by Gael O’Brien
Writer, commentator and New York Times columnist David Brooks takes a leap into big purpose with his new book, How To Know A Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. He focuses himself and readers on becoming more skilled in the art of seeing others so that people feel seen, heard, and understood. “Over the last four years,” Brooks explains, “I’ve become determined to learn the skills that go into seeing others, understanding others, making people feel respected, valued, and safe.” The book’s focus provides insights that can make a difference in organizations.
Brooks sees the present as afflicted with “creeping dehumanization” and believes a number of contributing factors impact the breakdown of our social fabric — our relationships, and connections with others. What’s at the heart of what he calls “our social and relational crisis” is something we’ve botched: “As a society,” he explains, “we have failed to teach the skills and cultivate the inclination to treat each other with kindness, generosity, and respect.” He wants to bring back social skills: “I’ve come to believe,” he says, “that the quality of our lives and the health of our society depends, to a large degree, on how well we treat each other in the minute interactions of daily life.”
Brooks recounts how he learned social skills from many experts while researching the book and put himself on a journey to more deeply understand others. How To Know A Person is infused with stories and insights from Brooks and dozens of researchers, psychologists, and experts in other fields. The content reminds us about what we’ve forgotten or never considered that can impact how we can better relate to others.
The book feels like a three-part journey: sharing Brooks’ learning process which may help others; delving into social skills applications which can change people and organizations; and providing examples of questions that he used in interactions to deepen knowing someone, which might invite richer reflections. I appreciated the suggested questions but I’m more comfortable if questions come out of listening. Deepening understanding with someone can take the time it needs to take to create trust and know what follow-up questions fit.
A sentence in the chapter “The Power of Being Seen” gave me a sense of why Brooks is so clear on his purpose. He writes: “Human beings need recognition as much as they need food and water.” This isn’t about ego, it’s about the experience when someone feels seen, heard, and appreciated, fueling the individual, work environment and relationships. The antithesis is an old and unfortunate continuing workplace reality. Being lost in the pressures, deadlines and financial focus of organizations eclipses the human equation.
Brooks describes in the book an example of employees being seen and heard using a story about Bell Labs several years ago. Patent lawyers were puzzled why some employees had many more patents than others. The lawyers eventually found the reason: the most productive researchers routinely had breakfast or lunch with the late Harry Nyquist, a physicist and electronic engineer. Nyquist was a prolific inventor. Brooks writes that Nyquist listened to the researchers’ challenges, “got inside their heads, asked good questions, and brought out the best in them.” Clearly, he helped them flourish. Nyquist exemplified what Brooks considers an “Illuminator.” I hadn’t heard that term before and it felt like the heartbeat of the book.
Brooks acknowledges that How To Know A Person was built around the Illuminator ideal. He describes Illuminators as having purposeful curiosity about people, trained by others or self-trained in understanding others. They have the capacity to help you see things in yourself you may have missed. “They shine the brightness of their care on people,” he adds, “and make them feel bigger, deeper, respected, lit up.” He even sketches a type of protocol for them. If there is an Illuminator college sometime, I’d want to sign up.
Thinking about Brooks’ insights more broadly, I wonder if the challenge now rests on whether companies and organizations can know who their illuminators are and see what their efforts might mean. What I loved was the organic capacity of Bell Labs’ Nyquist being who he was helping colleagues to thrive in their work. Companies and organizations need that. It would also help society if aspiring Nyquists of different fields and genders supported colleagues in doing their best work.
The great value of How To Know A Person is that it can help us flourish as human beings. It reminds us of the ways we can bring out the best in ourselves and others. David Brooks has given us a rich compendium of ideas about what an Illuminator can be. In small and big ways we will hopefully step up.
Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, on the Advisory Board of the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow at The Institute for Social Innovation at Babson College.