Are You an Illuminator or a Diminisher?

I grew up in South Africa, where the Zulu greeting, Sawubona, is much more than a polite way of saying hello. Sawubona means “I see you.” They are words that embody the importance of recognizing the worth and dignity of each person, something I strive to do in both my personal and professional lives.

I love the concept of seeing people deeply. People want to connect. Above almost any other need, whether they know it or not, they long to have others recognize their worth and value. I believe it is such an essential antidote to the widespread epidemic of invisibility that affects people in many different ways.

Making other people feel “seen” is one of the most influential and straightforward things to do; yet, we miss these opportunities in our world of overload and distraction.

In his latest book, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen,” the acclaimed author and commentator David Brooks  observes, “There is one skill that lies at the heart of any healthy person, family, school, community organization, or society: the ability to see someone else deeply and make them feel seen—to accurately know another person, to let them feel valued, heard, and understood.”

Brooks identifies two broad categories of how we interact with people in our social and professional lives. “In any collection of humans,” he writes, “there are diminishes and illuminators. Diminishers are so into themselves they make others feel insignificant.” We have all encountered People who aren’t curious about others who make us feel ignored and invisible.

Being a Diminisher

In some cases, being a “diminisher” is a personality trait. However, in some cases, “diminishers” are just not aware that they have that effect on people. Illuminators, on the other hand, are naturally curious. “They shine the brightness of their care on people and make others feel bigger, respected, lit up,” he writes.

And yet, we humans don’t do this well. All around us are people who feel invisible, unseen, and misunderstood. Brooks sets out to help us do better, posing essential questions for all of us: If you want to know a person, what kind of attention should you cast on them? What kind of conversations should you have? What parts of a person’s story should you pay attention to?

The act of seeing another person, Brooks argues, is profoundly creative: How can we look somebody in the eye and see something significant in them and, in turn, see something larger in ourselves?

As he wrote in a recent New York Times article, “Being openhearted is a prerequisite for being a complete, kind, and wise human being. But it is not enough. People need social skills.

Among the skills Brooks identifies are being able to “perform a series of small, concrete actions well: being curious about other people; disagreeing without poisoning relationships, revealing vulnerability at an appropriate pace; being a good listener; knowing how to ask for and offer forgiveness; knowing how to host a gathering where everyone feels embraced; knowing how to see things from another’s point of view.”

Being an Illuminator

Among the most critical skills “illuminators” possess is the ability to “give the gift of attention.” When you offer a gaze that communicates respect, you positively answer the questions people unconsciously ask themselves when they meet you. “Am I a person to you?…”

Working on genuinely seeing people is such an inspiring and powerful concept! It indeed encourages a shift in mindset regarding personal and professional interactions. Brooks prompts us to reflect on whether we contribute to growth and empowerment or inadvertently diminish the potential of those around us.

Brooks defines a “diminisher” as someone who, through their actions and attitudes, unintentionally stifles the abilities and potential of those they interact with. Their behaviors often result in disengagement, reduced creativity, and limited growth among those affected, leading to stagnant environments and missed opportunities for personal and professional development.

At both an individual and professional level, being an illuminator allows us to cultivate stronger relationships, build trust, and positively impact others’ personal growth. By empowering those around us, we are surrounded by motivated, engaged, and eager individuals to contribute their unique skills and perspectives.

How to shift from Diminisher to Illuminator

Shifting from a diminisher to an illuminator requires a conscious effort to reframe our thinking and behavior. Here are some strategies that I believe can help to cultivate the mindset of an Illuminator:

Actively listen to others, valuing their perspectives and ideas. Seek to understand before being understood.

Delegate meaningful tasks and provide autonomy for decision-making. Encourage ownership and accountability.

Recognize and appreciate the efforts and achievements of others. Provide constructive feedback to facilitate growth and improvement.

Foster a culture of collaboration by encouraging diverse voices, ideas, and perspectives. Create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and respected.

And most important, strive to lead by example: Model the behavior you want to see in others. Demonstrate empathy, humility, and a growth mindset.