Learning to know any person is one of life’s most important purposes

by | Feb 22, 2024 | Pop/Life

I was inspired to read David Brooks’ latest book, “How to Know a Person, The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen,” when it came out last fall. I was drawn to it because of a comment a former student made to me around the same time.

She said, “I was surprised to find out that your speech class gave me confidence in conversations that used to make me uncomfortable.” Teachers love hearing things like that—a student got some value out of a class that wasn’t even assigned! Admittedly, I teach conversationally, a luxury of smaller class sizes. I warn all of my students on the first day: “I’m going to get to know you better than your other professors do, and you’re going to get to know me too.”

In “How to Know a Person,” the book’s lofty goals can be achieved through a commitment to having better conversations. Not easier, or more entertaining conversations, but better. And yes, I often found myself nodding as I read it.

John Dickerson wrote for CBS News, “The book’s thesis is that while human relations are hard, the skills can be taught, and if people can improve their one-on-one interactions — in listening, in conversation, and in what Brooks calls the ‘close at hand’ – it might have a compounding effect on society.”  

I often read Brooks’ columns, not because I agree with him, though I sometimes do. It’s because I have always liked the way he writes, and this book is no exception. 

Chapter 7, “The Right Questions,” describes a series of methods to improve our connections with each other. He writes that about 30% of us are natural questioners, leaving 70% who are not. And while the latter group can be charming people, “they spend their conversational time presenting themselves.” He adds, “Sometimes I will be walking out of a party and realize that whole time no one asked me a single question.” To me, that’s a bad party. As I have studied communication and worked to teach it better, I’ve concluded this disconnection problem is solvable. 

Wading through the responses

Which brings me to some sort-of-conversations provoked by my column last week. I never know which installments will get around or strike a chord, but this one did, inspiring some feedback. 

The first contact came from Richard Wolfson of Portsmouth, Ohio. He opened his message by addressing me, “Professor.” He then explained his broad agreement with the sentiment of the column but then pointed out that he thought I ended it with an oversimplification. I shouldn’t conflate the terms “ignorant” and “wicked,” pointing out that “to judge others is, itself, wicked.” 

Mr. Wolfson is correct. I pointed out how my attempt at a big finish, or in modern terms, a mic-drop, led to my shallowness. Then I thanked him for expanding the conversation.

Next, I heard from Mike Harbor, an apparent Hoosier who has seemingly been bothered by my writings for some time now. He wrote, “I appreciate reading your columns where the common theme seems to be ‘I hate conservatives.’ You don’t have any idea of ‘small c’ conservative thought or way of life.” He went on to advise me to “educate myself” by reading Christopher Lasch, Russell Kirk and Patrick Deneen.

Hmm, one mistake Mr. Harbor makes was to assume I hadn’t already read them. And unlike my new friend from Ohio, he seems to think I lack education. Whoops. 

I am familiar with all three of his referrals, though it is important to point out that Lasch and Kirk both passed away in 1994. Both were iconic in the conservative think tank world of the past, though I doubt either would look at the conservative movement of today with pride or glee. 

Deneen on the other hand always struck me more as a modern kook. This University of Notre Dame professor’s recent work, and an in-depth biopic about him in Politico confirm what I already thought: he seems to be debating himself while attempting to create a new cultural and political movement. 

The Ohio man initiated a conversation with me. 

The Indiana man merely presented himself. I’m curious what his goals were, though I’m confident “understanding” wasn’t one of them. 

In his final chapter, Brooks describes the famous park bench scene in the movie “Good Will Hunting.” In it, the late Robin Williams pierces the façade of the angry genius played by Matt Damon. It was a humble offering by Williams to get to know Damon, a task unachieved by anyone before. 

And it is an example of how the process of deeply seeing others and a willingness to be deeply seen can change the world — one conversation at a time. 


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