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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: communication

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.

If more people listened, players wouldn't have to kneel

Stephen H. Provost

What is it that NFL players and others are trying to say when they're kneeling during the national anthem? 

Maybe we should look beyond the debate over the message itself and take a moment to study the body language.

There's been a lot of talk about the fact that some players have chosen not to stand during the anthem, but not much has been written — that I've seen — about the gesture they've chosen to make their point.

Kneeling isn't a gesture of repudiation. You're not flipping the bird or raising your fist. You're not throwing down a gantlet and challenging anyone to a duel. 

Players who kneel before NFL games aren't burning the flag, and they aren'teven turning their back on it. They're kneeling, and that's an important distinction in terms of what they're communicating.

Kneeling is what guys do when they propose marriage. It's what the faithful do when they pray. It's saying, "I have a request to make. Please hear me." Kneeling and bowing your head can indicate sadness or sorrow.

The nature of the gesture itself appears to have been lost in the debate over what players are upset about. Some are protesting racial inequality and police brutality. Others are doubtless upset that the president of the United States has said they should be fired for peacefully expressing their opinions.

Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954.

Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954.

They're not alone. It might surprise some to learn that Jackie Robinson was among those who refused to stand for the anthem. This is the same Jackie Robinson who broke baseball's color barrier and who received an honorable discharge after serving in the Army during World War II.

Robinson wrote in his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, "As I write this twenty years later (after his first World Series appearance in 1952), I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world."

If Donald Trump wants the NFL to fire players who don't stand for the anthem, would he also evict Robinson from baseball's Hall of Fame?


The flag and anthem are supposed to be symbols of unity (this is, after all, the United States of America). I can understand why some might object to those they think are disrupting that unity by choosing not to stand for the anthem.

But I would pose the following question: Are these players really causing disunity, or are they simply unmasking it?

True disunity: Assigning 2nd Lt. Jackie Robinson to an all-black unit of the U.S. Army and forcing him to begin his professional baseball career in the segregated "Negro Leagues."

True disunity: Erecting monuments that celebrate the leaders of a secessionist movement that left more than 600,000 people dead and nearly destroyed the country — all for the sake of preserving another form of disunity: slavery.

True disunity: Waving the Confederate battle flag, war symbol of that secessionist movement, 150-plus years later.

Race aside, slavery aside, how is it acceptable to anyone that an American citizen standing for the national anthem should also display a flag that was carried into battle against men who raised the Stars and Stripes

How can anyone defend such a flag of treason and, at the same time, object to someone kneeling and perhaps bowing his head before a sporting event? Someone who doesn't want to fight, but just wants to be heard. And acknowledged. And valued.

That's what this is about. It's not too much to ask. Indeed, it's exactly what our flag is supposed to represent.


Is Twitter's downfall imminent? I sure hope so.

Stephen H. Provost

Twitter lost 2 million monthly U.S. users in the latest quarter – 3 percent of its total.

I’m not exactly doing cartwheels over this, primarily because, at my age, attempting such would be downright dangerous. It did, however, make me smile.

There are things you do because you want to, and there are others you do because you have to.

For me, Twitter has always fallen into the second category. I pretty much have to have some presence there because I’m part of the communications business. Journalist. Author. If you’re in either game these days, you need all the exposure you can get.

But Twitter is, to me, what eating my veggies was to my 7-year-old self. It’s something I do while holding my noise to avoid the bitter taste, because I’ve been told, “You must do this because it’s good for you.” Needless to say, that imperative makes it all the more unpalatable.

Veggies have grown on me but, unfortunately, Twitter hasn’t.

I’m not alone in my disdain for Twitter, even among writers and journalists, some of whom have dumped the platform altogether. For these folks, it’s just not worth it:

Last year, a fellow journalist, New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman, quit Twitter because he got sick of dealing with anti-Semitic attacks on the platform. It had become, in his words, “a cesspit of hate.”

Lindy West, an author and columnist, also bowed out, declaring Twitter to be “unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.” She concluded her piece in The Guardian with the words, “Keep the friends. Ditch the mall.”

CNN’s Aislyn Camerota realized she was “hanging out with people who find satisfaction spewing vitriol, people who spread racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism.”

The medium frames the message

Should we blame the messenger?

As Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message” (or “mess age,” as he sometimes quipped). I’m not sure I’d go that far, but the medium certainly frames the message, and Twitter’s 140-character format does just that … in a such a way as to discourage people from thinking. Or analyzing. Or conducting any kind of in-depth dialogue.

Why does Twitter attract the kind of people who ultimately alienated Weisman, West and Camerota? Maybe because it encourages hit-and-run attacks rather than reasoned discourse. Sound-bite politics does the same thing – and is, unsurprisingly, dominated by similar attacks. If you don’t like negative campaigning, you probably won’t care for Twitter, either, because Twitter is all about campaigning.

The platform is dominated by celebrities and wannabrities (along with their fans and sycophants), who are there to promote their name or their brand. Donald J. Trump, celebrity turned politician, is the ultimate creature of the nexus between politics and celebrity that Twitter has become.

Trump’s ubiquitous presence on – and reliance upon – Twitter has confirmed my opinions of both: of Trump as a simpleton who’s deluded himself into thinking he can tackle complex policy issues in 140 characters, and of Twitter as the platform that empowers him (and people like him) to do perpetuate such delusions.

High anxiety

This isn’t to say everyone who uses Twitter is a simpleton or a troll. My point is that the platform’s format attracts such folks, and like many others, I’m not comfortable in the kind of environment that creates.

As someone who’s generally unimpressed by celebrity, that doesn’t appeal to me. Besides that, there’s research that indicates using a large number of social media platforms just isn’t good for you. A study published Dec. 10 in Computers in Human Behavior found that people who used the risk of depression and anxiety in those who used the largest number of platforms was more than three times that of people used two or fewer.

That’s the last thing I need. At last count, I was active on Facebook (my primary platform), Instagram, Twitter and my blog. If I were asked to drop one, it would be a no-brainer to eliminate the one that seemed the most superficial, the least user friendly, the least interesting and the most, well, just plain mean.

That would be Twitter, folks. Where anxiety-inducing trolls and bullies are perhaps most prevalent.

Maybe other people are coming to the same conclusion, and perhaps that’s why Twitter’s user base – never remotely close to Facebook’s in the best of times – is starting to shrink. Maybe another part of it is Trump fatigue. Either way, I’m hoping users are sending a message by abandoning ship: It’s long past time for Twitter to change, and fundamentally, or die.