by Herb Stevenson
Over the last forty years, members of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland have been creating organization development theory from the fields of Gestalt Psychology and Gestalt therapy. Steeped in humanistic psychology, phenomenology and existentialism, holism, field theory, and systems theory, the Gestalt approach to OD has evolved into a present-centered, awareness building, high impact form of intervention. Besides the unique approach towards making interventions, it has a particular bent in its core assumptions that has led to the development of the Gestalt "consulting stance". This article discusses the core of gestalt theory and the gestalt consulting stance within organization development.
Gestalt Psychology underlies Gestalt OD theory. Perception and therefore awareness are critical components of Gestalt OD theory. Basically, it is held that Gestalt OD changes perceptions and therefore what is possible by supporting awareness to emerge from the existing ground of possibilities and potential. Reality shifts by widening, deepening, and revealing new or alternative ways of thinking, perceiving, and therefore doing (driving and framing perceptions). According Laura Perls, "Gestalt....is experiential and experimental." (Perls, 1992, 51)
Oddly, the most difficult aspect of Gestalt OD theory has been to translate the word Gestalt from German to English as well as from the various theoretical uses in Gestalt psychology, Gestalt therapy, and Gestalt OD. Ehrenfels, who coined the word in the 1890s, simply referred to gestalt and form interchangeably. "He insisted that the real essence of any perception was to be found in the Gestalt...[in] the immediate experience...(Pillsbury, 1933, 484-5) Later the Gestalt School noted that "experience... [and therefore]... all truly characteristic phases or processes of mind were just these gestalten or forms." (Pillsbury, 1933, 485) Though this may seem like complex and potentially circular thinking, the gist of gestalt formation is that we make meaning when we create perceptions via our interaction with the outside world and when we engage memories that spontaneously look inward to reason or understand how the experience has impacted us. Hence, how we perceive and make meaning, individually and organizational, is endemic to who we are and what we are willing to do.
The significance of gestalt formation is that prior knowledge greatly influences our current perception and memory...Therefore, when we remember something we are reconstructing our perceptions of the event. "All experience and learning that has been fully assimilated and integrated builds up a person's [or organization's] background...[This background]...gives meaning to the emerging gestalten, and thus supports a certain way of living on the boundary with excitement. Whatever is not assimilated, either gets lost or remains a block in the ongoing development [or growth]." (Perls, 1992, 54)
Gestalt principles of perceptual organization inform us in how we form perceptions and therefore in how we make meaning based on our existing knowledge and way of making meaning from experience, unless we are able to witness our own process.
1. The Principle of Similarity suggests that items that are similar tend to be grouped together regardless of whether or not the similarity or relationship actually exists. In the image to the right, most people see vertical columns of circles and squares. However, as in much of life, this basic principle is how we develop shortcuts that lead to such things stereotypes. Without taking the time to determine if there is truly an identical trait instead of just a similarity, we lose much of our ability to truly discern what is perceptually occurring.
2. The Principle of Pragnanz (simplicity and conciseness) suggests that our sense of reality is organized to the simplest form possible by eliminating what is unfamiliar or does not seem to be useful. Hence, we filter a lot of data that could change how we experience and therefore perceive and make meaning. For example, in the figure to the right, we typically see a series of circles that some might say suggests the Olympic symbol, instead of the many geometric figures. This same process occurs in how we quickly make meaning from a quick glimpse, such as how racial profiling is confused with true investigative processes.
3. The Principle of Proximity (contiguous) suggests that objects near each other tend to be grouped together whether in relationship or not. Hence, the solid circles to the right, tend to be grouped into two groups, one comprised of two vertical columns, and the other comprised of two horizontal rows, when in fact, we do not know the relationship unless we explore more data. In OD or any organization, we often use the cliche' that someone cannot see the forest for the trees when they are using the principle of proximity to describe how some one is narrowly perceiving a situation.
4. The Principle of Continuity indicates lines are seen as following the smoothest path, which suggest that we tend to develop lines of thought by following preconceived meaning making. Visually, this occurs when we see a trend of motion and decide to follow one trend that is upward or to follow the other trend which is downward. A commonly known occurrence of this principle is how the railroad industry followed a narrow track to its near complete demise. Not understanding that it was in the transportation and delivery business, it ignored other paths that were evolving, in particular, the door to door capable of the truck industry.
5. The Principle of Closure suggests that objects grouped together are seen as a whole, such that things are grouped together to complete a whole that might not exist. We fill in the gaps. For example, in the image to the right, there are no triangles or circles, yet our minds fill in themissing information to create familiar shapes and images. Television has portrayed this principle in numerous movies where someone has experienced a serious violation to their person. Unable to distinguish new situations that have no danger, only a similarity that someone is approaching, the person screams in total fear of attack. In OD, we find similar closures in how organizations respond to brand new situations and immediately respond as if it is identical to past experience; e.g. economic downturns, etc.
The value of these principles of gestalt perceptual organization is that it conveys that we tend to take short cuts while using our historically familiar past and our desired future to frame our perceptions of what we are seeing and/or making meaning in any given moment. As a result, our generally unconscious use of the principles of perceptual organization as part of our ongoing gestalt-formation will then likely be guided by the individual's and/or the organization's sense of development and path for survival. The question that becomes relevant for the individual or organization—are our perceptions real or fixed gestalts? And, more importantly, what as OD consultants can we do to create awareness around perception formation.
Figure/ground is one of the core concepts of perception in Gestalt theory. It describes the "emergence, prioritizing and satiation of needs . . . and is the basic perceptual principle of making the wholes of human needs or experiences meaningful" (Clarkson,2000, p. 6). Figure is the focus of interest—an object, a pattern, Instead of "etc." give me just one more example.a behavior—for which ground is the background, setting, or context. The interplay between figure and ground is dynamic and ongoing. The same ground may, with differing interests and shifts of attention, give rise to further different figures; or a given complex figure may itself become ground in the event that some detail of its own emerges as figure (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1971, p. 25). Our attention shifts from one figure of interest to another, and when we are no longer interested in one figure, it recedes into the ground and is replaced by another (Polster & Polster, 1973, p. 31). The thoughts we experience as idle and free-flowing, for example, echoes the flow of figures moving in and out of the ground that is the conscious mind. If we wish, these figures can become more fully formed and brought completely into awareness by attending to them more vigorously. For example, an OD consultant forms figures from the ground of the years of experience, multiple theories, and personal memories to determine what to pay attention in relation to the client system.
As noted above in the Gestalt Principles of Perceptual Organization, an important characteristic of perception is the tendency towards meaning making, that is, towards identifying a comprehensible figure. Provided data, we will instinctively try to make meaning of it or to create some sense of understanding or familiarity. If we fall prey to any of the principles of Perceptual organization, we will be creating a figure—what to pay attention to—based more on our creative application of prior experiences instead of the data and information directly available to us in the moment.
The ground, on the other hand, does not incite movement towards meaning-making and figure formation. The ground is generally considered unbounded and formless, but it provides the "context that affords depth for the perception of the figure, giving it perspective but commanding little independent interest" (Polster & Polster, p. 30). Ground evolves from our past experiences, from our unfinished business, and from the flow of the present experience. In a sense, one's entire life forms the ground for the present moment (p. 32). The past and the present color the variety of the individual's closed and unclosed experiences: "All experience hangs around until a person is finished with it," the Polsters insist. Although individuals can tolerate the internal existence of a number of unclosed experiences, the experiences themselves, if they become compelling enough, will generate "much self-defeating activity," and will essentially demand closure (p. 36). For example, the unwritten rules of most organizations are considered unfinished business within a gestalt framework. Because no one directly addresses the unwritten rules and seek multiple paths to circumvent the rules sufficiently to succeed, the unwritten rules become part of the "unfinished business" that circulates through the organization's culture.
Once closure with an experience has been reached, either through a return to old business, such as the "way we do things around here" regardless of the facts or by relating the experience to the present, "the preoccupation with the old incompletion is resolved and one can move on to current possibilities" (p. 37). Change, according to Gestalt, is a function of closing out one experience and moving on to "current possibilities." Gestalt has a high regard for "novelty and change, . . . a faith-filled expectation that the existence and recognition of novelty are inevitable if we stay with our own experiences as they actually form" (p. 48). It is in the novel that we realize that much of organization life has not already happened and the only thing that really matters is to stay fully present in the here and now to ensure clear perception of the facts as they actually exist without perceptual organization.
In 1947, Perls introduced what would become the cycle of experience. He called it Organismic/World Metabolism as a description of the process underlying the achievement of internal balance. He believed that there exists an instinctive cycle which reflected the "cycle of the interdependency of organism and environment." (Perls, 1969, 44; 69) See figure 1.
This cycle was a self-regulating experiential cycle that maintained the internal equilibrium of each individual. Because self regulation for human beings involves some form of consciousness that includes moral regulation, the moral regulation, by it's very nature, "must lead to the accumulation of unfinished situations in our system and to interruption of the organismic circle. (Perls, 1969, 45) Hence, we have an instinctual cycle that seeks to complete itself. However, through internal and/or outside influences, the completion of this cycle can be short-circuited, creating an incomplete cycle. This incomplete cycle, if necessary to return the organism to equilibrium, will continue to recycle until the original need is satisfied. Such situations result "in a 'fixed Gestalt' or 'unfinished experience/ situation' which interferes with good contact with self, others, or the environment in the present." (Clarkson, 2000, 7) In other words, fixed gestalts are the equivalent of fixed perceptions that can cause misperceptions and errors in judgment.
|Cycle of Interdependency||Internal Disturbance Cycle||External Disturbance Cycle|
|1) The organism at rest.||1) I am dozing on a coach.||1) I am lying on a couch.|
|2) The disturbing factor, which may be: a) An external disturber—a demand made upon us, or any interference that puts us on the defensive. b) An internal disturbance—a need which has gathered enough momentum to strive for gratification and which requires||2) The wish to read something interesting penetrates my consciousness.||2) A fly is crawling over my face.|
|3) The creation of an image or reality (plus-minus function and figure-background phenomena).||3) I remember a certain book-shop.||3) I become aware of the disturber.|
|4) The answer to the situation aiming at||4) I go there and buy a book.||4) I get annoyed and fetch a swatter.|
|5) A decrease of tension—achievement of gratification or compliance with the demands resulting in||5) I am reading.||5) I kill the fly.|
|6) The return of the organismic balance.||6) I have had enough. I set the book aside.||6) I go back to the couch.|
Adapted from (Perls, 1969, 44-45)
In the 1970's, the thinking of Bill Warner, Miriam Polster and Joseph Zinker at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland expanded gestalt theory with the formulation of the contact cycle and then the awareness-excitement-contact cycle. In basic terms, the cycle evolved from trying to explain how contact or change occurred. Initially, it was believed that contact/change moves through eight stages:
It was noted that the contact cycle was not time-bound, as the cycle may last only a moment, a minute, an hour, a year, or even a lifetime. The eight stages could occur in different sequences or sometimes condensed into simultaneity. Moreover, it was noted that the sequence of the cycle was a guideline and "not to be taken as a cut and dried order." (176)
The cycle evolved as creative applications were tried. Zinker ( 1977, 11) saw the creative process as a cycle of experience for the individual. He took the figure/ground concept developed by Perls, Hefferline & Goodman combined with the contact cycle of the Polsters. The more recent version of this process is described in the following sequence:
The power of this description is that it gave greater depth and understanding to figure/ground formation. The figure would surface during sensation, where the individual experiences something happening that disturbs the steady state. If the sensation holds sufficient attention of the individual, awareness of a need would sharpen. Awareness begins to develop through a mixture of feelings, thoughts, perceptions that seek to interpret the sensation. Energy mobilizes in response to this awareness of a specific need that is seeking satisfaction. The energy is released and Contact is made with that which will satisfy the need. During contact, whatever is other than the self is digested by destructuring to find what is new or different and assimilating (or integrating) it. When what is new or different has been satisfactorily destructured and assimilated, change occurs within the organism (individual). Once the original need has been satisfied, the individual returns to a steady state by withdrawing from the experience and closing the cycle. When the cycle has been completed, the individual would return to sensation and wait for a new figure to emerge from the fertile ground of the individual. (Zinker, 1977, 90-91)
Noteworthy is that this reformulation of figure/ground helped to conceptualize the internal processes occurring within each individual at any given moment in time. Moreover, it created a vehicle to understand how the individual could interrupt his or her own process. In other words, a break in the cycle of experience would be a break in the movement toward satisfaction. Discover how the individual or the environment habitually interrupts this cycle of experience and the individual would discover "unfinished business" from the past. More importantly, the individual would be able to learn how to interrupt the interruptions so that the cycle could move toward completion and the satisfaction of the original figural need.
In 1980, Zinker continued to develop the cycle of experience. He applied it to groups and group development. Similar to the individual cycle, he created a group cycle of awareness—excitement— contact. The group could learn to observe its own process and how it interrupted the completion of each cycle of experience. Once an awareness of the interruptions was created, the flow of the group through differing cycles would be more fluid. Morever, combined with the individual cycle of experience, the group members as well as the group leader/facilitator would have the means to track both the individual and group levels of experience. Individually and as a group, the participants "learn to work with and help each other without relying on the group leader". (Zinker, 1980, 60) As such, the focus within the group is on both individual and group dynamics.
In extending the cycle from the individual to the group, it revealed that the group is more than the sum of its parts. The particular dynamics of any group is determined at the individual level by the traits and characteristics of the participants. The group level dynamics are determined by how the group as a group engages itself. Two,simultaneous yet, distinct levels of behavior.
To understand these two levels of behavior, in a group of eight individuals, there would be eight individual cycles of experiences occurring simultaneous to one group cycle of experience at any given moment. In all likelihood few if any of the individual cycles of experience would be at the same stage at exactly the same time. Furthermore, the initial figure that triggered the sensation that started each of the cycles of experience may not be the same for anyone else. Finally, the group cycle would not be the same as the individual cycle of experiences.
Over the last three decades, the individual and group cycles of experience were expanded at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland's Executive & Organization Development programs. The GIC-EOD extended the theory such that the cycle of experience applied to all forms of organization. Just as the individual or group moves through sensation to awareness to excitement/anxiety to action or movement to contact or resolution to withdrawal or rest, the organization had a similar cycle of experience at the organizational level. Sensation would become scanning, awareness would become conceptualization, excitement/anxiety would become commitment to energy, action would become movement, contact would become change of boundaries, and withdrawal would become assessment.
As noted above, the group and organizational cycles of experience are slightly different than the individual cycle. Where the individual cycle begins with sensation, the group and organizational cycle begins by scanning itself and the environment to assess needs and identify key issues. Awareness develops through conceptualizing what has been scanned into an image or reality that evolves into a common picture. If a compelling picture surfaces, the group or organization mobilizes energy through the commitment of resources to the picture by discussing potential directions, establishing the level of commitment, developing pilot programs, stating themes that will be tracked, and moving forward. Action surfaces as movement toward the compelling picture and is initiated through plans and change directives. Contact becomes a change at the boundary between the organization and the environment (and/or itself)through implementation of the planned actions, creating change through impact upon the group or organization and the environment. Closure and withdrawal evolves from the assessment of what happened and the fulfillment or creation of the compelling picture. Whereupon, the group or organization returns to the scanning stage.
As a model, it provides the opportunity to look at the organization through a different lens to see how the organization is in service of itself and how it is in disservice of itself. It is this lens that creates awareness and can lead to change. Moreover, the cycle of experience enhances awareness that leads to the development of actions that culminate into learning experiences. (Nevis, 1987, 44) Hence, the cycle of experience is a model of awareness and change processes.
Attend to the environment
Identify key issues
Self & other awareness
Need for separation
Time for Appreciation
New Data Emerges
Creation of image or reality
Acknowledgment of past-present-future
Development of common vision/compelling picture
Contact—Change of Boundaries
Self & other impacted
Shift in reality occurs
Awareness of self
Commitment to Energy
Discussion of potential directions for work
Establish level of commitment
Action taken to impact environment
Awareness of self and other
Adapted form Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, BEI Program, 2008
In 1987, the application of the cycle of experience was expanded through associating the stages of the cycle with managerial decision-making behavior. "Using the cycle as orientation, the [Gestalt Consultant] acts as an instrument that observes and monitors the decision-making process of the client system to see that each phase is carried out well.." (Nevis, 1987, 41-42) Over the years, the correlation has evolved into the following.
|Cycle Phase||Corresponding Managerial Decision-making Behavior|
|Scanning & Conceptualization||
|Planning, Development of Commitment, and Mobilization of Resources||
|Creating Change through Shared, Compelling Picture||
|Separation, Completion, & Assessment||
|Appreciation & Redirection||
At the center of Gestalt OD theory is the paradoxical theory of change, which is the touchstone and guiding principle for most Gestalt interventions. However, to fully appreciate the paradoxical theory of change, we need to acknowledge, as suggested by Duncan and Miller, that "within the client is a uniquely personal theory of change waiting for discovery, a framework for interventions to be unfolded and utilized for a successful outcome" (2000, p. 180). This "uniquely personal" approach to change supports what Gestalt has come to call the paradoxical theory of change—where it is assumed that change occurs when an individual, group, or organization acknowledges and accepts what he, she or it is rather than continually trying to be what he, she or it is not. In other words, "change does not take place by trying coercion, or persuasion, or by insight, interpretation, or any other such means. Rather, change can occur when the [client] abandons, at least for the moment, what he [or she] would like to become and attempts to be what he [or she] is" (Beisser, 1970, p. 77). It is in the fullness of this state of being that fixed Gestalts dissolve and greater complexity can be seen and utilized as part of the "what is." For example, an organization that can experience that the "emperor has no clothes" is able to eliminate the fixed gestalt, creative perceptions, and unwritten rules of how we do things by cleaning the perceptual lens to see the facts for what they truly are. It is in the details of the here and now that insights and therefore the changes needed for success exist.
Gestalt as a holistic theory realized that for every OD conflict, problem, or situation, there are multiple levels of system. For example:
From Gestalt OD perspective, we began to examine how do the levels of system relate to each other? As a result of this study we realized that:
The power of use of the multiple levels of systems is that the Gestalt OD consultant can look through the organizations dynamics to determine the most effective points of intervention. For example, highlighting the unwritten rules of an organization may fall on deaf ears if unilaterally indicating that the rules are bogus. The Gestalt OD consultant could test the waters for an initial intervention with the CEO or a group of senior executives to create an awareness of how the unwritten rules serve and no longer serve the organization. Such an intervention seeks to eliminate the perceptual organization that has formed and perpetuated the unwritten rules as self-sealed and unavailable for examination.
Over the last forty years, Gestalt theory has expanded and been refined at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland to formalize the core assumptions of OD theory for individuals and organizations. This comparative explication, outlined in Figure 2, revealed theoretical history of gestalt that runs through both applications while also indicating the differences.
|Individual Development||Organization Development|
|Learning occurs through examination of here and now experience.||Learning occurs best through focusing on the process of interaction rather than the content.|
|Awareness is the precursor to effective action; awareness leads to choice.||Change in systems occurs only if members of the system are involved in the change process.|
|There is an inherent drive for people to behave as effectively as possible. The task is to help them learn this.||People in organizations have potential for solving their problems. The task of OD is to facilitate the understanding and utilization of this potential.|
|Growth is facilitated by the interaction of client and consultant. The presence of the consultant is a critical element.||A climate of openness and trust is essential for a healthy work environment.|
|Growth occurs at the contact boundary, between what is known and that which is unknown or rejected.||The feedback/action research model is the path to organizational learning and change.|
|Experimentation into new forms of experience and perception is a critical source of learning.||Pilots and experimentation are a critical source of learning.|
|Change is the responsibility of the client, not the consultant.||Change is the responsibility of the client, not the consultant.|
|Individual autonomy is crucial to healthy adjustment.||The small group is a highly effective unit through which to bring about change.|
|Change comes from within and spreads throughout the system.||Change at one level of system permeates all other levels of system.|
Over the years, the Gestalt Consulting Stance has evolved as the consummation of Gestalt OD theory. It includes the core concepts that permeates the Gestalt OD practice while codifying the practice as a stance to be taken by the OD practitioner. Figure 3 profiles each of the aspects of the Gestalt consulting stance.
A. Use of Self as an instrument
B. You provide a presence which is otherwise lacking in the system
C. Basic activities of Gestalt consulting require that you
The Gestalt consultant is trained to become an "awareness expert" by remaining focused on the present, on being present-centered. Latner (1986) explains that to be "aware of the present, to be totally in it, ensures that the self is functioning as it is meant to. The self is us, the accumulation of our experiences, our heredity, and predispositions. As our awareness is enlarged, the self comes closer to fullness and adequacy" (p. 101). The foundational goal is to be as fully present with oneself and with the client as possible, and to thereby enable new awareness or heighten existing awareness in the client system.
Maintaining present-centeredness enhances the Gestalt Consultant's ability to collect important and necessary data in order to understand client dynamics. Although data could of course be collected solely from provided organizational reports and telephone or meeting interviews, "the most valuable data source an O.D. consultant has is direct observation of the client system and subsystems within the work environment" (Alevras & Wepman, 1980, p. 234). Immersion in the immediate environment of the client system brings direct observations, experiences, and insights that would otherwise be severely diminished or simply unrealized. The awareness-building achieved through the Gestalt Consultant's entrance into the client system makes for a powerful intervention. The Gestalt Consultant gathers information about the client through direct contact with and observation of the individual, group, or organization, and then descriptively reports the findings to the client. In many ways, the Gestalt Consultant acts as a mirror for the client, and adds value by sharpening the clarity of the reflection. Greater awareness about the current situation permits for a more informed base from which to make action decisions. "Consultants [can] help to identify . . . conflicting behaviors" in the system, for example, "and assist the client in coming to an agreement about how to proceed in the face of such knowledge" (p. 234).
Methods of Awareness. In terms of technique, Gestalt identifies two different but complementary forms of awareness in the consulting process:
The Gestalt approach to awareness acknowledges use of both active, directed awareness and open, undirected awareness. . . . [A]ctive, directed awareness describes the procedures most often used by organization development consultants and action research practitioners, emphasizing structured, guided questioning of members of the client system. . . . [O]pen, undirected awareness . . . attempts to hold hypothesis formation in abeyance for a longer period of time. . . Open, undirected awareness is an attempt to reduce bias and remain as naive as possible while engaged in diagnosis." (Nevis, 1987, pp. 110-111)
Gestalt acknowledges the value of both awarenesses, and the Gestalt Consultant is trained to use both modes without preference: "good practice dictates moving back and forth . . ., keeping one's boundaries as open as possible to receive any and all data from self and other" (p. 116). Figure 4 illustrates the distinctive features of both methods.
|Active, Directed Awareness||Open, Undirected Awareness|
|Goes to the world||Lets the world come to you|
|Forces something to emerge||Waits for something to emerge|
|Uses Structures/framework to guide what you wish to see, hear, etc.||Investigates without being organized or "prejudiced" in any way as to what you wish to see hear, etc.|
|Focuses questioning; strives for a narrow, sharp field of vision||Maintains widest peripheral vision; little foreground and everything of equal importance|
|Attends to things in terms of knowledge of how they work, what is present and missing in a normative sense||Is naive about how things work; hopes to find something new about how things work|
|Searching of sensory modalities||Receptive use of sensory modalities|
|Supports work by content values and conceptual biases||Values are process-oriented, tend to be content free|
The use of self as a consulting instrument differentiates Gestalt OD theory and practice from other intervention orientations. The Gestalt approach emphasizes the relationship between the Gestalt Consultant and the client as an essential factor in any change process. In establishing and nurturing a consultant-client relationship that engenders the trust necessary for raising awareness and initiating substantial change, the power of the use of self in this process is drawn from the psychoanalytic principle that "the source of the consultant's feelings is other people" (Sher, 1999, p. 3).
That is, in reporting internal experiences to the client, the Gestalt Consultant witnesses to the mutual impact of consultant and client upon each other. The impact of this use of self can be best understood in an example, provided by Satir:
One of the characteristics of the dysfunctional . . . system is a lack of constructive feedback between members regarding the impact of their behavior on each other. When the [Gestalt Consultant] does not allow his or her own self to be present . . . the [Gestalt Consultant] operates under the same system as the [client]. When, however, the [Gestalt Consultant] uses his or her own reactions as [an awareness building intervention] by sharing with the [client] how she or he is impacted by what is happening, and asking how his or her actions are impacting the [client], a new way of operating is modeled which can effectively change the . . . system." (cited in Baldwin, 2000, p. xxii).
In this case, constructive feedback can become part of the system itself. The Gestalt Consultant's literal and figurative presence with the client triggers unformed or indistinct figure–ground formations to sharpen up by articulating what the client is thinking but refuses or is unable to bring out into the open. "Within the protected boundaries of the consultant-organization relationship, . . . the vastness of unexpressed, but felt wishes and fears—the acts of becoming and the failures of being—are opened for discussion, exploration, and incorporation" (Sher, p. 2; Bollas, 1989, p. ?).
However, use of self engages the Gestalt Consultant in "a potentially painful and highly anxiety provoking process" (Pieterman, 1999, p. 1), because in the consulting relationship, the Gestalt Consultant "becomes intimately involved with the thinking, conscious and unconscious, of the [client. The Gestalt Consultant] can be said to introject the client's projections in an attempt to work-out what is going on in the [client's] mind" (Sher, p. 3).2 The Gestalt Consultant is then charged with the responsibility of "making sense of the [introjected] data and feeding it back in a constructive way." This work is often complex and unsettling, as it "involves working with ambiguity, inconsistencies, and uncertainty. Events, motives, and behaviors that may make sense in hindsight may feel extremely confusing at the time" (Pieterman, p. 2).
Given these intimacies and challenges, establishing and maintaining trust in the consultant-client relationship is an ongoing and primary focus of work. Creating such a relationship through use of self as instrument requires, among other skills, that the Gestalt Consultant exhibit congruence in all dealings with the client. Satir (2000) offers an "oversimplified definition of congruence": "one looks like one feels, says what one feels and means, and acts in accordance with what one says" (pp. 21-22). Congruence among observation, feedback, and action assures and demonstrates that rather than imposing a catch-all, external methodology upon the consulting context, the Gestalt Consultant is using the self in immediate and responsive service to the client. Baldwin (2000) stipulates that "congruence is the ability to see and say things as they are, while respecting the Self, the Other, and the Context. . . . In the state of congruence, the [Gestalt Consultant] is fully present, nondefensive, and thus vulnerable, aware of the needs, vulnerabilities, and possible defensiveness of the other, within the context of the situation" (p. xxii). The Gestalt Consultant seeks to be present-centered, without judgment or blame, and to exercise his or her full humanity in the consulting context and the consulting-client relationship. From this position, congruence is a way of demonstrating attentiveness to and involvement in the client's specific needs.
Applied to Gestalt consultancy, then, the use of self requires that the Gestalt Consultant (1) become an awareness expert, especially in terms of organizational assessment, and (2) be behaviorally congruent in whatever is undertaken with clients. In another social construction, the Gestalt Consultant needs to walk the talk.
Walking the Talk. Walking the talk is typically associated with being congruent in the sense of being consistent in thought and in action. Another frequent association is "practicing what one preaches," that is, living one's beliefs rather than simply talking about one's beliefs. However, the concepts of congruence, consistency, and coherent practice are somewhat different seen through the lens of Gestalt theory.
In any organization comprised of large numbers of individuals, each with unique ways of interpreting their environment, multiple realities is the only reality: there are as many "realities" as there are individuals within the organization. "This often means," Weick (1995) points out, "that the way a manager walks the talk in the eyes of . . . [one person] . . . is seen as insincere by someone else who links it with a different set of words" (p. 182). Organizations that hang the motto "walk the talk" on the managers or consultants "have it backwards"; they are setting their managers and consultants up for failure, because
walking is the means to find things worth talking about. People discover what they think by looking at what they say, how they feel, and where they walk. The talk makes sense of walking, which means those best able to walk the talk are the ones who actually talk the walking they find themselves doing most often, with most intensity, and with most satisfaction. (pp. 182-183)
In Gestalt theory, then, walking the talk is in fact done by talking the walk. By doing so, managers and consultants discover a competent organizational language through their opportunities to "uncover something for which the current words [in the organization] are inadequate and for which new words are needed" (p. 183).
Putting the "talking" before the "walking" is a contrary social process for most individuals raised within Euro-centric social norms, where a number of prevalent clichés validate action before speaking, e.g., "engage the brain before opening the mouth," "think before you talk" or even, "children are to be seen, not heard" (in which "children" can serve as a broad metaphor for any "insignificant" social group). Nonetheless, by being present-centered, the Gestalt Consultant is not burdened with society's clichés, or for that matter, with the client's own clichés— interpretations of the past, hidden beliefs about "the way we do things around here," or projections of how it should or must be in the future. Instead, the Gestalt Consultant focuses on the "what is" of the present: what is being said or not said, what is being done or not done, what is being questioned or not questioned by the client during daily organizational activities. Through this process of determining "what is," the Gestalt Consultant can then initiate diagnostic and intervention tools as deemed appropriate, all the while modeling present-centeredness by his or her descriptive reporting of what is seen and heard, what is thought and felt.
This descriptive reporting of the "what is" is an instrument of talking the walk, rather than walking the talk. "To 'talk the walk' is to be opportunistic in the best sense of the word," says Weick. "It is to search for words that make sense of current walking that is adaptive for reasons that are not yet clear" (p. 183). Such talking the walk can have a profound impact on the organization. At a minimum, the action reminds us of the value of being still and listening, as well as of the power of words, including our own, to shape our perceptions and realities.3
To be surprised by spoken words suggests finding something of the self that was previously unsymbolized. An unknown part of the self is "put into" the symbol and is discovered there. Language serves to organize, think about, and communicate conscious and unconscious experience. Thus, language, the individual and the group [or organization] function as dynamic containers, participating in the transformatory process through which the capacity to bear and learn from experience is enlarged. (Billow, 2000, p. 250)
According to Gestalt theory, the role of the Gestalt Consultant is "to provide a presence that is otherwise lacking in the client system . . ." (Nevis, 1987, p. 69). The most common form of establishing his or her presence is for the Gestalt Consultant "to be a living embodiment of knowledge: the theories and practices believed to be essential to bring about the changes in people are manifested, symbolized, or implied in the presence of the Gestalt Consultant" (p. 69; original emphasis). As the embodiment of certain knowledge, the Gestalt Consultant works from five principles: 1) standing for particular values and skills; 2) modeling a way of solving problems and of dealing with life in general; 3) helping to focus the client's energy on the problems, not on preferred solutions; 4) teaching basic behavioral skills; and 5) evoking conditions that enable experimentation.
For Nevis (1987), "presence is defined as: the living out of values in such a way that in 'taking a stance,' the intervener teaches these important concepts'" (p. 70). For example, Nevis suggests, a Gestalt Consultant will generally develop and employ the following skills:
As the Gestalt Consultant masters these skills, they become natural characteristics of how he or she interacts with clients. Hence, "presence denotes a good integration of knowledge and behavior. . . .The more compelling or intriguing the knowledge and its enactment, the richer is the presence" (p. 70).
Nevis also insists, however, that "it is important to try to identify concrete, specific behaviors that form the basis for client and Gestalt Consultant effectiveness" (p. 90). For example, by listening without judgment to all aspects of the client's experience, the Gestalt Consultant models the notion of listening impartially to oneself. By being accepting and nonjudgmental of the client's feelings, the Gestalt Consultant models a nonjudgmental self-acceptance in the client. By being real and congruent and genuine, the Gestalt Consultant models that kind of behavior for the client (Baldwin, 2000, p. 31).
Applied to consulting, the concept of bare attention becomes manifest in how the Gestalt Consultant "just registers the bare facts, an exact registering, allowing things to speak for themselves as if seen for the first time, distinguishing any reactions from the core event" (Epstein, 1995, p. 110). The Gestalt Consultant models being present-centered, for example, by not becoming overly engrossed with the content of the client's situation, and instead staying most aware of how the situation is described—being bare witness. Though awkward in common and casual verbal exchanges, naming the how of what is being communicated creates a "here and now" awareness for the client. Typically, this awareness will indeed result in some self-consciousness and possibly a sense of discomfort for the client, but it nevertheless results in helping the client understand the value of staying present-centered and present-focused.
The Gestalt approach to consulting downplays problem-solving in favor of helping the client to conceptualize that problem in new ways. Information and expertise are not withheld from the client, of course, but the Gestalt Consultant tirelessly focuses on the "what is"—the "here and now"—while descriptively assessing the problem and its context as these unfold. The descriptive assessment offers breadth and depth to a problem definition, with the anticipation that sheer awareness of this expanded and enhanced definition may lead to a solution that was not available until that moment of awareness. The goal is to foster an "'emergent reality' that unfolds from a conversation structured by . . . curiosity about the client's ideas, attitudes, and speculations about change" (Duncan & Miller, 2000, p. 182). As the Gestalt Consultant describes the situation, and an awareness of "what is" emerges, the "personal organization of the individual is inevitably changed" (Merry & Brown, 1987, p. 280). Such a transformational experience need not be rooted in some traumatic revelation; in Gestalt consulting, transformation can just as easily arise—and often does arise—from helping the client to also see the obvious, the "what is," e.g., being able to see that the emperor has no clothes on after all.
Presence is not manufactured: it is something everyone displays at all times, whether one is aware of what others respond to or not. However, presence is most powerful when it embodies a compelling model or theory of learning. While some learning models are more useful than others in influencing adult behavior change, the important point is that the Gestalt Consultant has internalized one that has proven useful over time. (Nevis, 1987, p. 75)
A primary tenet of Gestalt theory is to state the "what is," and then be able to teach the client to see it and say it as well. The focus rests on the descriptive versus the evaluative. In teaching the client to use descriptive feedback, the Gestalt Consultant enables the client to distinguish between fantasy, or past and future interpretive lenses, and "the reality of the present moment. . . . [T]he emphasis within the Gestalt approach is consistently on the 'here and now.' This is the reality with which we can deal. The rest is conjecture" (Merry & Brown, 1987, p. 277).
Directly tied to the descriptive present, stating the obvious in descriptive terms, is teaching clients how to stay present-centered by learning how to witness to the ongoing process, talking about what is going on as experienced by the individual and the system. As this skill evolves, clients will be able to see their own process, and to determine for themselves how this process either is or is not serving the tasks at hand.
The Gestalt Consultant's presence aims to evoke some form of change in the system through creating awareness. Such awareness is gained not only through experience, but can also "evolve out of . . . experimentation" (Goodman, 1999, p. 63), or in the more commonly used organizational terms, through creating a "pilot." In organization development, the Gestalt experiment shows the client how to identify "habitualized behavioral patterns," how to safely experiment with other ways of behaving that might prove to be more effective within the organization, and how to modify habitual behavior for greater effectiveness (Polster & Polster, 1973). The presumption is that experience can initiate learning, and the focus of experimentation is to create opportunities for insight into how the client experiences his or her self and environment. The client actually becomes the teacher, because these insights are self-generated by through the awareness aroused from the context of experiment. Experiment "will always exceed advice or theory because the client experiences the new awareness" naturally rather than through a contrived experience (Dewey, 1938; Kolb, 1984):
All Gestalt experiments are anchored in the . . . experiential life as present[ed] in the situation. Arbitrary exercises thrust on the person (or group), devoid of experiential roots, are not within the realm of phenomenology and of Gestalt theory,. . . because they do not carry. . .a living context for the client. It is within this living context that most lasting learnings take place. (Zinker, 1977, p. 88; Dixon & Ross, 1999, p. 443)
Another way the Gestalt Consultant creates presence, one that is rarely consciously developed but that provides powerful impact, is by providing and holding space for the client through bare attention. Holding space is similar to Winnicott's created environment in which it is safe to be nobody and thus to begin to find the self; called a process of "unintegration," this psychologically safe environment ultimately leads to an individual capable of being rather than one who finds value and meaning only in doing. At this point, deep awareness surfaces as the client develops a sense of feeling "real" (Winnicott, 1965, pp. 31, 59-61, 185-86; Epstein, 1999, pp. 36-38).
Another aspect of holding space is being able to witness to one's self, and to know, for example, when interaction with the client is arousing anxiety within oneself. The Gestalt Consultant's ability to hold that anxiety, patiently allowing the source of it to surface into awareness, and to report this internal experience directly impacts the client's ability to articulate the subconscious, unspoken (perhaps "unspeakable") sources of his or her own anxiety.4
1 "Keeping track of all available evidence, including the consultant's own emotional state and how it is affected by the work, serves the [Gestalt Consultant]. These methods help to distinguish between my fantasies and the client's fantasies; to distinguish between what is fantasy, what is indirect information and what is fact; namely using all the data that separates and distinguishes what is conscious and what is unconscious." Mannie Sher, Transference-Counter-Transference, and Organisational Change, p. 3.
Sheer presence can have as great of an impact as any problem-solving skills. A powerful presence depends on the Gestalt Consultant's ability to "fill" each moment with positive silence, with a relaxed attentiveness. The silence of relaxed attentiveness occurs both within the Gestalt Consultant and between the Gestalt Consultant and the client, permitting clients to apprehend gaps in their internal and external interface, and to surface awareness that otherwise is drowned out in superficial speech. When this awareness of gaps or inconsistencies occurs, then real, unscripted, spontaneous communication is made possible (Epstein, 1995, pp. 186-189). Within the held space of relaxed attention, the client can use the Gestalt Consultant's presence rather like a "ground, asking to be written on" (Parlett, 1991, p. 80; Zinker, 1987). Holding space, then, contributes to an environment appropriate for the client's "safe" experimentation with other conceptions and behaviors.
The basis of Gestalt experiment (or pilot) is that "all living systems start small" (Senge, 1999, p. 39). Organizational experiments are small-scale tests, wherein the success or failure of new business directions are first explored, at far less cost to the organization than a large-scale, untested implementation. Experiments can vary widely from impacting an individual to determining the size of the budget and the criteria for success in the department or division that performs the experiment (Tomke, 2001).
The benefit of an experimental approach is that all outcomes are valuable. Experiments reveal several possible new ways of thinking and behaving that could provide significant insights into organizational courses of action: e.g., insights that support the CEO's strategies to stop unconscious and undermining behaviors, that help a team redirect its energies, or that guide the organization in deciding whether to move forward with broad changes.
For the experiment to be a valuable learning experience, the client needs to pass through the five steps of the experiential cycle of learning (see Figure 5). The experiential cycle of learning is a process that the Gestalt Consultant will witness while guiding the client through the experiment. This cyclical process creates an orienting lens through which to observe and with which to frame the client's learning experience. Framing the experience in this way bolsters the Gestalt Consultant's ability to compare the client's "what is" before and after the experiment, thereby helping the client identify not only what is new, but what is possible and desirable.
Over the last five decades, Gestalt experiments have often been referred to as "creating a safe emergency," wherein the client is given the opportunity to try something new and untested to determine what is or is not desirable and possible. Such experimentation is valid at all levels of system, i.e., individual, group, or organization. In the safety of the experiment, the client is able to adopt a new behavior or a different way of conceptualizing a problem or situation without risking personal or organizational resources. An awareness of what is possible leads to an awareness of "what might be," that is, of how things could be different (and better) in the future.
Full involvement in new here-and-now experiences.
Experiment/Pilot, Simulation, Case Study,
Real Experience, Demonstration, Field trips
Observation and reflection of learner's
experiences from many perspectives.
Discussion, Small Groups,
|Planning for Implementation
(How to be differently)
Defining what will be done
Determining how will be applied
Action planning; "what if" Scenarios,
(What was learned, future implication)
Integration of abstract concepts and
generalizations into sound theories
Obviously, shaping and supervising successful experiments calls on particular knowledge and skills. The nature of the experiment depends on the client's specific needs, situation, and environment. Fashioning an appropriate experiment, then, is actually a highly creative process. According to Zinker, this process is in turn designed to reach certain goals, as outlined below.
Congruent with both the gestalt cycle of experience and Kolb's cycle of learning, it was discovered that an experiment has a beginning, middle, and end, similar to Systems theory's input, throughput, and output. The structure of an experiment is used as a tool to organize interventions by providing an orienting structure to support the consulting process, similar to the change theories of Van Gennep's Ritual Theory", Victor Turner's "Initiation Theory" and Robert Moore's "Jungian DevelopmentTheory". This structure became known as Unit of Work, which has become a virtual trademark of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland's (GIC) OD programs . By consciously adopting and following a structure of beginning, middle, and end, the Gestalt Consultant is better able to stay in the moment while patiently waiting for a notable figure to surface from the ground of the individual, group, or organization. The structure is generally used by the Gestalt Consultant without necessarily disclosing its use to the client. GIC (2008) "has defined "work" as processes of change or development, either naturally arrived at or deliberately orchestrated. A finished 'unit of work' is a coherent, assimilable experience; it may be the completion of a task, the resolution of an issue, or a learning experience. A successful unit of work creates energy that is sustained and purposeful" (p. 99). Moreover, the client recognizes not only something new, but that the new has shifted them from their prior point of awareness.
Applying this definition, a Unit of Work is a procedural frame of reference that helps to organize intervention change activity. It consists of four steps: (1) assessing "what is" by heightening awareness of what appears to happening; (2) choosing what to attend to by defining patterns or themes that exist; (3) acting on that choice by creating awareness of the pattern, suggesting an experiment that tests alternative ways of doing things; and (4) closing out that particular activity by acknowledging the new "what is" that has evolved from the experiment. Figure 6 below expands on this procedural framework.
|The beginning of the Unit of Work involves heightening the client's awareness of what already "is" by describing, defining, and assessing the current situation. Change that embarks from "ground" that is not fully explored risks confusion, frustration, and failure. Hence, the Gestalt Consultant spends more time here on building adequate ground that will lead to faster but deeper interventions.|
Beginning to Middle—
Choosing what to attend to
|When it is clear that energy/support is building around a topic, the intervener can select what to attend to. It does not require that the support or involvement of the entire group is required.|
Acting on the choice
|At this point, themes are articulated that include the energy for change and the energy for the status quo (sameness). By noting the opposing forces of change, both sides can begin to examine the tension between them. At this point, it could become clear whether the issue is a "problem to solve" or a "polarity to manage." If clarity does not surface, an experiment could be proposed that would further heighten the awareness of the situation.|
Middle to End—
Closing out the Activity I
|The first step in sustaining the new awareness is to anchor the work through agreeing on what is new or clearer. Too often this step is done too quickly. It is better to spend more time so that the discoveries or accomplishments have a chance to be acknowledged and digested by the individual or group.|
Closing out the Activity II
|Appreciation, recognition, and assimilation are critical. Having each person express what is new or different anchors the process. Greater shared meaning can evolve, which can lead to greater cooperation and commitment. A clearer understanding of the new "what is" emerges.|
|Client Process from Multiple Lens of Change|
Unit of Work
|Ordinary consciousness challenged. Life-world view restless and morbid||Ordinary consciousness transcended. Life/world view dismantled and de-constructed||Ordinary consciousness reconstituted. Life/world view reintegrated and renewed.|
To grasp the depth of the Gestalt Approach to OD, it is critical to remember that the process of creating perceptual awareness and subsequent meaning-making is a core component. As a means to attend to this core component, the Gestalt Consultant will generally adhere to the following five practices.
Herb Stevenson is President/CEO of the Cleveland Consulting Group, Inc. He has been a senior executive for over 25 years and management consultant/executive coach for over 20 years. He has published 26 books and is listed in eight Who's Who categories. He is on the faculty of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, where he is Chair of the Executive & Organization Development programs. He is on the graduate faculty of the College of Executive Coaches and Cleveland State University's Diversity Management Master's degree program. Herb can be reached at
1 Modified with permission from Edwin Nevis, Organizational Consulting: A Gestalt Approach, 1997, p. 112
2 In psychoanalytic terms, this projection–introjection process would be called counter-transference.
3 Merleau-Ponty's observation is particularly meaningful here: "my spoken words surprise me and teach me my thoughts" (1964, p. 88). Being capable of being "surprised" by one's own words and thoughts, and then to work out from that surprise, certainly illustrates a present-centered orientation.
4 "Keeping track of all available evidence, including the consultant's own emotional state and how it is affected by the 4 work, serves the [Gestalt Consultant]. These methods help to distinguish between my fantasies and the client's fantasies; to distinguish between what is fantasy, what is indirect information and what is fact; namely using all the data that separates and distinguishes what is conscious and what is unconscious." Mannie Sher, Transference-Counter-Transference, and Organisational Change, p. 3.
5 Adapted and integrated from: (1) Sharan B. Merriam and Rosemary S. Caffarella, Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999, p. 225). Original source: B. G. Barnett, "Reflection: The cornerstone of learning from experience" (paper presented at the University Council for Educational Administrators Annual Convention, Scottsdale, Arizona, October 1989, p. 3). (2) Malcolm S. Knowles, Elwood F. Holton, and Richard A. Swanson, The Adult Learner, 5th edition (Houston: Gulf Publishing, 1998, pp. 147-148). Original source: David Kolb, Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984).
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