Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Holistic Communication


I’m planning to write a blog series on the language involved in business change. I’m not sure where it’s going to go yet which is why a series of blogs seems like a good idea rather than trying to fit it all in one post, or structuring it too much! To that end I’ll post all of this stuff under the “holistic communication” category to make it easier to find amongst all of the other things I post about.

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language so I’ll be covering a fair amount on grammar and sentence structure but my aim is to not make it too academic but practical and useful.  I’m also planning on covering some non-verbal stuff since what I’m really interested in is “holistic communication”.

I first came across the term “holistic communication” in an essay on nursing care by Kim Antolo a few years back when I started researching this topic. Communication in this context is the transfer of messages from one person to another person. Holism refers to treating the whole of a system not just an constituent parts. Therefore holistic communication is applying systems thinking to inter-personal communication.

I’ve studied psychology, linguistics, behavioural science, neuro-linguistic programming, magic (think card tricks rather than crystals and naked dancing), mentalism, hypnosis, cognitive science and business change so this blog series is likely to be a bit of a mixed bag of stuff.

Why is this important?

Communication is the transfer of a message from a sender via a channel to a (number of) receiver(s). The meaning of any communication is the result generated in the head of the receiver(s) not the intended message. Communication and collaboration are critical to our success as individuals, teams, companies and societies and yet often the result of intended communication is not what the sender originally intended. Improving our communication skills can literally improve our lives and everyone else’s lives.

When we communicate we’re trying to move a representation of something from our heads to someone else’s heads. There’s a lot of ways we can do this ranging from words, pictures, actions etc. Thinking about each of these carefully and how to use them together as a holistic communication approach enables us to ensure that the received message really does match our intention making us better communicators.

I think that holistic communication is the kung fu of business change.

Ethics and morality

Being effective at getting a message from our heads to other people’s heads involves changing other people’s representation of an idea, being really good at it is sometimes called being: inspiring, convincing, compelling, persuasive, seductive, hypnotic, manipulative. Some of these words have positive connotations and others negative and that’s kind of my point.

Being really good at holistic communication gives great power, and as Spiderman’s uncle would tell you “with great power comes great responsibility”. Carefully crafting a message provides the ability to put a representation of a concept in someone’s head changing their perception of reality. Sometimes that message doesn’t superficially look like the intended result making it deceptive or deceitful. Another two negative words and this is why my introductory post is going to talk about ethics and morality.

Ethics and morality are related but different. Ethics define system wide standards of behaviour whereas morals are a more personal distinction between right or wrong. Therefore in terms of business change and holistic communication we need to consider professional ethics and our personal morality.

In terms of professional ethics I think that in the agile coaching/process improvement/business change consultancy space that the hippocratic oath taken in the medical profession isn’t far off. Basically my personal morality is fairly happy with “do no harm”, the whole point of consultants is to help people.

So the focus of my application of the various concepts, structures and techniques I’m going to be covering is not how to deceive people into doing what we want but how to understand and structure our communication to get the best results and to learn how to avoid unintended negative consequences. I  believe there’s a moral imperative to learn how to communicate properly, not for the purposes of gross manipulation but to increase the impact of our messages in a positive way.

But what are the best results?

I said above that holistic communication is about understanding and structuring our communication to achieve the best results, which begs the question “best for whom”? This is why professional ethics and personal morality are important. In business change there can be a conflict between the needs of the business, the needs of the change project, the needs of the change agents and the needs of the individuals. Balancing all of these with an emphasis on “do no harm” is what I consider the “best results”.

Um… Is this hypnosis?

Both of the following are true:

  • No, there’s no such thing as hypnosis.
  • Yes, all communication is hypnosis.


As I post topics in this series I’ll add them to the topics list here and reference them all back to this post. You’re welcome to suggest topics and knowledge in the comments, if I know something about the topic I’ll add it, if not I’ll just say so and maybe you can add some content. Keep coming back as new posts will be added to this table of contents all the time 🙂

This blog series is designed to be read quite quickly with a lot of indirect metaphorical messaging and implied meaning so rather than consider each point analytically you will get more out of it by letting it sink into your subconscious as you internalise the various techniques. The last thing you want in a conversation is to spend 5 minutes analysing each sentence instead of speaking!

The practical bit

Don’t believe in all this stuff? How about a little thought experiment? Clear your mind, chill out, image a big blank whiteboard, sit back and try not to think of purple penguins.

Impossible right? I constructed a couple of words that ensure that you represent a purple penguin in your head. Probably on a whiteboard in a meeting room you’re familiar with. To negate a concept you first have to represent it. This is a trivial example, but an important concept which I’ll come back to in a later post.

2 responses to “Holistic Communication

  1. Simon May 25, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    Hi Mike,

    I really like your thinking on holistic software development, and am also interested in your thoughts on communication.

    You may be interested to watch our 15 minute presentation in the video on this page. We discuss how we have applied the concepts of holonomic thinking as explained in our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter.


    In the video we discuss on case study where the requirement was to communicate a strategic map to a whole organisation. In terms of what you write about the use of language, in Holonomics we focus on a very deep understanding of the relationship between the parts and the whole. You will see the way language changes so that the whole comes to presence through the parts, and the way in which meaning comes-into-being for example.

    I hope you find it interesting and I look forward to following your posts.

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