Monday 7 November 2022

Gestalt and the Thinking Environment

 I have long been interested in Gestalt, especially as it applies to learning and development, and coaching. This interest was initiated by two of the colleagues whose work I have most admired, and with whom I have particularly enjoyed working. Both work with Gestalt a lot, though in very different ways.

More recently, I have re-engaged with the theoretical base of Gestalt, as i was running a development day on the use of Gestalt in coaching supervision for my friends and colleagues in the Coaching Supervision Partnership.

One of the key concepts in Gestalt is the Gestalt Cycle of Contact. This suggests a cycle of Sensation: Awareness: Mobilisation: Action: Contact: Resolution and Closure: Withdrawal; in which we are all engaged all the time that we are conscious. Different practitioners use slightly different labels for the different stages of the cycle.  The idea is that when something becomes salient for us (emerges as a 'figure' from the 'ground' of all the things we could attend to), we engage in this cycle, and if we reach resolution, closure and withdrawal, that is a healthy, completed cycle. The figure then returns to the ground, and something else may emerge as salient, as a new figure. However, if the cycle is not completed, we are left with that unsatisfied sensation of unfinished business.

Some of the blocks, which impede 'contact' and completion of the cycle, are:

  • Desensitisation: (blocks sensation - often a result of trauma)
  • Deflection: eg rather than acknowledging your true sensation, you make a little joke...
  • Introjection: all the shoulds and shouldn'ts we have swallowed over the years.
  • Projection: where we guess what others might be thinking or feeling based on our own thoughts or feelings
  • Retroflection: where we avoid taking action for fear of (eg) failure and suffer worse consequences.
  • Confluence: acting on someone else's needs or desires rather than one's own
  • Egotism.

Another interesting observation is the paradoxical theory of change: Change occurs in the process of becoming more fully what is rather than in trying to become other. This is an aspect of awareness - full attention and contact with how things are has the result that change naturally arises.  Along with this is the paradox of resistance: if we support resistance, we encounter less of it.

Also, the presence of the practitioner (therapist, coach, supervisor) is an essential aspect of this work; and the practitioner's awareness of, and naming of, what is going on for him or herself is very valuable: 'self as tool.'   Likewise, there is an emphasis on working with the here and now: if a coach wants to think about a particular coaching incident, for instance, a Gestalt perspective is to focus on what the coach is feeling about that incident right now, rather than at the time it took place.  Exploring that is often very rich and provocative of insight. Gestalt questions are generally about the present, not the past or the future.

And because I continue to be a keen advocate, and practitioner, of Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment, I have been thinking about the points of commonality, and the differences, with Gestalt.

Some of the commonalities are the focus on the present moment, including a recognition of the importance of sensations and feelings; the importance of the presence of the practitioner, and an assumption that change will arise from increased understanding or awareness. Both approaches are marked by a very high level of listening, and giving a very large proportion of the time to the individual to explore his or her thoughts and feelings.

However, there are also marked differences: Gestalt practitioners are likely to have much more content in their interventions (compared to the largely content-free approach that characterises a Thinking Environment).  For example, they may draw attention to anything that they notice that is blocking contact. Likewise, they are likely to give feedback about their own feelings here-and-now as a key part of the process. 

Having said which, I find that in practice the two approaches are very consonant, and it is relatively easy for me - and sometimes seems helpful for my client - to move between the two.

I'll be particularly interested in any comments from other practitioners who are engaged in both approaches: as ever, this post is very much my thinking aloud about something that has become salient for me (a figure that has emerged from the ground), and is my early musings: I am sure there is much more for me to learn here.


With thanks to LinkedIn Sales Solutions for sharing their photo on Unsplash

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