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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: empathy

It's heroic to be open in a complex, locked-down world

Stephen H. Provost

Modern society rewards simplicity. “Don’t bother me with the details. Keep the fine print to yourself. Just show me where to sign.”

We decide elections based on tweets and 30-second commercials. We repost “facts” online without being sure they’re even factual. We adopt our parents’ positions, or those of our peers, because it’s easier than doing the research ourselves.

And we label ourselves. We reduce who we are to easily digestible name brands or slogans based on our career or faith or political ideology.

We have little patience, or tolerance, for complexity.

Yet we ourselves are nothing if not complex. The human organism isn’t a singer sitting alone onstage in a spotlight. It’s a symphony orchestra of musicians playing a diverse array of instruments. And that symphony is playing alongside myriad others in a grand concerto conducted by the universe.

Autopilot engaged

We’re loath to admit any of this. It’s easy to put that spotlight on one person; but keeping track of each moving part in the human body – let alone a vast ecosystem – is a daunting task. It can be so overwhelming that our bodies themselves keep us on autopilot much of the time. They keep our hearts beating, our eyes blinking and our lungs breathing without any conscious effort. It’s a lot easier that way: Imagine if you had to actually think about it each time you took a breath.

Certain things are supposed to be automatic. But others aren’t.

It’s one thing to assign something like breathing to the unconscious mind; although it must be maintained constantly, it’s pretty much the same thing time and again: Breath in, breath out, repeat. Only when something out of the ordinary happens – like, say, a sneeze or a hiccup – do we become conscious of what’s going on.

But it’s quite another thing to put ourselves on autopilot when it comes to tasks that are less mundane. That, however, is what we do. We dismiss people based on the color of their skin, their gender or sexual orientation. We rely on snap judgments to make important decisions. In short, we treat our conscious mind as though it were performing the same menial tasks assigned to our autonomic nervous system – the thing that keeps our blood pumping and digests our food, all without bothering us with the details.

Switching to autopilot may not be as effective when it comes to making complex choices, but it’s far easier – at least in the short run. Make no mistake, being conscious (or aware) is hardly a walk in the park. It requires living your life like a scientist, always being open to new information and willing to process it, even if it leads you to new conclusions. That’s not only a lot of work, it’s also scary because it exposes us to new challenges instead of allowing us to stick with the same routine.

Comfort zones

Motivational speakers urge people to “get out of their comfort zone,” but that isn’t accurate, because so-called comfort zones don’t exist. Not really. Life is dangerous and always changing. Comfort zones are just artificial constructs we create to make ourselves feel safe. They’re buffers that insulate our minds from the stress of dealing with the real world minute by minute, day by day.

If you doubt the difficulty of doing so, ask yourself why ignorance often really is bliss. Or, conversely, why more intelligent people are more likely to deal with stress, depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. People dedicated to remaining open-minded make themselves vulnerable to the effects of information overload. This is even more true of empathic individuals who not only think a lot, they also feel a lot because of their ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes.

In today’s world, we can stay in touch with people better than ever online, and information is transmitted in volumes unimaginable just a few decades ago. There’s more to process than ever. A world of worry and tragedy is literally at our fingertips via keyboard, so is it any wonder that more and more of us are retreating into the denial of simplicity? We don’t want to be overwhelmed with all those ideas, possibilities, conflicting claims and uncomfortable feelings. Can you really blame us?

It’s not just our world that we seek to simplify, it’s ourselves. Those labels I mentioned earlier? We’re relying on them more and more as a shorthand in defining who we are. We’re either this race or that religion, this career or that hobby. And everything else isn’t worth mentioning, because we don’t have time for it. We don’t want to have to explain ourselves any more than we want to sift through explanations provided by others.

But in labeling ourselves, we forget who we really are. We reduce ourselves to two-dimensional cardboard cutouts identical – on the outside – to thousands of others who share our label. Still, that doesn’t change the complexity on the inside, which we hide because it’s so ... inconvenient.

We could be heroes

Those open-minded and empathic people who expose themselves to the complexity of others’ thoughts and feelings? They tend to be the same people who acknowledge that complexity in themselves. As others become more closed off and define themselves more narrowly, those who do the opposite feel increasingly out of place – and are tempted to close themselves off, as well, to avoid the ridicule of those who don’t understand them.

Call us eclectic, eccentric, weird, complicated or whatever. We have interests so diverse that we can’t be pigeonholed. We might enjoy heavy metal and classical music, tearjerkers and action movies. We might be comedians one moment and dead serious the next, and we don’t swallow political platforms whole. Maybe we write books about highways, dragons, ancient philosophies and department stores (yes, that would be me).

Sometimes, we stay awake at night trying to figure things out, trying to sort through all the sensory input we’ve received and see how it fits with our intuition and what we already (think we) know.

We are what used to be called Renaissance men and women; we’re out to make masterpieces of the mind and soul, and we seem increasingly out of place in a world content with assembly lines and sound bites.

We dare to look complexity in the eye without flinching or burying our heads in the sand; on the contrary, we dare to look for the beauty where others find only terror. It’s not easy. It’s stressful, overwhelming and anxiety provoking. But we do it because we have to; because someone has to. And because we can’t imagine doing it any other way.

Because more than ever, the world needs heroes. And that’s what heroes do.


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.