David Brooks Gives His Insight on ‘How to Know a Person’

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New York Times Op-ed columnist David Brooks recently joined Lampert Institute Director Illan Nam for a conversation about his book How to Know a Person, and offered his advice on the best ways to engage with others and encourage them to share their life stories. The Feb. 20 event was the second in the Lampert Institute of Civic and Global Affairs’ spring lecture series and touched on topics such as empathy and how to approach difficult conversations before Brooks took questions from the audience.

Brooks spoke about the concept from his book of people being “illuminators” or “diminishers” when they interact with others.

“Diminishers are not curious about you, they don’t ask you questions,” Brooks said, noting diminishers choose instead to stereotype, ignite, and make assumptions. “But people are more complicated,” he continued. “Illuminators, they make you feel lit up, they’re curious about you, they want to ask you questions.”

Nam noted that Brooks’ message from his book was that people can learn to be illuminators. 

New York Times Op-ed columnist David Brooks joined Lampert Institute Director Illan Nam for a conversation about his book How to Know a Person on Feb. 20, 2024 in Golden Auditorium in Little Hall.
New York Times Op-ed columnist David Brooks joined Lampert Institute Director Illan Nam for a conversation about his book How to Know a Person on Feb. 20, 2024, in Golden Auditorium in Little Hall. Photo by Andy Daddio.

“The act of knowing another person is being really good at conversation. One of the ways is to ask for stories and prize really good questions,” Brooks said. “Good questions are narrative questions. I no longer ask ‘What you believe?’ but ‘How did you come to believe that?’”

Brooks noted that by asking meaningful questions about people’s lives, we offer them a chance to engage in narrative storytelling, which deepens their understanding of themselves as well as our understanding of them. He emphasized that we often underestimate how much we enjoy talking to other people, commenting that “No one ever says, ‘none of your damn business.’ Most people are willing to tell you their life story, but no one ever asked them.” Brooks noted that offering this kind of attention to others is a moral act.

Nam noted Brooks wrote the book in part to help us overcome some of the challenges of our current political environment. “Embedded in this is a feeling we have gotten worse at seeing and being seen by each other — are we having a harder time now?” Nam asked. 

Brooks agreed, citing the rising mental health crisis, suicide, a reduction in romantic relationships, and time spent with friends, resulting in a sadder, meaner, and more lonely culture. “Now, fewer than half of Americans give to charity; there’s been this pulling in. People tell me they feel unseen constantly.” 

Nam asked what faculty can do in the classroom to help students cultivate empathy, and Brooks recommended a course on social skills, such as asking for forgiveness, how to have challenging conversations, or how to choose a life partner.

“These are skills you learn, and if you get better at it, will be more considerate to people around you,” Brooks said.

David Brooks is a bestselling author, op-ed columnist at the New York Times, and recurring commentator on PBS NewsHour. He has a gift for bringing readers and audiences alike face to face with the spirit of our times with humor, insight, and quiet passion. He is a keen observer of the American way of life and a savvy analyst of present-day politics and foreign affairs. His columns are among the most read in the nation. Brooks is the author of six books with many bestsellers among them, including How to Know a Person, The Second Mountain, The Road to Character, and The Social Animal. Brooks seeks to further explore and explain humanity and the way we live with every addition to his critically acclaimed body of work. With intellectual curiosity and emotional wisdom, he underscores the value of community and the importance of nourishing both the inner self and the social self in our journeys to live fulfilling lives.

Lampert’s spring lecture series will continue next month with a visit from David Sanger, New York Times White House and national security correspondent, on March 26. Sanger is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner who covers diplomacy, cyber conflict, national security, and geopolitics for the New York Times.

Upcoming Lampert Institute lectures:

“The Revival of Superpower Conflict: Cyberwarfare, AI, and Security” 

David Sanger, New York Times White House and national security correspondent

4:30–6:00 p.m., Tuesday, March 26, Persson Hall Auditorium

“How to End the War in Ukraine: A New Framework”

Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings Institution director of research and foreign policy and 2023–24 Lampert Institute non-resident scholar

4:30–6:00 p.m., Tuesday, April 9, Lathrop Hall 207

The Lampert Institute for Civic and Global Affairs, named after Edgar Lampert ’62, was first established in 2008 as the Institute of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and renamed the Lampert Institute for Civic and Global Affairs in 2014. The Institute's mission is to teach students to apply the fundamental tools of a liberal arts education — identifying substantive questions and reading and writing with clarity, balance, and public purpose — to the most significant policy issues of the day, during their time at Colgate and beyond.