Recently one of my coachees, whom I am supervising, asked me the following question; ‘Why Gestalt?’ Two words that evoke many possible responses, and as I clarified what she was asking I uncovered an inquiry into my philosophical and methodological foundations. I have become so used to gestalt in my work that for me it has become the very ground in which I work and the way in which I endeavour to live my professional and personal life.
The question has prompted me to provide a slightly wider view of my practice and to write a short history of how I came to make gestalt figural in my practice.
The roots of my interest in Gestalt go back to when I first started studying adult learning and education. During these years I read about the psychological theories and approaches to learning, the cognitive, behaviourist and neo-behaviourist schools. Gestalt was the one approach that resonated more fully with me. I learned much from the other theories and consider they have an important part to play in our thinking about adult learning.
However, Gestalt is interested in the whole person and in this approach I began to understand that the whole person is much more than the sum of their different parts. My view then and now is that including our mind and thinking, our behaviours, beliefs, the physical aspects of our body, our emotions and sensations make for a wider more encompassing territory for the facilitator, coach and organisational consultant to explore. It is a bit like learning about the whole system rather than focusing on one or two departments within the system.
This early interest had grown through my professional work as an educationalist into a philosophical belief that I work with to support me to fully live my personal life and professional practice in action. Gestalt for me provides an essential arena in which creative and systemic approaches can be sued to develop healthy relationships with my clients and the participants with whom I work.
The core idea of relationship is at the heart of Gestalt and is a key part of the practices of developing awareness and making contact with each other as human beings who cohabit on planet Earth.
Alongside of gestalt my development as an educationalist, facilitator, coach and organisational consultant has been specifically influenced by the writings of Paulo Freire. In his seminal book ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ he offers this thought piece.
Gestalt is an approach that seeks to promote autonomous living and the idea of people working as free agents in their own lives seems to me to be the ideal of coaching, facilitation and consulting. How often do we ask if what we do as professionals promotes client freedom or accidently inhibits them into conformity? Some conformity we argue is essential in order to survive in today’s modern world. How will we ever transform our world if our thinking is blocked by our assumptions about conformity?Freire’s approach of listening to people’s stories and then working from their lived reality corresponds with an inquiry approach taken in Gestalt and in my approach to my professional work. Finding out where the client is and then working from that place has always been exciting and stimulating, even if at times, it can be very uncomfortable to share the client’s realities.
As my work has progressed I have been drawn towards the supervision, coaching and facilitation of practitioners, who want to extend their current approaches and develop themselves as people as well as professionals. My career has spanned the National Health Service in the UK, independent practice as a consultant, facilitator and coach. Over five years ago I moved to Singapore and have recently been asked to set up personal and professional development programmes here in Asia.
One of the questions people often ask is; ‘how can I learn more about Gestalt and how can I use it in my practice?’ One part of the answer is to clarify that Gestalt is more than a set of tools and techniques, even though Perls made several tools famous in his books and video broadcasts.
Gestalt is a way of following the client and being in a developmental relationship to raise awareness and foster personal growth. To say we use gestalt is a misnomer. The practitioner needs to be gestalt in their presence so they are authentic and integrated in their practice and life.
Being in a regular gestalt group reflecting on and developing awareness of oneself and other people is the beginning for a practitioner who wants to develop their skills in this area. Another extension to this is to be in a regular group with the same people over a longer period of time, possibly for more than one day at a time.
As we acknowledge more of ourselves and grow our understanding of other people in the group, we can appreciate how our beliefs and assumptions interfere with our relationships.
Knowing oneself is the cornerstone of professional competence and is a key component of establishing trust with our clients and participants.I have been rather candid in this blog and there are more influences on my practice than can be given credit in this short piece.
I have recently drawn on my work with gestalt and developed a one-year Certificate in Advanced Professional Practice – Gestalt Group Dynamics. The Inaugural Cohort is currently writing about how they have applied gestalt to their professional work.The programme is confidential so I offer the following as a general overview and insight into the process of the programme. We develop our understanding of gestalt principles and theoretical concepts by being in a gestalt inquiry group for one year. Gestalt group dynamics in action is about developing insight through inquiring about what is happening in ourselves and others, being more aware of how we impact others in groups and how groups influence and affect us as professional practitioners.
I have seen the participants continually develop their self-awareness and awareness of other’s, how their assumptions and what they take for granted affects thinking and behavior. They have learned how different and diverse they all are, even, when they seem to be very similar to each other.
The experience of Gestalt is more than learning about a new set of tools and techniques. We learn how to follow ourselves in action and how we can follow others when they are telling us their stories about themselves. We learn how to create an active dialogue within which we co-create relationships and experience how we change and how other people alter as we get to know them.
The process of working together in an interactive experiential group creates a new sense of our practice and how we can perceive the group dynamics more clearly. One result I have observed in the participants is how they describe the ways in which they have added more value to their work as coaches, facilitators and consultants. They can see the value of being able to take their clients and groups into the hidden dimensions that are hindering change. I see the participants grow in confidence and extend their capabilities as professional practitioners.