The Balancing Act of Awareness

This is my sixth blog post tagged Karma since I promised to discuss it directly and indirectly on my blog throughout the year after declaring KARMA my theme word for 2010 back on the first day of January—surprisingly now almost six months ago.

Lately I have been contemplating the importance of awareness, and far more specifically, the constant challenge involved in maintaining the balance between our self-awareness and our awareness of others.

The three sections below are each prefaced by a chapter from Witter Bynner’s “American poetic” translation of the Tao Te Ching.  I certainly do not wish to offend anyone’s religious sensibilities—I am using these references in a philosophical and secular sense.

Since I also try to balance my philosophy between Eastern and Western influences, Lao Tzu won’t be the only “old master” cited.

Additionally, please note that the masculine language (e.g., “he” and “man”) used in the selected quotes below is a by-product of the age of the original texts (e.g., the Tao Te Ching is over 2,500 years old).  Therefore, absolutely no gender bias is intended.



“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote this sentence in the closing lines of his wonderful essay on Self-Reliance, which is one of my all-time favorites even though I first read it over 25 years ago.  My favorite passage is:

“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.  This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.  It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.  It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Emerson’s belief in the primacy of the individual was certainly not an anti-social sentiment.

Emerson believed society is best served whenever individuals possess a healthy sense of self and a well-grounded self-confidence, both of which can only be achieved if we truly come to know who we are on our own terms.

Writing more than 150 years later, and in one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey explains the importance of first achieving independence through self-mastery before successful interdependence with others is possible.  “Interdependence is a choice only independent people can make,” Covey explained.  “Dependent people cannot choose to become interdependent.  They don’t have the character to do it; they don’t own enough of themselves.”

“Private victories precede public victories,” wrote Covey, explaining that the private victories of independence are the essence of our character growth, and provide the prerequisite foundation necessary for the public victories of interdependence.

Of course, the reality is that self-awareness and independence cannot be developed only during our moments of solitude.

We must interact with others even before we have achieved self-mastery.  Furthermore, self-mastery is a continuous process.  Although self-awareness is essential for effectively interacting with others, it provides no guarantee for social success.

However, as William Shakespeare taught us by way of the character Polonius in Hamlet:

“This above all—to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”


Empathy, which is central to our awareness of others (i.e., other-awareness), is often confused with sympathy.

Sympathy is an agreement of feeling that we express by providing support or showing compassion for the suffering of others.  Empathy is an identification with the emotions, thoughts, or perspectives expressed by others.

The key difference is found between the words agreement and identification.

Sympathy is the ability to relate oneself to others.  Empathy is the ability to see the self in others—not your self, but the unique self within each individual.  Sympathy is about trying to comfort others.  Empathy is about trying to understand others.

“Empathy is not sympathy,” explains Covey.  “Sympathy is a form of agreement, a form of judgment.  And it is sometimes the more appropriate response.  But people often feed on sympathy.  It makes them dependent.  The essence of empathy is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.”

Although both sympathy and empathy are important, empathy is more crucial for other-awareness.

We often simply act sympathetic when in the presence of others.  Therefore, sympathy is sometimes all too easy to feign and can easily remain superficial.  Empathy is less ostentatious, but can exert a far more powerfully positive influence over others.

In the words of Roy Schafer, who emphasized the role of narrative (i.e., the interpretation of our life stories) in psychoanalysis:

“Empathy involves the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another person.”

Balanced Awareness

Although it is easy to be aware of only our good qualities, while at the same time, only be aware of the bad qualities of others, these convenient blind spots in our awareness can also become our greatest teachers. 

Borrowing the wise words of Socrates, which thankfully were recorded for us by Plato:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Examining our awareness, and shifting its focus when appropriate between self-awareness and other-awareness truly requires a delicate balancing act. 

When we become preoccupied with self-awareness, our consideration for others suffers.  Likewise, if we become too focused on other-awareness, we can neglect our own basic needs.

Aristotle wrote about such challenges using what he called the Golden Mean, which is usually simplified into the sage advice:

“Moderation in all things.” 

Obviously, there will be times when self-awareness must be our priority, and other times when it must become other-awareness. 

I believe that there is no such thing as achieving a perfect balance, but if we remain true to our own character, then hopefully a consistency will flow freely throughout all of our behaviors, our actions, and our communication and collaboration with others.


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My #ThemeWord for 2010: KARMA

The Point of View Paradox

One of my all-time favorite non-fiction books is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. 

One of the book’s key points is that we need to carefully examine our point of view, the way we “see” the world—not in terms of our sense of sight, but instead in terms of the way we perceive, interpret, and ultimately understand the world around us.

As Covey explains early in the book, our point of view can be divided into two main categories, the ways things are (realities) and the ways things should be (values).  We interpret our experiences from these two perspectives, rarely questioning their accuracy. 

In other words, we simply assume that the way we see things is the way they really are or the way they should be.  Our attitudes and behaviors are based on these assumptions.  Therefore, our point of view influences the way we think and the way we act.

A famous experiment that Covey shares in the book, which he first encountered at the Harvard Business School, is intended to demonstrate how two people can see the same thing, disagree—and yet both be right.  Although not logical, it is psychological.

This experiment is reproduced below using the illustrations that I scanned from the book.  Please scroll down slowly.


Illustrations of a Young Woman

Look closely at the following illustrations, focusing first on the one on the left—and then slowly shift over to the one on the right:

Can you see the young woman with the petite nose, wearing a necklace, and looking away from you in both illustrations? 



Illustrations of an Old Lady

Look closely at the following illustrations, focusing first on the one on the left—and then slowly shift over to the one on the right:

Can you see the old lady with the large nose, sad smile, and looking down in both illustrations?



Illustrations of a Paradox

Look closely at the following illustrations, focusing first on the one on the far left—and then on the one in the middle—and then shift your focus to the one on the far right—and then back to the one in the middle:

Can you now see both the young lady and the old woman in the middle illustration?


The Point of View Paradox

The above experiment is usually performed without using the secondary illustration (the one shown on the right of the first two and in the middle of the final one).  Typically in a classroom setting, half of the room has their perception “seeded” utilizing the illustration of the young woman, and the other half with the illustration of the old lady.  When the secondary illustration is then revealed to the entire classroom, arguments commence over whether a young woman or an old lady is being represented.

This experiment demonstrates how our point of view powerfully conditions us and affects the way we interact with other people.

In the world of data quality and its related disciplines, the point of view paradox often negatively impacts the communication and collaboration necessary for success. 

Business and technical perspectives often appear diametrically opposed.  Objective and subjective definitions of data quality seemingly contradict one another.  And of course, the deeply polarized camps contrasting the reactive and proactive approaches to data quality often can’t even agree to disagree.

However, as Data Quality Expert and Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi taught me a long time ago:

“You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” 

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Hailing Frequencies Open

“This is Captain James E. Harris of the Data Quality Starship Collaboration...”

Clearly, I am a Star Trek nerd – but I am also a people person.  Although people, process, and technology are all important for successful data quality initiatives, without people, process and technology are useless. 

Collaboration is essential.  More than anything else, it requires effective communication – which begins with effective listening.


Seek First to Understand...Then to Be Understood

This is Habit 5 from Stephen Covey's excellent book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  “We typically seek first to be understood,” explains Covey.  “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

We are all proud of our education, knowledge, understanding, and experience.  Since it is commonly believed that experience is the path that separates knowledge from wisdom, we can't wait to share our wisdom with the world.  However, as Covey cautions, our desire to be understood can make “our conversations become collective monologues.”

Covey explains that listening is an activity that can be practiced at one of the following five levels:

  1. Ignoring – we are not really listening at all.
  2. Pretending – we are only waiting for our turn to speak, constantly nodding and saying: “Yeah. Uh-huh. Right.” 
  3. Selective Listening – we are only hearing certain parts of the conversation, such as when we're listening to the constant chatter of a preschool child.
  4. Attentive Listening – we are paying attention and focusing energy on the words that are being said.
  5. Empathic Listening – we are actually listening with the intent to really try to understand the other person's frame of reference.  You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel.

“Empathy is not sympathy,” explains Covey.  “Sympathy is a form of agreement, a form of judgment.  And it is sometimes the more appropriate response.  But people often feed on sympathy.  It makes them dependent.  The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it's that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.”



Some people balk at discussing the use of emotion in a professional setting, where typically it is believed that rational analysis must protect us from irrational emotions.  To return to a Star Trek metaphor, these people model their professional behavior after the Vulcans. 

Vulcans live according to the philosopher Surak's code of emotional self-control.  Starting at a very young age, they are taught meditation and other techniques in order to suppress their emotions and live a life guided by reason and logic alone.


Be Truly Extraordinary

In all professions, it is fairly common to encounter rational and logically intelligent people. 

Truly extraordinary people masterfully blend both kinds of intelligence – intellectual and emotional.  A well-grounded sense of self-confidence, an empathetic personality, and excellent communication skills, exert a more powerfully positive influence than simply remarkable knowledge and expertise alone.


Your Away Mission

As a data quality consultant, when I begin an engagement with a new client, I often joke that I shouldn't be allowed to speak for the first two weeks.  This is my way of explaining that I will be asking more questions than providing answers. 

I am seeking first to understand the current environment from both the business and technical perspectives.  Only after I have achieved this understanding, will I then seek to be understood regarding my extensive experience of the best practices that I have seen work on successful data quality initiatives.

As fellow Star Trek nerds know, the captain doesn't go on away missions.  Therefore, your away mission is to try your best to practice empathic listening at your next data quality discussion – “Make It So!”

Data quality initiatives require a holistic approach involving people, process, and technology.  You must consider the people factor first and foremost, because it will be the people involved, and not the process or the technology, that will truly allow your data quality initiative to “Live Long and Prosper.”


As always, hailing frequencies remain open to your comments.  And yes, I am trying my best to practice empathic listening.


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