David Brooks Wants Us to Take Our Conversations Deeper

Columnist and author David Brooks



“You know how emotional and warm Jewish families can be?” David Brooks asked the crowd that packed Washington University’s Graham Chapel. “I came from the other sort of Jewish family.” The sort whose private motto is “Think Jewish, act British.” Parental conditioning took hold early on: a grade-school teacher wrote, “David doesn’t really play with the other kids, he stands off to the side and observes them.” In other words, he had the aloof detachment one needs for a career in journalism, he said wryly. Indeed, it carried him to The Wall Street Journal and later landed him a job as the conservative columnist at The New York Times, a job he likens to “being the chief rabbi at Mecca.”

One of the only conservative commentators the other side can stomach, Brooks also writes for The Atlantic and teaches at Yale (where he holds office hours in a bar well past midnight). The crowd at Graham Chapel was waiting to hear about his new book, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. It was a book, he admitted, that would have been impossible to write ten years ago. Back then, when a flung baseball bat landed at his feet during a game, he slid it under his seat and stared straight ahead. Later, he wondered what was wrong with him. Anybody else would have been jumping up and down high-fiving people. Why couldn’t he show a little emotion, a little joy?

He set out to understand “the University of Chicago way: I wrote a book about emotion.” Then he let life (his baby grandson, especially) open him up. Turned out he had “the heart of a 14-year-old girl…. It’s like I got reincarnated as Miley Cyrus.” Therapists have jargon for such “work,” but Oprah Winfrey gave the best summary: the second time he was on her show, she said flat-out, “David, I’ve never seen someone change so much. You were so emotionally blocked before.”

He repeated the comment with a triumphant grin—then turned serious. “The sad thing is that as I’m becoming more human, American society is becoming more dehumanized.” More than a third of Americans say they are lonely most of the time, he said, and the number who say they have no friends has quadrupled. Black people feel their daily experiences are not understood by Whites; people in the heartland feel overlooked by the coastal elites; Republicans and Democrats look at each other in angry incomprehension. We are in the middle of “an epidemic of social pain which is now being replicated on a global scale.” And all that sadness does worse than sink us: it turns into meanness—because when people feel unseen, they lash out.

Much of Brooks’s ensuing advice came from a New York Times preview of his book, but it bore repeating, even memorizing. People have not been taught how to treat one another with kindness and consideration, he said. “They do not know how to reveal vulnerability in [here the British kicks in] an appropriate place. How to disagree well. How to sit with someone who is grieving.”

“How good are you at listening?” he asked the audience. “I can say with a great deal of confidence, you’re not as good as you think you are.” Few of us are E.M. Forster, whose biographer wrote that to be with him was to have “a sense of being listened to with such intensity that you had to be your most honest, sharpest, and best self.”

Brooks described three stages in getting to know someone. When we meet, “we are unconsciously asking ourselves, ‘Am I a person for that person? Am I a priority for that person?’ It’s communicated in the eyes before any words come out of our mouth.”

Then comes the slow building of trust. “You do not want to have the efficiency mindset,” he warned. “I’m the worst—I have ninety seconds while I’m pumping gas, I can get two emails done.” Instead, you need to relax into play. “When you’re playing, you’re just yourself. You’re natural.” You must also—the most important ingredient—be present. He mentioned a girl whose father had died of pancreatic cancer. When time came for a father-daughter dance, she ducked into the loo for a good cry. When she emerged, everyone from her table and the adjacent table had gathered outside the door. They said nothing, just hugged her one by one. (I went to one of those dances without a dad, and that sort of kindness, instead of the cheerful not-mentioning-it sort, would have made all the difference.)

The third stage of getting to know someone is conversation—which is more than just waiting one’s turn to speak. “Treat attention as an on-off switch, not a dimmer. You can’t be 60 percent.” Listen wholly, and take time to frame your reply after the other person finishes. Do not fear the pause.

The secret of good conversation is asking good questions: “About 30 percent of the people I meet are question askers,” Brooks observed. “The other 70 percent are perfectly pleasant people, they’re just not question askers.” They were; we all are, as kids. He described a teacher who promised her class they could ask her anything.

“Are you married?” they began.


“Are you divorced?”


“Do you still love him?” (She drew a quick, startled breath, then said yes.) “Does he know? Do your kids know?” (By now, she was crying. The kids had not yet learned to fear the emotions of others.)

Brooks offered his own favorite questions: “What crossroads are you at?” “If this five years of your life is a chapter, what is it about?” “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” But he was quick to admit that great conversations are hard to have these days. When talking about ideological differences, income inequality, or social inequality, “your first instinct is to be defensive: ‘I’m one of the good guys here.’” Yet the point is not to prove your own valor; the point is to understand another perspective—not by assuming you do but by asking questions until you really do. Every comment each of you exchange “is making you feel more safe or less safe, more honored or less honored,” he reminded us. “I used to think of wisdom as yoga and Dumbledore, sage advice you can put on a poster. Now I think the key to wisdom is receptivity.”

His talk won the kind of sustained applause that brings soloists back for an encore. In his version, this meant Q&A. “How, as a nation, can we get past all this pain?” someone asked.

“I believe in small, powerful moments,” he said—meaning moments that acknowledge others, hear them. “A lot of people have fallen through the cracks, and they lead lives of painful, lonely oblivion.” Put down your devices, yank out your earbuds, and talk to strangers, he urged. “The thing that makes us happy is human connection.”

He also talked about the role of humor, explaining why he began his talk with what felt like a brief stand-up routine: “When an audience is sitting before you, they secretly are anxious that you’re going to suck. If I can do five minutes of comedy, they can relax.”

Okay, but how do you ease someone into a serious, difficult conversation they are resisting? “Lead with a little vulnerability and see what they do,” he suggested. “Or lead with a little curiosity and see if they are curious too.”

People nodded, scribbled notes. But when someone turned the tables and asked what he would do if he had no fear, Brooks slipped into his old glibness, tossing back, “I’d be a center fielder for the New York Mets.” His answer might have been true, but it was hardly deep or vulnerable. Fair proof that the emotional risk he urges is exhausting to sustain. We have given over too much of our hope to breezy efficiency.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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