by Bob Keteyian
In my study of learning styles, I came across the whole to part and part to whole concept. As with all learning style paradigms, this has a strong connection to communication styles, and it particularly intrigued me because I could immediately identify with it.
I am a whole-to-part learner: I need to understand the overarching concept before getting the details. Moving in the opposite direction (receiving the details first), leaves me confused and feeling adrift. Those who are part-to-whole learners need to take in the parts that lead to the whole concept they are learning. Being presented with a whole concept first leaves them overwhelmed because the concept seems arbitrary.
I often want to know what a movie or book is all about before encountering it. I don’t mind hearing how it ends . . . in fact, I want to know the ending so I have an organizing concept and will often read the last part of a book first. The unfolding process is essential for those moving from part to whole and provides much enjoyment. Knowing the punch line from the start spoils the fun.
How does all of this relate to communication styles? Here’s an illustration: Julia is a very active, hands-on sixteen-year-old. She loves sports, doesn’t like to read, has a strong work ethic, is good with people, and is distractible. Because of the distractibility, her parents and teachers are always trying to get her attention, which they do by explaining things step by step. This seems logical—and it is—but it doesn’t work with Julia because she is a whole-to-part learner. She needs the punch line first and not work toward it.
Saying, for example, “Julia, this is probably the biggest event of the year for your mother, so we really need your help” gets her attention. Giving her a specific task to do (“Julia, we’d like you to tidy up the patio and then pick up some stuff in town.”) doesn’t. This approach is specific and incremental, which can help some who are easily distracted, but for a whole-to-part person like Julia, the requests seem random. Getting Julia’s attention by giving her the bottom line—the larger concept—first is more effective. She needs to know what this is all about before she can get connected to it.
The whole-to-part and part-to-whole axis is another tool for achieving effective communication that I’ve shared with many parents, couples, and business leaders who have found it useful. As always, though, it is best to understand how it works for you before applying it to others in your relational world.