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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: commonality

Harmonics: Finding common ground in a divided world

Stephen H. Provost

More than a decade ago, I wrote a blog about an approach to human interaction I called Harmonics. Unfortunately, it got lost on a discarded computer drive and/or a blog site I let lapse. But the idea behind the it seems more topical now than ever. So, I decided to re-create it here.

In this era of polarized opinions, people seem to focus on – and get indignant at – the differences between themselves and others. But what if, instead, we focused on what we have in common?

That was the rather simple premise behind what I called Harmonics: the process of attuning yourself to another person’s frequency in order to better understand that person and find a common perspective.

The process isn’t complicated or mysterious. First of all, you have to filter out the noise – your own personal biases, along with the chatter from pundits, activists and bullies who come fully equipped with their own agendas. You need a clean slate, without assumptions, if you’re going to be able to put yourself in another person’s shoes and see with their eyes.

Once you’ve done that, you’ve got to listen to the person’s story – not just what they’re saying, but how they express themselves physically: their tone of voice, facial expressions, the topics that are most important to them and even how they dress. These choices help reveal not just the information they’re sharing when they speak, but their motivations, priorities and passions.


As you can see, the Harmonic method is closely aligned with empathy. Some people are naturally more empathic than others, but anyone who approaches communication this way can function with a high degree of empathy.

What you’re looking for is points of commonality. It would be easy to focus on the obvious – externals such as employment, hobbies and entertainment preferences. But as Kelly Campbell points out in Psychology Today, there’s a lot more to it than that. In fact, she identifies six factors that go into creating chemistry between people. In addition to similarity, they are openness, attraction, mystery, mutual trust, a non-judgmental attitude and effortless communication.

This squares nicely with the idea of Harmonics. Putting aside prejudices leads to openness and a non-judgmental attitude, which, in turn, helps build trust. As for mystery, it’s closely linked to curiosity. You have to want to listen in order to find out more about the other person, and there has to be some mystery (and attraction) to spur such curiosity. All these things together tend to encourage effortless communication. If a person feels you’re interested and open, and that you’re not going to judge their actions, they’re far more likely to open up to you.

The objective is to find common ground. And, in the course of your interactions, you may learn enough from each other to create new common ground. The other person might, for instance, share insights or an approach to life that you hadn’t considered that you find beneficial. Or vice versa.

It’s important to note, however, that you’re not going to agree on everything. Nor should you. If you’re a people-pleaser, it can be easy to simply behave the way (you think) the other person wants you to behave in an effort to maximize that feeling of commonality. But this actually defeats the entire purpose of Harmonics by creating false harmony. You might think you’re creating commonality, but if you’re not being authentic, you’re doing the opposite: You’re putting up barriers to it. Communication will get bogged down in dead ends created by false fronts rather than focusing on true areas of synchronicity.   


The point is not to pretend you have everything in common, but to focus on the areas you do have in common. There will be more of these with some people than with others, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s only natural.

When you find people with whom you share a lot of things in common – not just common interests, but a common approach to life – you’ll discover lifelong friends, people who belong to your “tribe.” It can be easy to think of your tribe as people who share your profession, your hobbies or various external interests. But remember, that’s one of only six factors Campbell identifies, and not necessarily the most important one. To me, openness, non-judgmental attitudes and ease of communication are more important. I’m far more interested in people who share these traits than people who happen to, like me, write books, have an interest in sports, love classic rock or have worked in journalism.

(I’m using Campbell’s list not because I think it’s definitive, but because it squares well with my own experience and observations in dealing with others.)

But what I refer to as Harmonics is valuable whether it creates a lifelong friendship or simply facilitates a one-time conversation. That’s because, in either case, it leads to better understanding of another person. Once you start focusing on things you have in common, you’re less likely to feel threatened by things you don’t. It’s easy to dehumanize someone if you think they’re different than you are; it’s a lot harder if you realize that, even though you might passionately disagree on one thing or another, you still have something in common. Even if that something is merely the fact that you both laugh, cry and breathe the same air under the same sky.

The beauty of this process is that it reinforces itself: Once you set aside judgment and commit yourself to openness, it will bring out those qualities in others who are committed to finding commonality, as well. They’re both signs of, and gateways to common understanding, and as such will reinforce the bonds that grow between people of like mind.


The challenge lies in combating the external forces that encourage people to focus on their differences, rather than their similarities. It’s an attitude that comes from a place of fear and insecurity that, in opening up to someone else, you’re making yourself vulnerable. Pundits, bullies and absolutists reinforce that insecurity every day on television and social media, by encouraging people not to listen to anyone who isn’t “one of us.”

After all, what if that other person uses your openness as an excuse to force or manipulate you into giving up aspects of yourself that are different – things that are uniquely you?

It’s a valid concern, and boundaries are certainly important. Once you see signs that someone is trying to strong-arm you into agreeing with them, it’s time to cut off the conversation. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on trying to find commonality in the first place, which is, unfortunately, what many in modern society encourage us to do. Consensus and compromise are viewed as signs of weakness. As a result, negotiations are reduced to all-or-nothing ultimatums that end it standoffs and result in bitterness, spin and further distrust.

We can change all that, I believe, simply by being open to Harmonics – to seeing others as they really are, not as our biases and the fearful masses invite us to see them. And, more than that, by seeing ourselves reflected in their souls. We aren’t nearly as different as our polarized society would have us believe, but if we are to remember that, we must start listening again, empathizing again and connecting again. Otherwise, more and more of the 7 billion people on this planet will be living lives of isolation in a very lonely world.