Mike MacDonagh's Blog

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

Tag Archives: neuro-linguistic programming

Professional mindfulness, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution and the ways of the Jedi


I’ve been hearing a lot about mindfulness in business change circles recently so thought I’d comment. It started when a fellow mentor came to me and asked if I’d heard of “mindfulness” to which I responded somewhat frivolously “as Jedi we are mindful of our thoughts and feelings”.

“Mindfulness” has roots in Buddhism as one of the seven factors of enlightenment and has was then adopted by clinical psychology, especially in “positive psychology” over the last few decades in the way that good ideas are often recycled by new belief systems ;p Recently people involved in people management, professionalism and business change have started using the term somewhat interchangeably with emotional intelligence. Interestingly, all three uses roughly fit in with the Jedi interpretation. From my perspective the definition is a bit fluffy and the current trend is simply a fad but that doesn’t mean there’s not some value behind the chatter.

Psychology today tells us

Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.


I think there’s some value in this idea of separation of emotion from logical thinking in a professional context. Emotion tends to complicate things and needs attention otherwise it can override everything else. In any given situation there is always an emotional context, both on the part of yourself and the others you’re interacting. To me, mindfulness is about understanding your emotional context and their emotional context.

“Mindfulness” has a role in conflict resolution as the first part of resolving conflict is to understand each perspective, you can’t do that if you ignore the emotional context. Rapport between individuals is force multiplied by acknowledged sharing (or perception of sharing for the sneaky) of emotional context so being aware of it is a good thing.

In Practice

So how can we achieve “mindfulness”? Various schools of thought have ideas on that from meditation, “consciousness raising” exercises etc. but I prefer a more simplistic approach to achieve awareness of emotional context. At first this is a bit slow and something you’d do retrospectively but with practice you can get quite quick at it and do it in realtime during a session.

Imagine a moment of communication, especially one with emotion. Ideally consider an event where the result wasn’t what you expected or intended or a moment of conflict.

1. First play back the event from your perspective, focussing on your emotional responses during the event and visualising enough detail to consider the opponents emotional state. Hopefully this will give you some insight into your actions.

2. Second play back the event again from the opposing person’s perspective. Put yourself in their place and try to interpret both their emotional intents and responses to your original communication.  Hopefully this will give you some insight into their actions.

3. Finally, play back the event again from the position of an objective observer. You could imagine a fly on the wall or a psychologist studying the event with a bunch of curious students in tow behind a one way mirror. The point is to examine the event, the communications, actions and responses with emotional detachment to again consider the emotional motives behind what happened.

Doing this little exercise will increase your understanding of the emotional context of any event, especially conflict events. You’ll most likely gain significant insights into your own motivations and actions and those of the other parties. I always do. This exercise helps you achieve mindfulness regarding the event.

I always do this following a moment of conflict whether it be professional or personal, as both are things I try to avoid. These days when I’m in a moment of conflict I find I immediately do a quick comparison of the situation from three perspectives, it takes a fraction of a second but enhances my understanding, and therefore response, to conflict situations significantly. This is an example of “anchoring” from NLP.

Of course if there’s a little too much conflict in a situation a different approach might be necessary!


“Be mindful of your feelings, they betray you”

In my opinion there’s little place for negative emotion in a professional setting. However sometimes business change activities may cause negative emotion of conflict, it’s these situations in which an eye on mindfulness or emotional intelligence can help.

There’s nothing new in “mindfulness”, “emotional intelligence” or (my term for it) “emotional awareness” but as with all of these things, to ignore it is to tie one hand and both legs behind your back before going for a game of tennis.

Remember also that Master Yoda said we should “be mindful of the future”… but not at the expense of the moment.

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.


Holistic Communication: The rights and wrongs of communication channels

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Defining Communication Channels

Communication is transferring a message via a medium or channel from a sender to a receiver. There may be many receivers or no knowledge of who/how many there are. This post discusses the channels of communication. Stop for a moment and write a list (at least mentally) of the number of communication channels you have in your professional life and who they are communicating with.

I’ll rattle off a few for me:

  1. Direct verbal+physical communication to the people physically co-located with me
  2. Direct verbal only via phone
  3. Direct text only via instant messaging
  4. Direct rich text only via email
  5. Broadcast test via twitter/yammer/micro-blogging platform of choice
  6. Broadcast rich text/media via blog

I could probably go on all day.

Each of these channels has different strengths and weaknesses and so should be used for different purposes and to engage with different groups. There’s an implied purpose in most channels based on their technology, history and technical restrictions which should also be respected as otherwise the receivers can be made to feel quite uncomfortable.

For example, this kind of content which is relatively long, structured, inter-related and not aimed at an individual but broadcast to whoever is interested and chooses to search for it is broadcast on my blog. Links are automatically added to twitter and linkedin for the title but the content isn’t. Imagine instead of using my blog I’d used twitter to tweet this stuff in little 140 char snippets. I think after the first flood of1 5 posts all ending in “…” I’d have about 5 followers left. It’s considered rude and inappropriate. Imagine I’d direct emailed it to you!

Choosing Channels

Now all of this might be a bit obvious when I mention it but how often do you consider what the right channel is for a message you’re trying to deliver? Some of the differences in channels can be a lot more subtle than the example above and can therefore have unintended implications on the result of your message which is the true meaning of your communication.

Choice of channel isn’t just important when initiating communication it’s even more important when responding to communication. It’s just rude to respond to someone in a different channel than they contact you in unless explicitly stated. For example, if someone emails you they’ve chosen a non-immediate text based medium for whatever reason, if you phone them back you’re changing the gear of the interaction, taking away their opportunity to carefully consider their words by applying a time pressure and interrupting them from whatever they were doing.

All Many people have insecurities about communication and can even be neurotic about some channels, especially in highly technical organisations. Sometimes people feel vulnerable on the phone and would rather interact via text/im/email even when relatively close physically. Others find they’re uncomfortable with text based channels and would rather “speak to a real” person. Do you want to make someone uncomfortable when you’re communicating with them? Before the first action or word?

I operate a couple of golden rules:

  • Respond to people on the channel they use to contact you
  • Choose the channel that’ll get the best results by making the receiver comfortable

Obviously switching channel can be a powerful gear change if used correctly, as a pattern interrupt even.  I consider deliberately doing that unethical, so don’t accidentally do it as the effects can be far worse than you’d think.

My opinions on these channels

Here’s my take on some of these from a purely personal perspective. You may well find you have a different interpretation of some of these channels, which is kind of the point of the previous bit.


1. Direct verbal+physical communication to the people physically co-located with me

Good for: Almost all, there’s instant feedback and the ability to use and read non-verbal communication. The best channel to build relationships and rapport as well as dealing with an emotional response from someone else

Bad for: Unplanned emotional confrontation. If you’re angry about something stopping to write it down can help you to make sense of your feelings rather than the immediate lashing out that can happen in verbal channels.The worst channel to deal with negative emotion from yourself.

Notes: You just can’t beat physically talking to someone


2. Direct verbal only via phone

Good for: Remote quick messages that don’t need a recorded history, reinforcing personal relationships, asking quick questions. Important time-sensitive information. Freeform discussion between 2 people.

Bad for: Anything that needs a long term response, action, complex work or analysis. Structured conversation amongst a group. Conference calls are hell people! Anything emotional as you’ve cutting out non-verbal communication, the majority of human interaction.

Notes: Remember a phone call interrupts people, most of the time they’re not waiting for it so you’re imposing your conversation on them and interfering with whatever they were doing.


3. Direct text only via instant messaging

Good for: Remote quick questions, q&a chat rooms

Bad for: Same as the Direct verbal phone one above except that you’re cutting out even more information from the communication by removing tone, speed, phrasing etc. of voice communication.

Notes: Tends to imply a certain informality despite the fact that most corporate IM solutions are recorded. Some IM solutions indicate when someone wants to talk, or is typing. Ones that don’t are just terrible.


4. Direct rich text only via email

Good for: Structured, recorded information. Group think.

Bad for: Anything that requires action, anything emotional.

Notes: The younger people are the less relevant email is, some consider it should be banned. Like all tools it depends on how it’s used. Unfortunately most people use it badly and have an inbox like a blackhole – massive amounts of stuff goes into it but there’s no observable result. Mass emial has a much lower impact than direct email.


5. Broadcast test via twitter/yammer/micro-blogging platform of choice

Good for: Short updates, social connection, short q&a, promotion of other content

Bad for: Long, structured or complex information.

Notes: Frequency of posts needs to match the local cultural norms to avoid flooding. Similarly excessive content promotion is considered spamming.


6. Broadcast rich text/media via blog

Good for: Structured complex information broadcast to a wide audience

Bad for: Information aimed at an individual or small group

Notes: Blogs can have a range of interpretations depending on their history within an organisation. One organisation I worked with considered blogs to “just be opinions and nothing important was communicated on them”. Another published everything from individual opinions to HR policy and corporate communications on their internal blog system.



As always I’m interested in your opinions. Do you have anything to addon the good and bad points of various channels. Any pet hates?

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Linguistics of business change: Holistic communication, ethics and morals


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.

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