Toward More Perfect Unions

David Brooks’ roadmap for achieving stronger, richer relationships.

Toward More Perfect Unions

“No man is an island entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.”

– John Donne

Assuming John Donne’s words are true, then man should aspire to be a piece of exactly what kind of continent? In his new book, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen, esteemed commentator David Brooks makes the case that from an emotional-intelligence standpoint, the best continent he can imagine would be a place where people connect often and in a mode of reciprocal engagement to the point that they fully “know” and “see” each other, and thereby “illuminate” their relationship partners by listening, affirming, empathizing, expanding their knowledge base, and prodding them onto more enlightened perspectives.

To maximize the experience, says Brooks, those who seek to know others on a deeper level must do more than talk and listen. They must also “accompany” their counterparts on a synergistic journey, which requires “assuming the other’s rhythm and perspectives as a faithful presence.” When this interactive dynamic fires on all cylinders, the tiny corners of the world where such illuminators share their lives become places of positive personal change.

As for the rest of the world — where most of the population lives — recognizing that the social fabric has been ripped apart in recent years by shortened attention spans, heightened polarization, smartphone obsession, and media misinformation, the ultimate question is whether Brooks’ ideal society can be achieved or is just wishful thinking.

Certainly, for his dream culture to come true, it will require mass quantities of humanity to disconnect from their default position of self-absorption and plug into an unselfish sensitivity characterized by generosity of spirit. This can occur in Homo sapiens only after the major transformation in personal priorities this book hopes to inspire.

How to make this sea-change shift toward successful relationship-building the rule and not the exception? To operate long term on Brooks’ uplifted social plane, people will need to start treating others like Waco, Texas, pastor Jimmy Dorrell does, as described by Brooks:

“When Jimmy sees a person — any person — he is seeing a creature made in the image of God. As he looks into each face, he is looking, at least a bit, into the face of God. He is also seeing a creature endowed with an immortal soul — a soul of infinite value and dignity…He tries to see that person with Jesus’ eyes — eyes that lavish love on the meek and lowly, the marginalized and those in pain, and on every living person…As a result, Jimmy greets people with respect and reverence.”

Because parents and schools these days fail to teach children how to illuminate others using Reverend Dorrell’s approach, most adults haven’t a clue about what it takes to “know a person” in accordance with Brooks’ vision, though his book provides a much-needed roadmap for the journey toward expanded human connection. Among the most helpful signposts to guide the way:

  • Recognize that reality has two layers — objective and subjective — and thus what has actually happened is different from what a person perceives has happened.
  • Good conversations are a two-way street and require lean-in listening and asking the right questions about big issues, with those questions worded in a way that tees up narrative answers tied to life stories.
  • For hard conversations (on subjects like politics, race, and serious personal issues), in order to avoid ugly confrontation, step into a counterpart’s “view of the horizon” without ever “deflecting” his pain, and respond to potentially triggering statements with respect and curiosity instead of kneejerk anger.
  • To help a loved one battling despair involves resisting the temptation to offer seemingly simple solutions or attempting to cheer them up with happy talk. Instead, provide comfort by showing sincere compassion and staying fully present.
  • To demonstrate the “art of empathy,” best practices are to “mirror” (listen to what a person says and then show how clearly you’ve heard it by repeating his statements accurately), “mentalize” (recount one’s own battle with a similar setback to show a grasp of the other’s misfortune), and care (which requires the total abandonment of selfish thoughts and a complete focus on the other person’s circumstances).
  • Become a “sommelier of people” by first recognizing others’ dominant personality trait and then communicating with them in a manner calculated to resonate most effectively with it.

Following Brooks’ wise precepts of “do’s” and avoiding his list of “don’ts” (most notably stereotyping/labeling/generalizing — i.e., failing to see a person’s uniqueness) leads one to become a “generative leader” with the power to elevate others well beyond their present state of mind. Such exemplary interpersonal leadership causes relationships to become “communities of truth,” which arise when people don’t merely “defer” to their colleagues but rather tactfully “critique” and even “defy” their partners as a means of helping them “process” and ultimately advance their thoughts, emotions, and perspectives. When this illuminating give-and-take dance finds its rhythm, relationships flourish in blissful synchronicity.

For more than 20 years, Brooks has been pushing himself forward by going deeper into understanding the human condition while simultaneously urging his legions of readers to do the same. Despite having ample justification for believing the world is going to the dogs, he refuses to turn loose of his lofty ideals and high standard of excellence.

By taking the steps necessary to know others better, as explained thoroughly in this life-changing book, an illuminated society can be a continent where people “become a blessing” to others, an experience that will not only “enhance moral character” but also “sanctify the soul.” If such a goal for humankind isn’t the loftiest ideal in pursuit of the highest standard of excellence, I don’t know what is.

[Editor’s note: A small portion of this piece was adapted from a feature that recently appeared in the Dallas Morning News.]

Talmage Boston is a lawyer and historian in Dallas whose most recent book is Cross-Examining History: A Lawyer Gets Answers From the Experts About Our Presidents. His next book, How the Best Did It: Leadership Lessons from Our Top Presidents, will be published by Post Hill Press on April 2, 2024.

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