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Understanding People to Unlock Human Mind with Essential Insights by David Brooks

Gain profound insights into people character and connection. Reflect on your own virtues, narratives and calling based on the perspectives in this book. The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.

In this book, journalist David Brooks aims to understand the deeper essence of human beings. He analyzes how inward qualities like virtues, narratives and calling shape people’s outward actions. Brooks believes truly knowing someone means grasping their disposition – patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving ingrained through both nature and nurture.

Understanding People to Unlock Human Mind with Essential Insights by David Brooks

He explores how virtues like humility and compassion develop over time. A person’s narrative, or sense of life’s purpose and their role in it, profoundly affects their decisions and relationships. Calling refers to our innate talents and skills which bring us fulfillment. The book also examines how ideology, community and spiritual life impact identity formation.

Brooks makes the case people are profoundly knowable through sensitive, empathetic listening beyond surface behaviors. Overall this thought-provoking book leaves the reader with a newfound appreciation for the subtleties and complexities inherent in understanding others and ourselves on a deeper human level.


Psychology, Communication Skills, Personal Development, Society, Culture, Philosophy, Self-help, Sociology, Biography, Spirituality, Relationships, Memoir

Introduction: Foster deeper, truer connections with the people in your life

How to Know a Person (2023) challenges us to set aside our egos and look beyond people’s superficial traits to really get to know them: their stories, their passions, their motivations, and more. It acknowledges that being able to see someone and make them feel seen is hard –⁠ and yet it’s essential for cultivating healthy relationships. Fortunately, with some dedication, we can all learn how to have healthier, deeper conversations; give people quality attention; and see people in all their delightful complexity.

These days, “relationships,” “community,” and “social connection” are all hot topics. We acknowledge that loneliness kills – and stress the importance of building friendships and creating community.

But do we really know what we’re talking about when we use these words? Do we know how to ask the questions that deepen a friendship? Can we set aside our own beliefs in order to hear and understand those of another person? And are we able to sit with someone who’s suffering, even if it makes us uncomfortable?

These skills are incredibly important in daily life, and yet they aren’t taught in school. As a result, loneliness has become a common illness, and we find ourselves lacking the deep friendships we so crave.

Fortunately, the ability to see others – and make them feel seen – is a skill you can cultivate. You can learn to treat people with consideration, to understand those around you, and care for your loved ones better. This summary will show you how.

Seeing and being seen

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.” In other words, the cruelest punishment you can inflict upon another person is to treat them as if they don’t matter – or don’t exist.

On the flipside, one of the greatest gifts you can give to others is seeing and understanding them. It can be life-altering to hear someone see and praise a talent within you that you may not even be aware of yourself. Or for someone to understand exactly what you need at exactly the right moment, and give it to you with warmth and affection.

Aside from the sense of fulfillment it brings, there are many reasons to cultivate the skill of seeing others. First and foremost, a lot of your most important life decisions depend on it. You need to be able to see your potential spouse beyond their looks and career prospects, and understand if you’re compatible; you need to be able to see whether a potential hire or roommate will remain calm in a crisis and be generous to others.

More than that, societies across the world are trying to build democracies that are more multicultural than ever before. For these societies to thrive, citizens must be able to see across race, ethnicity, and ideology. But currently, these skills are lacking. Black people feel that white people don’t understand the systemic inequalities they experience. People from rural communities feel that coastal communities dismiss and look down on them. The list goes on.

Repairing the frayed social fabric doesn’t mean tackling all of these problems at once. Instead, it starts on the level of the individual. Only when we each improve our ability to see and understand others can we begin to slowly stitch back together the broader social fabric.

Stop diminishing, start illuminating

Have you ever been on, or witnessed, a first date where one of the people just wouldn’t shut up about themselves? Or sat near a restaurant table where everyone was staring at their phones instead of talking to one other?

In each of these circumstances, at least one person is acting like a diminisher. Diminishers are those who make people feel small and unseen. They’re self-involved, they use other people as tools, and they rely on stereotypes to make judgments.

Diminishers’ positive counterparts are illuminators. Illuminators are persistently curious about others. They know how to ask the right questions at the right time. They lift people up and make them feel respected, seen, and important.

The effects that illuminators can have on their environments are pretty concrete. An illustrative example comes from Bell Labs. Back in the early twentieth century, executives realized that some of their researchers were more productive and amassed far more patents than others. They discovered that those researchers were the ones who frequently shared meals with Harry Nyquist, an electrical engineer. Nyquist, it turned out, was an illuminator. He was so amazing at listening to his colleagues’ challenges and asking good questions that he was able to bring out the very best in them.

Sadly, a lot of us tend to act more like diminishers than illuminators. We’re overly eager to share our own opinions, stories, or points of view, making it hard for us to see those of others. Or we spend our time caught up in anxiety over how we’re coming across, making us unable to really listen.

Fortunately, the skill of illumination is one that can be learned.

One way to adopt this gaze is to pretend –⁠ even if you don’t really believe it –⁠ that each person has a unique, immortal soul. Act as if every single person you encounter has something precious within them. If you do, you’re probably going to treat them well. You’ll become warm, respectful, and admiring by default.

Illuminators look at other people with extreme tenderness. Rembrandt paintings are great examples of this. When you see a portrait painted by Rembrandt, you see all of a person’s imperfections. But you also see their full humanity –⁠ their depth, their complexity. Through Rembrandt’s tender, illuminating gaze, an unremarkable person becomes extraordinary.

Getting to know each other

Most of life is a series of ordinary moments. It’s a meeting at work. It’s chatting with other parents while dropping the kids off at school. It’s shopping for groceries with your spouse. In these everyday interactions, we have the opportunity to get to know each other better –⁠ not necessarily face-to-face, but side-by-side.

It starts with small talk. Discussions about the weather or Taylor Swift tend to get a bad rap. But these low-pressure conversations help establish rapport and slowly build up a sense of comfort and mutual respect. That’s important, because the body needs to feel comfortable before the mind can open up.

When it does come time to go deeper, you’ll need your conversation skills at the ready. Having conversations can be incredibly hard – but it’s crucial. To see a person well, you have to ask them how they see things. You can’t assume you already know.

The best conversationalists aren’t the people who can tell funny stories or deliver piercing insights. Instead, they’re the people who can foster a two-way exchange, a mutual exploration.

One way to do that is by treating your attention as if it’s an on-off switch rather than a dimmer. You’re either entirely in, or you’re entirely out. Think about it –⁠ no one wants to be talking about something and notice that the other person isn’t really listening. As a listener, you can prevent this by stopping everything else and fully engaging in the conversation.

You should also make an effort to become a loud listener. For inspiration, just watch Oprah Winfrey, a master of conversation. When Oprah interviews someone, she visibly feels and reacts to the other person’s emotions –⁠ her mouth hangs open in surprise, she oohs and ahhs, or she sits and nods attentively. This sort of active listening invites the other person to express rather than inhibit themselves.

Good conversationalists don’t fear pauses in conversation. The tendency for most people is to start formulating a response while the other person is still speaking. But that’s a problem, because once you’ve shifted to “response mode,” you’ve stopped really listening. A good conversationalist waits until the other person is completely done speaking, then perhaps raises his finger to signal that he needs a moment. Only then does he consider his response.

Ultimately, people want to talk about themselves. They’re just all too used to people not really listening. Bit by bit, you can start to change that pattern.

Bridging the gap

Even in the best of times, getting to know someone isn’t easy. But here’s the thing –⁠ it’s not the best of times. In the United States, political animosities are running high and social isolation continues to grow. Many seem to have forgotten how to see and understand one another as human beings.

This has real, tangible effects. Suicide rates in America surged by 33 percent from 1999 to 2019. Between 1990 and 2020, the percentage of Americans who said they have no close friends quadrupled. Thirty-six percent of Americans reported feeling lonely frequently or almost all of the time –⁠ including 61 percent of young adults.

As a balm, many people turn to politics. Partisan groups offer an easy solution: to belong by being suitably outraged toward those who disagree. But that’s not real connection or friendship –⁠ it’s just being agitated together. To bridge the divides that are tearing people apart, it’s necessary to have the hard conversations that ultimately lead to deeper connection.

Prior to entering any hard conversation, think about the context in which it’s taking place. For instance, as a well-educated professional, you might find it easy to walk into a conference at a nice hotel and be yourself. It might not be as easy if you’re a trucker from West Virginia. If you find yourself in a similar role to the professional in this dynamic, show genuine curiosity about the truck driver and her work. Show her that it’s OK for her to be herself around you.

If someone starts talking about a time when they felt excluded, betrayed, or wronged, avoid the temptation to get defensive or bring the conversation back to you. Instead, stop and listen. You might think that their pain is performative or exaggerated –⁠ and maybe you’re right. But you should still stick with their frame and try to understand what their world looks like.

Say the conversation has gone south regardless. In that case, you should take a step back and break the momentum. Try to figure out, together, why things became so tense. Then, clarify your motives for the conversation and mutually reidentify its purpose.

You may never know what it’s really like to be another person –⁠ to be of a different race, gender, generation, or ability. But if you work on your skill at having hard conversations, you can still get a sense of their perspective, slowly transforming wariness into trust.

Seeing other perspectives

Most people go about their lives assuming that what they see is the objective reality –⁠ that everyone sees more or less the same thing. In fact, countless studies prove that notion incorrect.

Consider research performed by Dennis Proffitt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. Proffitt asked different groups of students to estimate the grade of various hills around UVA’s campus. Most participants considerably overestimated the grade. But one group was much more accurate –⁠ members of UVA’s women’s varsity soccer team. The soccer players didn’t see the hills as being so steep because they were highly fit athletes who didn’t struggle to walk up them. Similarly, people who recently consumed energy drinks or listened to happy music saw fewer steep hills than those who hadn’t.

What this shows is that people in different life circumstances literally see the world differently. Perception is shaped by a huge variety of factors, from our lifestyles to our personalities to our cultures. Because of this, it’s all the more important that we make an effort to see the world through other people’s eyes.

When you’re trying to see another person, one important consideration you should make is how that person’s culture and background have influenced the way they think. David Brooks, for instance, is Jewish. Even though he doesn’t attend synagogue or speak Hebrew, certain characteristics of the Jewish faith show up in him – for instance, a reverence for the written word and a sense of feeling “homeless” in the world.

Regardless of whether you feel especially connected to your culture, it impacts the way you navigate the world. For example, what do you think about the idea of lying under oath to help a friend? Ninety percent of people from the US and Canada find it unthinkable. However, most people in Nepal, Venezuela, and South Korea consider it entirely acceptable!

So, when you’re trying to see another person, you also need to see how they’ve been impacted by where they grew up, who their ancestors were, and how they embrace or reject their culture. By doing so, you’re getting beyond stereotypes and lazy judgments, seeing other people in their entirety.

Sitting with their suffering

David Brooks’ closest friend, Pete, was an exuberant man. He had a cheerful disposition, a happy marriage, two wonderful sons, and a rewarding career as an eye surgeon. Out of everyone Brooks knew, Pete seemed like the least likely person to fall prey to depression. Yet that’s what happened. In April 2022, Pete succumbed to suicide.

Through his experience witnessing Pete’s struggle, Brooks learned a lot of difficult lessons. He made mistakes – but eventually, he learned that supporting a depressed person doesn’t mean trying to cheer them up. Instead, it means acknowledging the reality of the situation and showing respect and love for that person regardless. It’s staying present and making it clear you haven’t given up on them, sending little notes or emails to let them know they’re on your mind.

This approach is grounded in empathy. A lot of people think of empathy as an emotion, but it’s actually a skill you can cultivate. It’s a vital part of seeing and knowing others when they’re suffering, regardless of the severity of their condition.

One key empathy skill is mentalizing –⁠ that is, figuring out why someone might be experiencing a particular emotion. Mentalizing helps us see others’ emotional states in all their complexity. For example, if you see someone on their first day on the job, it might take you back in time to your own first day. This will help you notice their blend of emotions: their excitement about starting a new chapter in their life, their nervousness around meeting so many new people, and their anxiety about performing well.

Another key empathy skill is caring. This involves getting out of your own experiences and understanding that what you need in the moment may be very different from what another person would need in the same situation. Say you’re with someone who’s having an anxiety attack. If that were you, you might want a glass of wine. But that might be the last thing the other person wants. Instead, they might want you to hold their hand while they do breathing exercises. This might feel awkward, but you do it anyway because you’re practicing empathy.

Empathetic people are sorely needed in the world. Too many people are walking around with a deep-seated sense of fear and hurt, and they need someone to show them that isn’t the only way. By cultivating empathy, we make the world a more open, caring, happier place.


To truly understand another person requires you to look past your assumptions, perspectives, and narratives in order to see and hear their own. Each person is a deep well of complexity, and their unique perspective is shaped by family background, life experiences, cultural context, and countless other factors. It’s important to take these into account when speaking with people, making sure to maintain an investigative, curious mindset and ask questions that give them an opportunity to voice their stories and points of view.

About the Author

David Brooks

Read more: Review: The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

Nina Norman is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. She has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Nina has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. She is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Nina lives in London, England with her husband and two children. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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