Connecting With Others Helps Them and Enhances Self-Knowledge

5 min read

A review of How To Know A Person: The Art Of Seeing Others Deeply And Being Deeply Seen. By David Brooks. Random House. 306 pp. $30.

Isolation, sadness, stress, and depression have surged in the 21st century. Between 1990 and 2020, the percentage of Americans who said they had no close friends quadrupled. Fifty-three percent indicated that no one knows them well. Less than a third believe “most people can be trusted.” Even before the pandemic, half of Americans put themselves in the lowest “happiness” category. And the number of suicides increased by 33%.

In How To Know A Person, David Brooks (op/ed columnist for The New York Times, political commentator on the PBS News Hour, and author) draws on the work of developmental psychologists, therapists, actors, journalists, ministers, novelists, and non-fiction writers to help Americans learn how to see others, make them feel understood, and in the process enhance their own pleasure and self-knowledge.

iStock/Goodboy Picture Company

iStock/Goodboy Picture Company

Like his previous books, How To Know A Person makes good use of social science research. Relying on false binaries, Brooks indicates, the Myers-Briggs personality test “has no scientific validity.” By contrast, the “Big Five” personality questionnaire identifies extroversion, introversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, and openness in ways that enhance an understanding of personality. Although Brooks warns about the dangers of generalizations, he uses two studies — of diplomats in the United Nations and young people from Indiana and Taiwan — to document how people who grow up in different cultures see the world differently.

How To Know A Person is at its best when Brooks tells stories that capture individuals’ struggles to cope and connect. By heeding the warning of the 17th-century writer, La Rochefoucauld (“We are so used to disguising ourselves from others that we often end up disguising ourselves from ourselves”), Brooks adds, good listeners can serve as editors, helping family members, friends and lovers provide more accurate narratives, and getting “to experience their experiences.”

The stories Brooks tells are moving, illuminating, and inspiring. A French couple visiting Sri Lanka, we learn, helps another pair of tourists, whose four-year-old daughter has been swept away in a tsunami, find the body, bring her home for burial, and deal with the devastation. Along the way, they rediscover the love they have for each other. Brooks also describes the decades-long journey of a novelist, whose father committed suicide when he was 10, which culminated in a realization that by sharing his grief with others, he understood himself and them “at the deepest level.” After two years of conversations, Brooks reveals, a native of Burundi provided writer Tracy Kidder with a detailed account of his escape from genocidal Hutus; his job as a delivery boy in a grocery store; nights spent in Central Park; enrollment in an English as a second language course, enrollment at and graduation from Columbia University; his decision to open a health clinic in the country of his birth; and the anger he felt when he returned home.

How To Know A Person, alas, is less compelling when Brooks moves from descriptions to prescriptions. He cites studies indicating that a substantial majority of family members and close friends are not good at reading each other. And he acknowledges that despite all he’s learned about techniques for seeing others, he continues to let his ego take control. Nonetheless, How To Know A Person is shaped by Brooks’ default state, cheerfulness, optimism, and faith. A “posture of respect and reverence,” he asserts, and an “awareness of the infinite dignity of each person you meet, is a precondition of seeing people well.” Brooks takes issue with the idea of empathy deficits, noting that “the vast majority” of people he’s encountered “are empathetic to some significant degree.” He suggests that hard conversations that are going south can be redeemed, by asking “How did we get to this tense place?” and apologizing for going too fast. And he indicates that a “respectful and curious” response to insulting emails, “almost always” changes the tone of the exchange, “immediately and radically.”

For this reason, perhaps, some of the conversational gambits Brooks endorses strain credulity. When Parker Palmer was interviewed for a college presidency, Brooks indicates, a member of the search committee asked why he was interested in the position. Parker replied that he liked the idea of having a plaque saying “President” on his desk. Isn’t there an easier way “to get your picture in the paper?” the man wondered. The question, Brooks suggests, made Parker realize he didn’t want the job.

In praise of asking blunt questions, but without supplying the context, Brooks cites this exchange: “Are you divorced?” “Yes.” “Do you still love him?” Only to declare, three pages later, that “closed questions,” like “Were you close with your mother?” are “bad questions.” And then to suggest that “big questions,” like “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” help people see their lives from a distance. Psychologists and conversation facilitators, Brooks maintains, told him that virtually no one ever replied, “None of your damn business” to a probing question about his or her personal life.

Brooks is surely right that individuals who have a wide emotional repertoire, acute perceptiveness, and know how to connect with others are blessed and are a blessing. Unfortunately, How To Know A Person leaves us wondering if these “skills” can be taught.

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