. Remember other people's names and the details of their lives. How many times have you heard people complain that "So-and-so has met me five times, but never remembers me"? It hurts people's feelings. Unfortunately, I have a terrible time with names, so I developed some coping strategies for dealing with that.

6. Call on others for their specific contributions: "Pat is our expert on that," "Lee, what do you think?"

7. Laugh at yourself. Few things are as winning as people who are willing to poke fun at their own foibles. This doesn't mean saying, "I'm so clueless" and waiting for everyone to cry, "Oh, no, you're great!" It means honestly laughing at your idiosyncrasies and mistakes.

8. Refuse to take offense. Part of humility is not taking yourself too seriously and not getting your back up. Pride takes offense at an undermining comment, humility shrugs it off.

9. Teasing. One way of showing fellow feeling is teasing people -- gently. People like to be joshed, but not about anything sensitive.

10. Remember your limits. You're just one person. You're not infallible. It actually IS possible that you're wrong.

11. Don"t be a bore. It's pride to assume that others are as interested in the minutiae of your life as you are.

12. Be courteous to others, no matter who they are. William Lyon Phelps wrote, "The final test of a gentleman is his respect for those who can be of no possible service to him."

The issue of humility is confusing, because "being humble" is often understood to mean that you think little of yourself, that you denigrate yourself.

But I've found, at least in my case, when I have a stronger sense of myself, I can more easily practice humility. Lack of self-confidence makes me prideful, insistent on my ideas, defensive, quick to anger. One of the least attractive personality combinations is arrogance mixed with insecurity.

I've found the best way to think about this issue is not to frame it in terms of pride or humility, but rather to "Be Gretchen" -- to let go of arrogance and boastfulness, as well as defensiveness and insecurity.

If you'd like to read more about happiness, check out Gretchen's daily blog, The Happiness Project, and join the Happiness Project group on Facebook to swap ideas.