The Power of Good Questions

By Samantha Neugebauer

This article was originally published in DCTRENDING, here.

David Brooks likes asking questions, and last week at Sixth and I, he shared some of the questions he’s been thinking about with an attentive audience. His current ponderings include: What kind of attention should we give others? How can we improve at making people feel seen, heard, and understood? And how do you serve a friend who is in despair? Among his other titles and many accomplishments, Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and the author of the new book How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen, a guide to some of these questions and the art of truly knowing another person. 

Brooks dispensed a mixture of biography, self-deprecating humor, and practical advice for building relationships in what he calls our ‘harsh times.’ Beginning with anecdotes from his childhood, he explained how he wasn’t naturally chatty or emotional. “In our family,” he explained, “it was think Yiddish, act British.” In fact, throughout his childhood and a good portion of his adulthood, he was aloof. As a student at the University of Chicago, he joked, “I was fine living up in my head and not down in my heart. Those deep people were sad. I was shallow and doing just fine.” This trait served Brooks well as a journalist, but eventually, a noticeable conversion came, and he became more in touch with his emotions and more invested in his community and relationships. Yet, as he saw it: “As I was becoming a better human being, America was doing the opposite.”

Nowadays, he claims there are people all around us who feel invisible, unseen, and misunderstood. “There’s an epidemic of invisibility,” and “human beings need recognition,” he explained. He backed up his observations with statistics about American loneliness, such as how results from one survey show that 54% of Americans say no one knows them well. There are also significant increases in depression and suicide rates, in particular, amongst teens.“Persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness” have risen from 26% in 2009 to 44% in 2021, Brooks states. What also worries him is how loneliness leads to sadness, which leads to meanness and dehumanization.

Brooks has a lot of thoughts on how we got here, but at this Center for the Arts, he was more focused on what each of us can do in our lives to improve circumstances. He believes many of us no longer have the social skills to foster deep intrapersonal and community relationships. Fortunately, these skills can be taught “just as easily as you can learn tennis.” For starters, Brooks says, we have to begin asking each other better questions, which is initiated by taking a hard look at how we speak with people. Brooks divides the world into ‘Diminishers’ and ‘Illuminators.’ In How to Know a Person, he explained:

“Diminishers make people feel small and unseen. They see other people as things to be used, not persons to be befriended. They stereotype and ignore. They are so involved with themselves that others are not on their radar screen. Illuminators, on the other hand, have a persistent curiosity about other people…They shine the brightness of their care on people and make them feel bigger, deeper, respected, lit up.” Brooks provided many examples of Illuminators. The novelist E.M. Forster, for instance, was said by his biographer to possess an “inverse charisma,” which gave off “a sense of being listened to with such intensity that you had to be your most honest, sharpest, and best self.” To become Illuminators, Brooks suggested some classic ideas, such as majoring in the liberal arts and reading, but for folks who may already consider themselves readers, what can we do to improve? It’s clear (to me) that reading isn’t enough, or maybe the way we read now isn’t enough. Brooks recommended that we get out of “broadcast mode.” Essentially, we’re speaking more than we’re listening and asking questions. In Brook’s mind, we must see every person as a mystery and remember that every person is smarter and more interesting than us in some way.

“Ask people about their childhoods,” Brooks advised, “People love talking about their childhood.” Or, instead of asking people why they believe something, ask them how they came to believe something. By doing this, you’re asking others to tell a story. “Being a loud listener” is also key; this means that you ask people to set the scene when sharing stories, making them not just a witness to their lives but also an author. If some of these tips seem basic, it’s because they are. But it’s also true that many people don’t ask other people good questions throughout the day. “30% of the country asks questions,” Brooks stated, “and no that’s not a statistic!” But could it be? Brooks says that most of us aren’t as good at reading people as we think. 

Near the evening’s conclusion, Brooks drew on the wisdom of educator and activist Parker J. Palmer, who observed that “the shape of our knowledge becomes the shape of our living; the relation of the knower to the known becomes the relation of the living self to the larger world.” In other words, if you look at the world with generous eyes, the world is generous, but if you look at the world with judgment or fear, the world is full of judgment and things to be feared. Brooks may be full of questions, but perhaps it’s questions themselves that offer a possible remedy for a society divided by fragmentation, injustice, and a surfeit of broadcast mode.

Samantha Neugebauer is based in Washington, D.C., where she is a 2022-2023 D.C. Arts Writing Fellow with Day Eight. She works as a research assistant for Georgetown University in Qatar and a learning support specialist. Previously, she taught at Johns Hopkins and NYU in Abu Dhabi. 

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