Career & Success

Seen & Heard: How to Make Your Audience Feel Understood

In this episode, David Brooks unpacks why listening is deep, creative work.

February 13, 2024

All too often, we communicate without really connecting. The key to building deep connections with others, says David Brooks, is to make them feel seen and heard.

Brooks is a writer for the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the best-selling author of several books. In his latest, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen, he explores how vulnerability — both being vulnerable ourselves and creating space for others to be as well — is the key to fostering deeper connections at home, at work, and throughout our lives. “[People] need to be seen, heard, and understood,” Brooks says. “If you hide yourself from the emotional intimacies of life, you’re hiding yourself from life itself.”

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Brooks and host Matt Abrahams discuss the fundamentals of communicating with vulnerability and empathy, outlining the skills that anyone can learn and use to connect more deeply in their relationships.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Through communication, we have the ability to connect and truly see others. My name is Matt Abrahams and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.

Today, I look forward to my conversation with David Brooks. David is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, a writer for the Atlantic, and appears regularly on the PBS NewsHour. He’s the best-selling author of several books, including The Road to Character, The Social Animal, and his latest book is How to Know a Person. Welcome, David. I’m super excited for our chat today.

David Brooks: I’m honored to be invited. Thank you for having me on.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Are you ready to get started?

David Brooks: I am ready, willing, and able.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Across your books and articles, you focus on the importance of connection and relationships. I’m curious what drives your interest in this topic, and what role does communication play in fostering the connection you write about?

David Brooks: I wrote this book for two reasons. I wrote it partially for reasons of personal salvation. I grew up in one of those homes where we were not too emotionally open. We were not a kind of home where you said I love you and did all that hugging stuff. And so, I grew up a kind of an aloof personality type. And I became a writer, which is also a very solitary profession.

And so my joke is in high school, I wanted to date this woman named Bernice and she didn’t want to date me. She wanted to date somebody else. And I remember thinking, what is she thinking? I rate way better than that guy. And so those were my values, but they were not the normal values of society. So, I just wanted to become, you know, if you hide yourself off from the emotional intimacies of life, you’re hiding yourself off from life itself and you’re not going to be very effective in your job.

There was a study done by McKinsey where they asked CEOs, why do people leave your firm? And the CEO’s number one answer was people leave our firm to make more money somewhere else. And then they asked the people who actually left, and their number one answer was, my manager didn’t recognize me. And so human beings need recognition. They need to be seen, heard, and understood. There’s nothing crueler than making somebody else feel invisible, feeling that you just don’t get them.

And so if we’re going to rebuild trust in our societies, if we’re going to have decent politics in our societies. If we’re going to have businesses where people trust each other and can work together, you have to get really good at being able to say, yeah, I know where you’re coming to. I see the world a little from your point of view and you can trust me. And doing that is in part being open hearted. But partly it’s a series of social skills. It’s being a good listener, knowing how to argue well, knowing how to sit with someone who’s depressed, knowing how to host a meeting where everybody feels included.

These are just basic skills that can be taught, just the way carpentry can be taught, just the way sailing can be taught. And in the book, I just try to take people through the phases of getting to know another human being from the first time you meet them to when they’re struggling from difficulty to what the deepest conversations of your life.

Matt Abrahams: I appreciate you sharing your personal story for what motivated the book. And as those who listen to this podcast know, we’re all about skills around communication to help people connect. And I love that you spend time itemizing those.

Before we get into some of the specific guidance and advice that you provide, I’m curious if you wouldn’t mind sharing some of the barriers to connection.

What gets in the way and how can we remove some of those so we can truly see people and respect them?

David Brooks: The first barrier is egotism. Most of us are too busy performing ourselves and thinking about ourselves so we can’t really think about a person. The second barrier is anxiety. We have too much going on in our minds that we can’t really think about the other. The third barrier is we can’t see that we’re so stuck in our own worldview, we can’t see from her point of view. And then finally, I think it’s because we don’t ask questions and the essential skill of getting to know another human being is being a great conversationalist and especially asking great questions.

Matt Abrahams: I want to come back to one of the other barriers you talked about, this notion of worldview and then the other notion of our own ego. I really enjoyed learning about your view of empathy, which is something we talk a lot about on this podcast. You break the empathy down into a few components. Can you share those with us and provide us with some guidance on how to put them into action so we can be more empathetic?

David Brooks: So, the first essence of developing good empathy is to understand you’re wrong a lot of the time. And the second skill is mirroring. I’m sitting with you and I’m catching your emotions with my body. So, you’re anxious or you’re angry or you’re sad. And I can feel it in my own body, I can just feel the emotion that’s coming off you. And so that’s called mirroring.

The second is called mentalizing. And that’s the ability to theorize what you’re probably going through based on my own experience. So, it’s your first day on the job. And I used to have a first day on the job and I know that you’re filled with anxiety, you’re filled with joy, oh, this is going to be an exciting place to work. You’re sort of overwhelmed, maybe you have imposter syndrome. So, I’ve been through that, and I can know what you’re going through. And that’s called mentalizing.

The third stage of empathy is caring. And so, a con man is really good at knowing what other people are feeling, but we don’t say they’re empathetic because they don’t care. And so, I need to be able to care effectively for you. And you can measure your own natural empathy skills by asking yourself some questions. Like, do people sometimes tell you go too far in driving home your point? Or do they, or do you feel comfortable showing up late to a meeting? If those are true of you, then you’re probably have natural low empathy skills.

On the other hand, are social conflicts very painful for you? And then you probably have natural high empathy skills. But we can all get better. We can all get better with training. And some of the ways to get better is to read literature. You get inside the minds of other people, if you have a novel going at all times, you’re just getting good at getting inside the mind of other people. Drama is a great way; the most empathetic people have done some role playing. And so those are two very concrete ways you can improve your empathy skills.

And then the final one is just getting really good at recognizing your own emotions, comfortable in your own body. And so, people who have gone to theaters, read literature, thought about their relationships, they can just spot the emotions of the people around them and hence much higher social observation skills.

Matt Abrahams: I think it’s really powerful to deconstruct empathy. This notion of mirroring, mentalizing, and caring are very helpful to understand these different dimensions. And I really appreciate sharing the ways that we can develop and recognize our own empathy by looking internally to see how we feel. But also trying to, as you said, get in the heads of others through literature, through watching and role playing, other interactions. These are things we can do to hone and develop empathy, which make us more available to connect with others. Next, what is involved from your perspective in terms of presence and content that makes for a true connected conversation?

David Brooks: So, I asked conversation experts, this question, I got a whole bunch of tips I put in the book, I’ll reel off a few of them.

First regarding attention, treat attention as an on off switch, not a dimmer. So, when you’re talking to somebody, it should be a hundred percent or zero percent. Don’t try to 60 percent it and have 40 percent of your attention on your phone. Be a loud listener, I have a buddy when you’re talking to him, it’s like talking to a Pentecostal charismatic church, he’s like, uh huh, yes, yeah, uh huh, amen, I preach, preach. I love talking to that guy. And some people are loud with their voices, some people are loud with their faces, they’re emotionally reacting. And so, I love talking to those people.

Another tip is don’t be a topper. If you tell me, you just had a horrible flight and you sat on the tarmac for two hours, my instinct is to say, Oh, I know exactly what you went through, I had a horrible flight a few months ago and I sat on the tarmac for four hours. And that sounds like I’m trying to relate, but what I’m really doing is saying, let’s stop talking about you, let’s talk about me, and my superior experiences. And so don’t be a topper.

Another one is don’t fear the pause. If I’m talking at you and my comment is going to last 90 seconds, at what point have you stopped listening so you can think of what to say next? Probably about 45 seconds in. And so, if I’m saying something important, let me talk, listen to me for my whole 90 seconds. Then hold up your hand and consider what I’ve said, and then after eight seconds of thought, then you can respond, but don’t fear the pause. These are some of the ways you can turn a beginning conversation into a really meaningful conversation.

Matt Abrahams: I also have had the pleasure of interviewing many conversational experts, and I really like the way you capture a lot of what they’ve said in catchy phrases that are memorable. The loud listener is fantastic. We know that listening is critical but demonstrating that listening and engaging in that listening is great. And the notion that attention is 100 percent, or nothing rather than partial attention is so important. I see it in my students all the time that they’re partially paying attention. And this notion of not topping, I’m sure you’ve heard of shifting and supporting responses in conversation. And supporting is so important in not topping off.

David Brooks: And even another one, the one I like is make them authors, not witnesses. So, when people are telling you a story about their life, they don’t go into enough detail. And so, if you say, well, where was your boss sitting when she told you that, then suddenly they’re going into detail.

I have a friend who’s, his great skill is hiring people for his firms. And he has a method he calls, take me back. He says, when people talk about their lives, they don’t start early enough. So, take me back to your childhood. And he hires for what he calls spirit of generosity. And so, he thinks we’re all sort of who we were when we were in teenagers. And so, he says, take me back to high school. Who were you in high school? And how has that changed? And he says, you really get a sense of the persons, whether they have a spirit of generosity or whether they don’t have a spirit of generosity.

Matt Abrahams: You made me a little nervous thinking about who I am today versus who I was in high school, man. I don’t know if I agree with your friend’s perspective.

David Brooks: I don’t either. I don’t either, actually.

Matt Abrahams: But no, I love that idea of asking questions to get more details and that’s really important. So, David, let me ask you this way, take me back to a conversation you’ve had, where you’ve had the opportunity to be with an illuminator and a conversation where you’ve been with a diminisher. I’d love for you to help us understand those concepts in the context of conversation that you’ve had.

David Brooks: Yeah. So, an illuminator is someone who makes you feel let up. They’re curious about you, they ask a lot of questions. You just leave feeling that they really got you. And a diminisher is someone who doesn’t ask questions, they’re not curious about you. They just blather at you and you feel invisible. Am I even here? And so, the goal is to try to be more like an illuminator.

Matt Abrahams: Are there certain skills and behaviors that illuminators invoke to really help illuminate?

David Brooks: Yeah, I think a lot of it is, A, it’s the focus of attention. B, it’s the ability to be other centered. But C, maybe we could return to the art of asking questions. And so, I do think question is another moral act. Because when you’re asking somebody a question, you’re showing respect, you’re showing curiosity, you’re honoring them. And so, when you first know somebody, I like to ask questions that make them comfortable. And if I see they’re proud of something, I’ll ask them about that. If they’re wearing a sports team jersey, I’ll ask them about that. Or I often ask, where’d you grow up? I travel a lot. So, I’ve probably been to where they grew up and it’s a good way to start a conversation. And then I’ll sometimes say, where’d you get your name? And that gets people talking about their ethnic heritage or their family background. And then as I get to know them better, you can ask slightly more personal questions. And so those are things like, tell me your favorite unimportant thing about you.

But then as you get to know people, you can really have conversations that lift them out of the daily experience and get them to see themselves in new ways. And so those are questions like, and you have to have trust before you ask these questions, but it’s like, if this five year is a chapter in your life, what’s the chapter about? Or if we met a year from now, what would we be celebrating? Or what crossroads are you at? Most of us are at some transition moment in our lives. So what crossroads are you at right now? Or what talent do you have that you’re not using? And these are all questions that get people to see themselves anew. And then suddenly you’re having deeper conversations, the kind of conversations you’re going to remember forever.

I was at a dinner party several months ago now, and I asked the group, how do your ancestors show up in your life? Like we’re all formed by our ancestors, our ethnic heritage and our grandparents. And so that was a super fun conversation where we all just explored a topic together and learned about each other and ourselves.

Matt Abrahams: I’m fascinated by the value of questions for discovery. What I hear in that is you have to think about the level of connection, trust, and respect you have before you ask certain questions. And that questions can really be gateways to discovery about ourselves and others that allow us to feel a sense of commonality and connection.

David, I know you do a lot of public speaking and you’ve certainly listened to a lot of public speakers. What advice do you have to be a better public speaker?

David Brooks: If you want to know a couple of my rules on public speaking. One is you have to do a trust fall on the audience. Some people are too scared of the audience, and they don’t do a trust fall. So, you have to fall on the audience, and if you show vulnerability before the audience, they will pick you up.

The second rule of speaking is. The first five minutes when people sit down, the speech is just starting. Everybody’s anxious. The speaker’s anxious, but the audience is anxious because they don’t know if the speaker’s going to suck, and it’ll be terrible. And so, if you can tell a few minutes of jokes in the top, everybody can relax, this is not going to suck, this guy knows what he’s doing and then they will be relaxed for you.

And the final bit of advice, go on YouTube and watch a speech, any speech that is given by a guy named Bryan Stevenson. And Bryan Stevenson is famous for helping getting people out of jail, and he’s led a wonderful morally focused life, I have great admiration. But just watch his speeches, you’ll learn an important fact. There is no such thing as putting too many stories into a speech. His speeches are story, story, story, story, story, with very few points in between. But he gets the points across in the stories, so cram as many stories as you can.

And the way I do it is I look at how musicians do a rock concert. And I watch where they put the big songs in their repertoire that they put at the end, they put in the beginning. I’m a big Bruce Springsteen guy, he’s got a song called Badlands, which opens up the audience emotionally. And after you sing that song, it’s kind of a call and response song, then you can really hit them with the big stuff because they’ve been opened up emotionally. And so, story, story, story, and then hit them with the power and the power and the power at the end, and you’ll be a great communicator.

Matt Abrahams: Bryan Stevenson is somebody that in my strategic communication class, we show his work and make the same point you do. That through story, you can move people and really communicate your points. The advice of a trust fall I really like. And not only can it be through humor, it can be through a disclosive story, some interactive activity you do with the audience, but very powerful.

In your op-ed writing, you often use stories among other devices to convey complex ideas and make your points more accessible. What advice would you give our listeners who find themselves needing to make their positions and arguments more memorable and relatable and persuasive, so that they can do a better job?

David Brooks: There’s a psychologist named Jerome Bruner who says there are two modes of thinking. There’s paradigmatic mode and narrative mode, and paradigmatic mode is what most of us do at work. It’s writing a strategy memo, it’s writing a PowerPoint presentation, it’s usually writing an op ed column or a legal brief, it’s making an argument for something. And paradigmatic is a good way to think about things when you’re making the case for some strategy.

Narrative mode is what you really need to understand another human being. You want them telling stories. And so, for example, when I, even as a political journalist, I no longer ask people, what do you believe? I ask people, how did you come to believe that? And that way, suddenly they’re telling me a story of somebody who shaped their values. It’s always best to go in chronological order. What happened? This happened, then that happened, then that happened, then that happened. And so that people naturally think and remember in narrative mode, not paradigmatic mode.

Matt Abrahams: The advice to ask, how did you come to believe, is a phenomenal bit of advice to help people not just get stories from others, but to think about how to create their own stories that they tell for their information. And I thank you for that bit of advice.

David, before we end, I’d like to ask two questions of all of my guests that are the same and then I create a third question that’s specific and unique to each person. So, are you up for answering these questions?

David Brooks: Let’s go for it.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

David Brooks: All right.

Matt Abrahams: So how did you come to believe that being a journalist was the right path for you?

David Brooks: I read this book called Paddington the Bear at age seven, and I knew I wanted to become a writer. And I thought it was going to be a novelist, then I thought I wanted to be a playwright, and I was starting out trying to write fiction. I was a bartender for a year in Chicago. And then I got a job as a police reporter for the city news bureau of Chicago, which is a wire service. So, I was covering murders and crimes and rapes. And every day I came home with an amazing story. And so, I covered a lot of very stupid criminals, I covered one guy who was working at McDonald’s, and he did an armed robbery at the work at the McDonald’s he worked at. And so, they all looked at him and said, John, we know you don’t rob your own McDonald’s. And there was another group of guys who broke out of jail, got hungry and ate in a restaurant across the street from the jail and they ate in the window table, and so they were not the brightest. And so, it was just, I found that I could come home with a story, and I saw pieces of the world that I would never have seen otherwise. And so, I thought, well, journalism, that’ll be fun. So, I did that.

Matt Abrahams: Question number two, who is a communicator that you admire and why?

David Brooks: One of the ones is, frankly, Oprah. If you want to know how to be a good listener, watch an Oprah interview with a sound off. And what you’ll see is her face reacting with every, like when people are saying something happy, she’s like grunting little bits of approval. And when somebody is saying something sad, she gets this kind of silence that looks so forlorn. And so, she’s just a great example of a listener.

Matt Abrahams: Oprah is definitely an amazing speaker and your advice to watch her with the sound turned off to see how she listens is great. I think we can all learn something by watching our own video and watching video of those that we respect with sound and without to learn.

My final question for you, David, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

David Brooks: First, you have to be singing out of your depths, not out of your shallows. And so, I’d go to these concerts and sometimes I’ll see a concert, I guess I’ll mention a name, I went to a Sting concert not long ago. And the guy was just going through the motions, whereas Bruce Springsteen, to bring back my hero, he’s never going through the motions. He’s singing out of his depth, something he passionately cares about. And so, he might’ve written the song in 1974, but it’s like he’s singing it for the first time. There’s some things that come out of our depths and not out of our shallows.

The second thing is it’s just super helpful to be a little vulnerable. And so, I’ll give you an example, a story. I was teaching, I teach at Yale for 20 years. And my, I held my office hours at a bar between 9, and 9PM and 1 in the morning. And one day, a woman who I’d been courting was going to come to New Haven and tell me whether she was going to consent to marry me. And I didn’t say all that to the students, I just said, I’m going to have to cancel office hours. I just want you to know I’m going through something.

And that night of the 24 students in the seminar, probably 18 sent me an email saying. Professor Brooks, I just want you to know I’m thinking of you, uh, I’m praying for you. And that whole, that little interchange, just that little hint of vulnerability, transformed the atmosphere in that class the whole term. Because suddenly I wasn’t just Professor Brooks, I was just another schmo, trying to get through life, and so suddenly they could relate.

And then the final thing I’ll say is two of the writers I assigned to my students to learn how to write well are George Orwell and C. S. Lewis. And they were both English writers writing in the middle of the 20th century, but the key thing is they both wrote for radio. And so, they wrote, you had to be able to understand their sentences just hearing it, not reading it on a page. And so, they would never use a big word when a small word would do. They were just incredibly clear, and we want our writing to be incredibly clear. We think it’s clear to us, but it’s not clear. Writing and reading with that simplicity so they can overhear you if they just heard it on the radio and get it clear that’s just super powerful.

Matt Abrahams: I’ve learned so many things from you in your answer to that. One, I should be holding my office hours in a bar. Second, that it’s important to not only be passionate, as you mentioned, but to be vulnerable and to be very clear and focused in our language and reading out loud can be really helpful. When I read from my audio book, it was one of the most stressful, repetitive acts that I’ve ever done.

David, thank you so much, it was amazing to learn from you. You helped illuminate lots of important ideas. One of which that I’m very much taking away is that we have to be humble in the presence of connecting with other people. We’re not as good at listening as we think, we’re not as empathetic as we think, and we can work to be better. And thank you for the specific bits of advice on what we can do. This has been incredibly useful and valuable. Thank you.

David Brooks: Thank you. I’ve loved it. So, thanks for having me on.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast from Stanford GSB.

To learn more about connection and belonging, please listen to episode number 64 with Carissa Carter and episode number 101 with Geoffrey Cohen. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan Campos, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music is from Floyd Wonder. Please find us on YouTube and wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. Also, follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram and check out for deep dive videos, English language learning content, and our newsletter.

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