Jan 31

“How to Know a Person” by David Brooks

The greatest thing a person does is to take the lessons of life, the hard knocks of life, the surprises of life, and the mundane realities of life and refine their own consciousness so that they can gradually come to see the world with more understanding, more wisdom, more humanity, and more grace. David Brooks, How to Know a Person

Current bestseller How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen (2023) by David Brooks, a frequent political commentator who’s “conservative” but also anti-Trumpism and not a fan of the current Republican party, is actually of the self-help sort of genre, not the political.

In developing his case for increasing our collective ability to relate effectively to each other, Brooks “draws from the fields of psychology and neuroscience and from the worlds of theater, philosophy, history, and education” (publisher blurb). How to Know a Person, in brief, is about Brooks wanting no individual in our society to be or to feel invisible.

Per John Dickerson, CBS News, Brooks contrasts “two distinct types of people, diminishers and illuminators.” While the former contribute to you feeling unseen, the latter’s curiosity about you “make you feel lit up.”

Selected Quotes from How to Know a Person

A person who is looking for beauty is likely to find wonders, while a person looking for threats will find danger. A person who beams warmth brings out the glowing sides of the people she meets, while a person who conveys formality can meet the same people and find them stiff and detached.

On social media you can have the illusion of social contact without having to perform the gestures that actually build trust, care, and affection. On social media, stimulation replaces intimacy. There is judgment everywhere and understanding nowhere.

Successful friendship, like successful therapy, is a balance of deference and defiance. It involves showing positive regard, but also calling people on their self-deceptions. The Buddhists have a useful phrase for unconditional positive regard: “idiot compassion,” which is the kind of empathy that never challenges people’s stories or threatens to hurt their feelings. It consoles but also conceals. 

The real act of, say, building a friendship or creating a community involves performing a series of small, concrete social actions well: disagreeing without poisoning the relationship; revealing vulnerability at the appropriate pace; being a good listener; knowing how to end a conversation gracefully; knowing how to ask for and offer forgiveness; knowing how to let someone down without breaking their heart; knowing how to sit with someone who is suffering; knowing how to host a gathering where everyone feels embraced; knowing how to see things from another’s point of view.

“What crossroads are you at?” At any moment, most of us are in the middle of some transition. The question helps people focus on theirs. “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Most people know that fear plays some role in their life, but they haven’t clearly defined how fear is holding them back. “If you died tonight, what would you regret not doing?” “If we meet a year from now, what will we be celebrating?” “If the next five years is a chapter in your life, what is that chapter about?” “Can you be yourself where you are and still fit in?”