David Brooks recently published a book called How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. In his related piece for the New York Times, "The Essential Skills for Being Human," he writes this:

In any collection of humans, there are diminishers and illuminators. Diminishers are so into themselves they make others feel insignificant. They stereotype and label. If they learn one thing about you, they make a series of assumptions about who you must be.

On the other hand, illuminators have a persistent curiosity about other people. They have been trained or have trained themselves in the craft of understanding others. They know how to ask the right questions at the right times — so that they can see things, at least a bit, from another's point of view. They shine the brightness of their care on people and make them feel more significant, respected, and lit up.

The rest of the article is worth the read, but let's focus on this central idea for a moment.

As you read the description of diminishers and illuminators, do examples come quickly to mind?

You're sure to remember the illuminators in your life. You might think instantly of your old teacher, coach, pastor, boss, family member, or friend. Whoever they are, their warmth, curiosity, and care—and how they touched your life—couldn't be easily forgotten.

The diminishers in your life likely come to mind easily, too—those people who've made you feel small, unheard, frustrated, and disconnected. And chances are you've specifically encountered at least one person in your professional life whose unceasing egocentrism has made things miserable. Often, in the office, the person in question is average to above average in terms of work performance—but in team settings, their total lack of curiosity about others and their self-centered attitude can lead to miscommunication, outright rudeness, and hurt feelings.

The usual culprit? No self-awareness. No one sets out to be loud-mouthed, domineering, or generally unlikeable, but without cultivating self-awareness both in the workplace and at home, those tendencies can creep in and take over. As a leader, you can try to nurture a close mentoring relationship with your office "diminisher," but in the end, they get to decide whether they want to grow or not: good old free will, huh? All you can do at a certain point is decide if your friendly neighborhood diminisher needs to stay or needs to go.

Where do you fall along the continuum of diminishers and illuminators?

That soul-level development may not be something you have much say over with your team members, at least without their willing involvement. So what about you—the only person you are truly "in charge of"? Do you have a guess at what your employees would say if they were asked how you measure up along the diminisher-illuminator continuum?

When you walk into a meeting, do you light the team up with your curious and caring presence? Or do you put a damper on the mood by prioritizing your own opinions, projecting your own voice, and practicing what Richard Nugent calls "ego-driven control-freakery"?

Spring is here, and the summer flurry is approaching - the end of the school year, graduations, vacations, and more. Soon you'll have a unique opportunity to observe yourself in action. Whether it's with your kids as they revel in their summer break, with friends on the golf course, with your spouse in the blooming, attention-demanding yard and garden, or with your extended relatives at that annual family beach trip, pay attention to how you show up socially—if your presence illuminates or diminishes those around you. As you enjoy some sunshine alongside the people you care about most, who know you best, who may both fill you with warmth and twang on your nerves like no one else can, take a moment to ask yourself: here and in the workplace, how can I keep my mind open, so I can see the person in front of me as clearly as possible, illuminated in the glow of caring, supportive curiosity?

What can I do today to spread a little more light to those around me?


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