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Book review: How to Know a Person: The art of seeing others deeply and being deeply seen by David Brooks

23 February 2024

Jennie Hogan on the case for attentiveness

THE growth of the so-called “loneliness epidemic” unfortunately seems unarguable. The statistics of depression and suicide bear this out. It is conspicuous, therefore, that attentive listening, the art of conversation, and the vibrancy of community life seem to be on the wane. Nevertheless, A New York Times columnist, David Brooks, a non-practising Jew, doggedly and commendably seeks to overturn this and encourage antidotes.

Although he admits to being no expert, he is a journalistic magpie, and in a charming and enthusiastic manner impressively enlists insights from philosophers, poets, novelists, psychologists, and therapists to help us to reclaim, rediscover, or even learn to appreciate for the first time the gift of deeply understanding other people and, in so doing, understand ourselves more fully.

Many people — not least clergy, managers, and even parents may assume that they are already good listeners. In an accessible and upbeat style, however, Brooks digs deeper. The first part of this substantial project emphasises the power of being properly seen. Brooks proposes that this is a creative act and even compares it to listening to music and painting, as requiring receptivity and imagination. Furthermore, his thoughts on “good” conversations place in the foreground the centrality of curiosity. His insights on the word “behold” are particularly illuminating. In some chapters, he offers easily digestible advice to give the reader constructive and practical tools for genuinely listening and having better interpersonal conversations.

The second part delves into the darker reality of isolation and loneliness when a person feels unseen by others. Some reflections include moving vignettes and case studies. For instance, Brooks tells the moving story of his best friend, whose depression and despair overwhelms him despite best efforts. He takes his own life, leaving behind a devastated family and an enviable career. Brooks proposes that the art of empathy and the courage to face difficult conversations are skills that can be learnt.

In the final part, the author goes into greater detail. He writes brilliantly about the highs and lows of his own quest to see others more fully, and examines the generative impact that this has had on him.

Despite the myriad ways in which Brooks encourages us to imagine how we might develop our capacity to know, see, and learn from others, there were times when I wondered how richer this endeavour might be were he to replace these concepts with one word: love.

The Revd Jennie Hogan is a psychotherapist. She is the author of This Is My Body: A story of sickness and health (Canterbury Press, 2017).

How to Know a Person: The art of seeing others deeply and being deeply seen
David Brooks
Allen Lane £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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