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David Brooks writes about the art of seeing others in new book 'How to Know a Person'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Every Friday night, you and I welcome David Brooks here in the studio and into your living rooms.

Little did we know, though, that, while we were watching David, he was also watching us. His new book pulls from his own observations and research and dives into the topic of human connection and its importance in today's society.

The book's title, "How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen."

I sat down with David recently to talk more about it.

David Brooks, it's good to speak with you outside of our normal Friday chats.

David Brooks, Author, "How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen": I feel more relaxed already.


Geoff Bennett: This book, "How to Know a Person," you open it by talking about your family dinners growing up, the dinner table conversations that you would have, and how it was reflective of your intellectual upbringing and the impact it had on you.

Tell me about it.

David Brooks: Yes, if anybody saw that movie "Fiddler on the Roof," they know how warm and huggy Jewish families can be, always dancing and singing.

I came from the other kind of Jewish family. So, we were pretty cerebral. Our dinner conversations were about the evolutionary history of lactose intolerance...


David Brooks: ... or the history of Victorian funerary monuments. So we were pretty heady. And there was love in the home, but we weren't that great at expressing it.

And the problem is, if you cut yourself off from that kind of emotion, you cut yourself off from intimacy and from life itself. And so I'm not an exceptional guy, but I am a grower. I do change. And so I have been on a journey to try to become more emotionally available, more spiritually available, a better friend to people.

And the sad thing is, is as I have become on a journey to becoming a little more human, the country has been on a journey of becoming less human. And so we now live in bitter and divided times. There's just so much social pain.

And this book is really an attempt to make us all better at seeing another person, making them feel seen, heard and understood, because, if our country is going to come back from the inhumanity, and if our families are going to come back from the breakdown, and if our workplaces are going to thrive, we just have to be really good at this skill of seeing others, making them feel valid, respected, heard and understood.

Geoff Bennett: Well, to your point, for all of the things that are causing division these days, we often don't talk enough about isolation, how it harms personal and societal health.

How do you see it?

David Brooks: Yes, there are a lot of reasons our society's in trouble.

We have -- we're being ripped to shreds from our political leadership. Social media is driving us all crazy. But the core thing, to me, is, we just don't treat each other well. There are a series of skills, social skills involved in treating another person with consideration and respect.

There are things like how to be a great conversationalist, how to disagree well, how to ask for and offer forgiveness, how to break up with somebody without destroying their heart. These are just skills.

And, sometimes, I think people don't learn them.

Geoff Bennett: You also write about the importance of play as a point of connection. And you talk about your men's basketball league.

First of all, I didn't know you could hoop, David Brooks.

David Brooks: Yes. Yes.


David Brooks: Well, you would not be disabused if you saw me.


David Brooks: My game is to go into the lane, and all the 6'5'' guys think they're about to totally destroy me, and then I pass it back out. So, my whole game is surrendering.


David Brooks: I surrender.

Geoff Bennett: Yes.

David Brooks: But I walk -- try to walk people through the process of getting to know someone.

And the first is the gaze. When we first meet, we're answering. Am I a person to you? Am I a priority to you? And the quick answer to those questions will be in your eyes, how you look at me.

And then the second process is a stage I called accompaniment. That's just hanging out. I had this moment when my oldest kid was like, I don't know, 16, 12 months. And he used to wake up super early, and we lived in Brussels. And we would play. We would just play together for four or five hours every morning.

I remember thinking he knows me better than I have ever been known by anybody, because I'm so natural, because I'm playing. And on the other hand, I know him better than I have ever known a human being. And we never exchanged word, because he couldn't talk. We just played together.

And so that process of play after the first sight, and before we begin to have, like, deep conversations with each other, it's that process of play, of being around each other, so we can get used to each other.

Geoff Bennett: On the other hand you also discussed the moment when one of your oldest friends succumbed to depression.

How do you sit with someone in their suffering?

David Brooks: Yes, well, that was something I didn't understand.

So, my oldest friend was a guy named Peter. And he was a wonderful guy. We played a zillion hours of basketball together. And he was -- as my wife said, he was extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. He's like a man the way you're supposed to be a man, like gentle, but powerful, a dad like you're supposed to be a dad. He was just so proud of his sons.

And he had a wonderful life for -- and then, at age 57, depression hit. And I realized that, even though I thought I was a well-educated person, A, I didn't know what depression was. You can't understand depression by extrapolating from your own moments of sadness.

A friend of mine put it well. Depression is a malfunction in the instrument we use to determine reality. So, when you're seeing a depressed -- seeing the world -- a person is seeing the world, they're seeing a distorted image.

And in my friend's case, he had these lying, obsessive voices in her head -- his head: You're not worthwhile. Nobody would miss you if you're gone.

And I didn't know how to be with a person going through this. And so I made mistakes in the beginning. A lot of it was our phone calls over COVID. And so I would say: "Like, here's an idea for you to get out of depression. You liked going and doing service trips in Vietnam. And you should do that again."

And I learned, when you do that, all you're doing is, you're showing the depressed person you don't get it, because there's not ideas they are missing. It's energy. And so that was a stupid thing I should have known.

What I came to understand gradually over the years, you're there to recognize the situation and saying, I'm here for you. This sucks. But I'm here for you. I'm never leaving.

And I regret not doing more small touches, like, just thinking of you. I'm sending you a text, no response necessary. It's just presence. It's just the art of presence.

And so dealing with someone when they're depressed was a challenge which -- a hard challenge. I learned a lot. And Pete never recovered. He succumbed to suicide. And it was brutal. It was brutal. It was like -- when your oldest friend is gone, it's like you go to Montana and there are no mountains there.

Geoff Bennett: Yes.

David Brooks: You just expect it all.

And it happened shortly after Mark Shields died. And when you lose friends, you're unprepared for how much of a blow. You think losing family is going to be a blow, of course.

Geoff Bennett: Yes.

David Brooks: But losing friends is quite a blow.

And I had three, Mike Gerson, who's a friend of this program, Mark Shields, obviously, and then my friend Pete.

Geoff Bennett: Yes. I'm sorry, David.

David Brooks: Thank you.

Geoff Bennett: What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing this book? And what did you learn about how to know someone?

David Brooks: Yes, I think I learned for myself that there are depths there. There's capacity there, if you only allow yourself to be vulnerable to it.

And I have learned that that level of encounter, of just beholding someone -- I'm not trying to fix them. I'm not trying to advise them. Just like, tell me who you are. And then, again -- again, let's go deeper into that. What am I missing here?

It's just so much fun. And so, like, I was the guy on the train who had my headphones in all the time because I was, like, insular. Now I talk to strangers. And I have way better train rides than I did before.


David Brooks: So, yes, I have changed.


Geoff Bennett: David Brooks. The book is "How to Know a Person."

It's always great to speak with you.

David Brooks: Oh, it's great to be with you, Geoff.

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