We’re living in a cultural moment where so many people feel unseen and unheard. What if the answer is not some big government or nonprofit program, but rather something as intimate as this: a meaningful conversation. David Brooks joins the podcast to talk about his new book, “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.” He and Curtis discuss the art of connecting with another person, and why our society so deeply needs to revive the skills involved.
This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
CURTIS CHANG: What were you trying to achieve with this book?
DAVID BROOKS: I guess two things – one personal and the other social. A lot of us writers just work out our stuff in public. So I’ve been on a bit of a journey. And the journey is really about being more fully human. And I’m certainly not all the way there, but I think I’ve made some progress. There’s one story I tell in the book that symbolizes for me my previous way of being in the world.
I’m a big baseball fan and I’ve been to a thousand games, and I’ve never called a foul ball. But in Baltimore about 12 or 13 years ago, a batter lost control of his bat. It flipped in the air and landed on my feet. And catching a bat is a thousand times more exciting than catching a ball.
CURTIS CHANG: Yes, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah! So any normal human being would be jumping up and down, holding his trophy in the air, high-fiving and hugging everybody around him. But I just put the bat in my feet and I stared straight ahead. I basically had the emotional response of a turtle. I look back on myself in that moment and think, “Come on! Show a little joy!”
And I’ve tried over the course of the ensuing years to be more joyful, but frankly, also sadder. More emotional range. And with that, develop more connections to people. One of my heroes is Frederick Whitmer, the novelist. Whitmer’s dad took his own life when Whitmer was nine. And he never really grieved. He shut down. And he writes in the middle of his life that, if you shut yourself down from the pain of life, you shut yourself down from the holy sources of life itself. So he went on a midlife journey to see the face behind the face and connect with the people around him in a much deeper way. He’s sort of my role model here.
CURTIS CHANG: Your book claims that the process of becoming more human is not purely individual and interior – like going on a solo retreat by yourself and diving deep into your feelings – but actually involves the art of conversation. So make that connection. Why does becoming more human require conversation?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, well the second reason I wrote the book was social. And we’re going through a social and emotional crisis in our country, and we all know the statistics about rising mental health problems, rising suicide rates. The one that gets to me is the study showing the number of people who say they have no close personal friends is up by four times since 2000. The number of people not in a romantic relationship is up by a third. The number of Americans who ranked themselves in the lowest happiness category is up by 50%. And so our society is just breaking down relationally.
If we’re going to repair society, we have to get a lot better at the skill of seeing each other and making each other feel seen, heard, and understood. I believe this skill is at the core of every healthy family or church or organization or company: The skill of making other people feel understood and respected. And to do that, it’s not enough to simply be open-hearted. You’ve got to have certain moral skills:
How do you listen well? How do you disagree well? How do you ask for forgiveness? How do you sit with someone who’s suffering?
These are skills in the same way that carpentry is a skill or tennis is a skill. So in the book, I try to walk people through the skills. I don’t think you can be happy alone. And so the Whitmer model of sitting alone and writing books for other people is great, and I do that. I do sit alone and write books, but what we really hunger for is a particular connection with a particular human being in a conversation.
CURTIS CHANG: Your book is a “how-to” book, which is so lovely and rare. It’s, in some ways, wonderfully practical, and yet you infuse it with deep moral meaning. Why are specific conversational skills morally formative?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, in my own life, when people would come to me with a problem or vulnerability or crisis, I would be avoidant. I wouldn’t want to go there. And sure, there were the typical reasons for that – fear of intimacy, fear of facing difficult things. But a lot of it was that I simply didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t very good at it. So if you don’t have confidence in your skills, you’re not going to be able to connect when people come to you in crisis.
I start the book with the most basic skill: how you look at someone, how to pay attention to them. That can be so underappreciated. But when we meet each other, we ask each other and ourselves certain unconscious questions – Am I a priority to this person? Am I a person to this person? Are they going to treat me like an object? And the answers to those questions are communicated in the eyes before it’s communicated in the mouth, by the word. So that skill of paying attention is, as Simone Weil said, a moral skill. The ultimate act of generosity is paying attention to another.
If you look at the world with cold eyes, you’ll see cold objects. If you look at the world with critical eyes, you’ll see flawed people. If you look at the world with generous eyes, you’ll see human beings doing the best they can.
And I don’t say you have to be Christian or Jewish or Muslim or have any faith at all to see people well, but you have to see them with that level of reverence and respect. Each person you meet, every single one, is not a problem to be solved. They’re a mystery you’ll never get to the bottom of. You just have to respect the depth of human souls.
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