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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

‘Whole intelligence’ - the key to a sustainable future?

‘Reality is not something inflexible and unchanging but is ready to be remade.’

Source: Malcolm Parlett quoting from ‘Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality’, by Perls, Hefferline & Goodman (1951)

I am inspired by my friend and collaborator, Malcolm Parlett, who is a deeply accomplished psychotherapist, consultant, coach, teacher, researcher, and writer. Parlett is a passionate advocate of the role of applied psychology in enabling human wellbeing and ecological sustainability. It is easy to connect his work to what business leaders and investors increasingly think of as ‘ESG’ criteria for corporate success (Environmental, Social, Governance). His work on ‘whole intelligence’ is especially relevant to the world we find ourselves in at the start of 2021, with ongoing emergencies in public health, the environment, and the global economy.

Whole intelligence is an individual and a collective capacity that transcends ingenuity, intellectual brilliance, general intelligence, and even emotional intelligence. It is a holistic model that focuses on overall ‘good-sense’ according to Parlett, a general human competence which is developed through five interconnected practices. Parlett also refers to these interchangeably as the five ‘abilities’ or ‘explorations’. These practices support our psychological wellbeing and agility in the face of disruption, the health of our relationships, and our approach to sustainable living. Parlett’s proposed five abilities are (these are a synthesis of Parlett’s descriptions and my own summarised interpretations):

· Responding to the situation – Parlett says this is driven by ‘accomplishment’; being fully present and alive to the possibilities and actions required within our environment, in the here-and-now, as we encounter it rather than how we think our own life or the world should be

· Interrelating – driven by ‘friendship’; making contact with others; relating in ways that go beyond the mundane and the superficial to create deeper bonds and to collaborate with others inclusively, with compassion, rather than to judge, exclude or exploit others

· Embodying – using the ‘gift of life’; being aware of the embodied nature of all human experience, and how our bodies reflect and influence what is happening in our minds; connecting with nature

· Self-recognizing – developing ‘wisdom’ according to Parlett; noticing the patterns of our thought and behaviour, and how these may affect others, the society that we inhabit and future generations

· Experimenting – using the ‘power of play’; learning through action and reflection; allowing ourselves the time and freedom to experience, explore, create, and grow

Each of the five abilities, or practices, require each of us to make meaning out of them in our own context, and to interpret and construct their possible applications in our own setting.

Whole intelligence is a collection of real-world practices. Whole intelligence avoids the dualism of cognitive and emotional intelligence, ‘IQ’, and ‘EQ’. It is not an approach that invites assessment, ranking, quantification, and tight definitions – indeed it rejects all of these. It is a departure from traditional applied or pure statistical psychology. Parlett is not setting out to create yet another standardized or granular description of how we should all behave. Parlett's approach invites a more inquiring, exploratory, inclusive, and qualitative way of thinking about human development. His work invites us to create meaning out of the five abilities by noticing what resonates with us. Whole intelligence may sound ephemeral. However, the concept arose from decades of real-world experience which Parlett, as a scholarly practitioner, has always treated as research material. This makes it a very practical theory.

The universality of whole intelligence has yet to be fully evidenced. Its inter-cultural evidence base will be anchored in the response and experience of practitioners around the world. The thinking behind the model is clearly influenced and loosely informed by strands of non-western philosophy, as is gestalt in general. This suggests that whole intelligence could have cross-cultural appeal and utility. It is by definition a concept that is appreciative of difference, and of healthy boundaries, while seeking to remove barriers.

I have had positive results in my initial exploratory use of the five practices to guide developmental work with clients in both Europe and Asia. Because they are less rigid or analytic than a psychometric basis for development, the five abilities work well in situations that require a grounded, fluid and responsive approach to working with clients.

Whole intelligence is about how we relate to each other, to our environment, and how we learn. It reminds us that our physical embodiment is essential to our flourishing. Parlett points to a way to build functioning organizations and societies that appreciate the embodied nature of human experience, and of work, even when we live and work increasingly virtually.

Looking at my context as a psychologist working with organizations at the start of 2021, I am cautiously optimistic about the future. There are countless examples of whole intelligence in action in the world today. I remain confident that 'change' is not just manageable, but can, more often than not, potentially benefit people. By identifying and understanding positive examples of agility and change, then sharing our knowledge, applied psychologists and social scientists can support policy makers, leaders, and organizations.

Parlett offers a refreshing and alternative way to think about the capabilities humanity might need to deploy to adjust creatively to our shared realities. Psychologists like me spend a great deal of energy measuring and analysing human behaviour in reductive and quantitative ways. I will always acknowledge the power of tight statistical methods for specific purposes, such as workplace assessment, and diagnostics. I can also see the relevance of a more flexible, and holistic approach to collective human development.

My hope as we enter 2021 is that psychologists might play a role in building a deeper kind of wisdom - whole intelligence - in the way humanity inhabits the natural ecosystem, uses technology, tackles emergencies, defines and achieves 'progress'.

On a personal level, I am treating responding to the situation, interrelating, embodying, self-recognizing, and experimenting, as the focal areas for my own growth.

How does ‘whole intelligence’ sound to you and do you think it offers something valuable to leaders, coaches, consultants, psychologists, facilitators, and OD practitioners?

See also –

Parlett, M. (2015). Future Sense: Five explorations for an awakening world. Leicester, UK: Matador.

My books are available on Amazon:

Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world

Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose


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