How to know a person

Ashok B. Boghani
6 min readMar 1, 2024


I just finished a book called ‘How to know a Person’ written by David Brooks, a well-known writer and a columnist. He begins by saying, “When I was young, I wanted to be knowledgeable, but as I got older, I wanted to be wise. Wise people don’t just possess information, they possess a compassionate understanding of other people. They know about life.” This is indeed the journey that many of us go through as we grow in age.

He further writes,” Our schools have focused on preparing people for their careers, but no on the skills of being considerate toward the person next to you…. the quality of our lives and the health of our society depend to a large degree on how well we treat each other in the minute interactions of daily life.”

This confirms a survey that I had performed along with a couple of my classmates of our colleagues in college we attended more than 50 years ago. We asked them about the factors that contributed to successful in their lives. Almost invariably, they mentioned their ability to deal with people as a major factor, and pointed out that our college did not prepare us for that.

Next, David makes several key points: “There are few things as fulfilling as the sense of being seen and understood. Life gets a lot better if you can see things from other people’s points of view. In how you see me, I will learn to see myself.” He chides us by saying, “How often have you felt prejudged, invisible, misheard or misunderstood? Do you really think you don’t do this to others on a daily basis?” This is a great statement to keep in mind. Whenever I feel slighted by someone’s action, I tell myself to be careful in not doing the same to others.

An interesting statement he makes, appropriate for these days, “If you want to thrive in the age of AI, you better become exceptionally good at connecting with others.” So true!

He then devotes considerable energy toward helping us become better at connecting. The first barrier for most of us is that “we check out the looks of people we meet and immediately start making judgements about them.” Don’t we all? He is black and so he must be blah blah blah.

David suggests we move away from these prejudices… “Illuminate” people… by using tenderness, active curiosity, affection, generosity, and a holistic attitude.” He says, “Evil happens when people are unseeing, when they don’t recognize the personhood in other human beings”. There is no doubt that during a war, the enemy is not a person. Only then can you commit such horrible atrocities. However, thankfully, that is not the case for most of us.

He recommends that “after the illuminating gaze, accompaniment is the next step in getting to know a person. In these normal moments of life, you are doing stuff together, not face to face but side by side. You are accompanying each other.” He then recommends how to accompany. “The first quality associated with accompaniment is patience. The second is playfulness. Accompaniment often involves surrender of power. Finally, it is the art of presence. Being present at weddings and funerals, for example.”

One intriguing question he raises is “What is a person?” In answer, he mentions that,” Different people can experience the same event in profoundly different ways. Event happen in our lives but each person processes and experiences the event in their own unique way. There is an objective reality of what happens and there is the subjective reality of how what happened is seen, interpreted and made meaningful.” In other words, “Experience is not what happens to you, it is what you do with what happens to you.”

A person is a point of view. Every person you meet is a creative artist who takes the events of life and, over time, creates a very personal view of seeing the world. As we try to understand other people, we want to be constantly asking ourselves: How are they perceiving this situation? How are they experiencing this moment? How are they constructing their reality?

My experience is that time and again, I meet people who have such a different view point of things like climate change, immigration, politics, and religion. I should start asking questions to myself that David suggests. “How are they constructing their reality?”

Conversation is the answer. “I am going to get to know you at the same time you are going to get to know me. Quality conversation is the essence of this approach.”

“Getting to know someone else is usually more about talking and listening than about seeing. A good conversationalist is a master of fostering two-way exchange. A good conversationalist is capable of leading people on a mutual expedition toward understanding. A good conversation is an act of joint exploration.”

“To become better conversationalist:

· Treat attention as an on/off switch, not a dimmer. “Stop doing anything else and just pay attention to this.”

· Be a loud listener. “If you listen passively, the other person ls likely to become inhibited. Active listening is an invitation to express.”

· Favor familiarity. “To get a conversation rolling, find the things the other person is most attached to.”

· Make them authors, not witnesses. “Good conversationalists ask for stories about specific events or experiences, and then they go even further.”

· Don’t fear the pause. “Wait for the end of the other person’s comments and then pause for a few beats to consider how to respond to what’s been said. “

· Do the looping. “You repeat what someone just said in order to make sure you accurately received what they were trying to project. Looping forces you to listen more carefully.”

· Apply the Midwife Model. “A midwife is not there to give birth but to simple assist the other person in their own creation. The midwife is there to encourage a deeper honesty.”

· Keep the gem statement at the center. “This is the truth underneath the disagreement, something you both agree on. Example — — Even if we can’t agree on Dad’s medical care, I have never doubted your good intentions — — If you return to the gem statement during a conflict, you can keep the relationship strong.”

· Find the disagreement under the disagreement. “Look for moral, philosophical root of why you each believe in what you do.”

· Don’t be a topper. Don’t say “Your problems are not that interesting to me; let me tell you about my own, much more fascinating ones.””

The book them goes on to some specific topics related to how we can see the others in their struggles or see them in their strengths. However, to me the above discussion is at the heart of our inability to deal with people and build long lasting social connections.

There are so many hidden gems in the above list. One of my favorites is “Don’t be a topper.” How often do I say something, or post something, and the other person, without even acknowledging what I have said will come up with what he has done which is better. He is being a topper. I am sure I do something similar myself and I need to be careful.

I believe I am pretty good at “Favor familiarity.” As a management consultant, one of the key points of success was ability to develop trust in the mind of clients, I used to go to their offices and look around. There would be photos of the travels that the person had done, or some hobbies. I was able to start conversation from those.

For people of any age, David Brooks lays out useful lessons. However, for the elderly, with more time in their hands to spend with friends and family, these are crucial skills to acquire. Without them life will not be as fulfilling or fun.



Ashok B. Boghani

I am a retired management consultant who enjoys reading and writing on a variety of subjects. I am fascinated by people, places and physics.