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How to Know a Person: Book Review

How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen, 2023, David Brooks. Part I: I See You. Chapter 1: The Power of Being Seen. “Repressing my own feelings became my default mode for moving through the world … a fear of vulnerability, and a general social ineptitude. … When it came to spontaneous displays of emotion, I had the emotional capacity of a head of cabbage” (p. 5). “Being open-hearted is a prerequisite for being a full, kind, and wise human being” (p. 7). Relationships, community, friendship are key, especially how to see from another person’s perspective. “The ability to see someone else deeply and make them feel seen, to let them feel valued, heard, and understood” (p. 8). People want recognition. A key reason for leaving jobs is that lack of recognition and value.


Chapter 2: How Not to See a Person. “The size-up is what you do when you first meet someone” (p. 18). “Egotism: The number one reason people don’t see others is that they are too self-centered to try. … Naïve realism: This is the assumption that the way the world appears to you is the objective view. Objectivism: … what pollsters and marketers do. … They observe behavior, design surveys, and collect data on people. … Essentialism: People belong to groups, and there’s a natural human tendency to make generalizations about them. … ‘stacking’—the practice of learning one thing about a person, then making a whole series of further assumptions” (p. 19-22).


Chapter 3: Illumination. Illuminator: seeing others fully: “a craft, a set of skills, a way of life” (p. 26). “Some reporters are seducers. They lure you into giving them information by showering you with warmth and approval. Some are transactionalists. … Others are simply delightful, magnetic personalities. (I have a theory that my friend Michael Lewis has been able to write so many great books because he’s just so damn likable that people will divulge anything simply to keep him hanging around). … I’m earnest and deferential, not overly familiar. I ask people to teach me things. I generally don’t get too personal” (p. 28).


Tenderness. “The plainest faces are so remarkably seen by Rembrandt that we are jolted into seeing them remarkably. …  Being receptive means overcoming insecurities and self-preoccupation and opening yourself up to the experience of another” (p. 32). Add active curiosity and affection. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows the failure of the heart by priests and others. Generosity. He tells the story of a German Jew escaping from Hitler, working in a hospital for paraplegics, seeing them as the best of men rather than moribund cripples—who were sedated. This led to the Paralympic Games.


Tolstoy noted: “We may say of a man that he is more often kind than cruel, more often wise than stupid, more often energetic than apathetic” (p. 35). Kant on the other hand built a moral system based on duty, universal principles of disinterested and rational people. Morality can be related to how you pay attention to others. “We stereotype and condescend, ignore and dehumanize” (p. 37). Then there is the greatness of small acts: A therapist paying attention rather than providing solutions, see their points of view.


Chapter 4: Accompaniment. Being attentive, patient, and sensitive; like the pianist accompanies the singer. Let others evolve, but show up with compassion.


Chapter 5: What is a Person? Different people can experience the same event in different ways. Aldous Huxley: “Experience is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.” Objective reality versus subjective reality: how it is seen and interpreted. Constructionism: people actively take in perception of reality. Perception is an action-oriented construction. The model determines what is found (like the “invisible gorilla” experiment). George Bernard Shaw: “life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”


Chapter 6: Good Talks. A raconteur can tell good stories. A lecturer can offer insights (which can be “bore bombs according to Calvin Trillin). “A good conversation is an act of joint exploration. … The solution is to sit up, lean forward, ask questions, nod your head, track the speaker” (p. 73). That’s an active listener. Get people to talk about what they know. Looping: repeating what someone just said. It required listening more carefully. The “gem statement”: the perspective that both agree on in an argument. Why do you disagree? Don’t be a topper: “I’m the fascinating one.” Better: how to ask the right question.


Chapter 7: The Right Question, e.g., goals, skills, schedule. “A person can go a long way with a narrow skill set” (p. 84). Questioners are comfortable asking others about themselves. Perspective receiving works; perspective taking not so much. “What’s working really well? What are you confident about for the future.


Part 2: I See You in Your Struggles. Chapter 8: The Epidemic of Blindness. “People who are lonely and unseen become suspicious. … It makes us more vulnerable to rejection and heightens insecurity. … Sadness, lack of recognition, and loneliness turn into bitterness” (p. 99). High-trust societies as “spontaneously sociable.” Political movements can be fueled by resentment, including affirming identity, gain status, and visibility. This is a form of partisan tribe. Guns generate a sense of power. “The essence of evil is the tendency to obliterate the humanity of another” (p. 103). Brooks noted a breakdown in moral skills.


Chapter 9: Hard Conversations. “Conversations across differences and across perceived power inequalities” (p. 109). Culture wars center on progressive versus conservative values. Ralph Ellison: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (p. 113). Trying to understand other’s point of view; respect is expected. Labeling is discrediting another by tossing them into a disreputable category. A good conversation can be made between people thinking the other is wrong. “Hard conversations are hard because people in different life circumstances construct very different realities. … They literally see different worlds. … We perceive the world, not as it is but as it is for us. … You can never fully understand a person whose life experience is very different from you own” (p. 118-20). Terence: “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.” [The playwright Terrence was brought to Rome from North Africa as a slave.]


Chapter 10: How Do You Serve a Friend Who is in Despair? Depression: “a state of consciousness that distorts perceptions of time, space, and self. … A landscape that is cold and black and empty” (p. 125). Perhaps “positive reframing” would help. Don’t ask them why. Mike Gerson said depression was “a malfunction of the instrument we use to determine reality … lying voices that had taken up residence” (p. 128).  Perhaps expressed by a nightmarish Salvador Dali world.


Chapter 11: The Art of Empathy. “Babies come out of the womb looking for a face that will see them, a mother or a caretaker who will know them and attend to their needs. … Every child is looking for answers to the basic questions of life: am I safe? How does love work? Am I worthy? Will I be cared for?” (p. 134). Love can be inconsistent and conditional. “A warm childhood environment was a better predictor of adult social mobility than intelligence” (p. 136).

Harsh circumstances lead to defenses. Avoidance minimizes emotions and relationships; try to be self-sufficient.


Deprivation around parents too self-centered to meet their needs, leading to feelings of worthlessness. Overreactivity with a hyperactive threat-detection system. Passive aggression is the indirect expression of anger. Consider the “sacred flaw” of people, attempting life as the hero of the story. Feeling that critics are not just wrong but evil. “Introspection isn’t the best way to repair your models; communication is. … Empathy is involved in every state of the process of getting to know a person” (p. 143). Empathy: The skill of mirroring (accurately catching the emotion of the person in front of you). Emotions are continuous, not discrete events. Emotions assign value to things, telling you what you want and don’t want. Adam Smith: projective empathy as projecting my memories onto your situation.


The empathy spectrum of seven categories. “At level zero, people can hurt or even kill others without feeling anything at all. At level one, people show a degree of empathy, but not enough to break their cruel behavior. … At level six we have people who are wonderful listeners, are intuitive about other’s needs, and are comfortable and effective at offering comfort and support. … Low empaths can be cruel and pitiable creatures” (p. 149-50). Related is borderline personality disorder, who fear abandonment, impulsive, self-destructive, and rage against family and friends. High empaths have deep relationships, charitable behavior, and social self-confidence.


Contact theory. “Bringing hostile groups together really dies increase empathy” (p. 153). A common goal helps. Paul Giamatti played John Adams as a person with health complaints including toothaches, digestive problems, and headaches. School drama programs can increase kids’ empathy. Reading helps. A “mood meter” can be used for emption spotting. “What you feel alters your sights and hearing” (p. 159).


Chapter 12: How Were You Shaped by Your Sufferings? CS Lewis noted that grief is not a state but a process. Warrior/statesman model of character: think George Marshall or George Washington. The key is self-mastery and universal virtues of honesty, courage, determination, and humility. Morality is a social practice.


Part 3: I See You With Your Strengths. Chapter 13. Personality: What Energy Do You Bring Into the Room? George W. Bush as an extravert, treating others with instant familiarity. He scores low on curiosity. “His answers were unambiguous,” based on one point of view and no interest in alternative perspectives. Arguably, this resulted in disastrous decisions like invading Iraq.


“Outgoing people serve as leaders, organized people make companies and schools run smoothly, curious people invent products and try new ideas, nervous people warn of danger, and kind people care for others. “A personality trait is a habitual way of seeing, interpreting, and reacting to a situation. … The five traits are extroversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism agreeableness, and openness” (p. 177-8). Extraverts live a high-reward/ high-risk exercise. Introverts are less volatile and have deeper relationships with fewer people. Conscientious people don’t procrastinate, favor predictable environments, don’t like unpredictable situations, and can be workaholics. Neurotics respond to negative emotions, like fear, shame, and sadness. People can be open to information and good at divergent thinking.


Chapter 14. Life Tasks. Adults focus on one thing at a time. Babies pay attention to anything interesting. The toddler focuses on being a separate person, often saying no. The imperial task: establish your own agency, including self-confidence which can be self-centered, manipulating to get what they want. Collaboration means working on shared wants, which requires seeing the world from another’s perspective. Trump and Putin stayed with imperial consciousness.


Fitting in includes establishing a self-identity with friendships and social status important. People can become idealistic, usually conflict averse. During careers, an individualistic mindset is developed, “the master of my own development,” with a focus on achievement motivation. Me-centered careers: want to do things their way and ownership, and a sense of superior problem solving. Wisdom is defined as seeing the connections between things, including holding opposite truths (multiple perspectives).


Chapter 15: Life Stories. High, low, and turning points. Social connections as the top source of happiness; they want to be seen and understood. Storytelling better than comment-making. Paradigmatic (analytical) versus storytelling (unique individual focus). “How did you come to believe X.” This is framing to invite a story. Inner voices as faithful friend on personal strengths, criticism like ambivalent parent, proud rival encouraging success, and self-pitying. Plots include hero quest and rags to riches. Therapists are story editors.


Chapter 16: How Do Your Ancestors Show Up in Your life? “To see a person well, you have to see them as culture inheritors and as culture creators. What is culture? It’s a shared symbolic landscape that we use to construct our reality. People who grow up in different cultures see the world differently. …People from low-corruption cultures, still refused to break the rules” (p. 236)—UN diplomats didn’t have to pay fines on parking tickets. High-corruption diplomats parked where they wanted.


Tight cultures where disease and invasions were common and emphasized discipline and conformity. Loose cultures were individualistic and creative where invasions and disease were not common. Like the US. Educated, rich, democratic cultures are less conformist, and loyal to universal ideals. Consider Confucian China versus classical Greece (social harmony versus individual). Plow-heavy agricultures resulted in cultures with defined gender roles. Europeans settled the US in clumps and brought their cultures with them: aristocratic Virginia versus moralistic and industrious New England.


Chapter 17: What is Wisdom? “Wisdom is knowing about people. … the ability to see deeply into who people are and how they should move in the complex situations of life. … they start by witnessing our story. … They see the way we’re navigating the dialectics of life—intimacy versus independence, control versus uncertainty—and understanding that our current life is just where we are right now. … Wise people don’t tell you what to do; they help you process your own thoughts and emotions” (p. 248). Understanding comes from surviving, thriving, having contact with others. Narcissistic personality disorder: seeing yourself as better and being rude. Buddhists consider calling people on their self-deceptions “idiot compassion,” never challenging people’s stories or hurt their feelings; being generous about human frailty, including the habit of pontification.  

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