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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Gestalt Approach to Organizational Consulting and Personal Development

If you have heard of the Gestalt Approach or Gestalt Psychology at all, it might be because of the expression “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”. The Gestalt Approach is indeed a holistic and system approach. Originally a psychological school and therapy, gestalt thinking is increasingly finding its way into the corporate world through consulting, training, and coaching from a gestalt perspective.  
During my training as a psychologist I first encountered the gestalt principles and approach, but my interest and use of this approach were reignited five years ago during a one year course in Coaching of Organizational Change through a Gestalt Approach at a renowned Gestalt Institute in Belgium.

Whether you visit this blog out of interest in change, in leadership, in personal development or all of the above, gestalt thinking and acting can bring you great benefits. I will start out providing you with twelve principles of the gestalt approach continued with practical applications and advantages while concluding with some questions for you to contemplate.

Twelve Principles of the Gestalt Approach

1.       The gestalt approach is a holistic and system approach. Everything and everyone is considered in its context and through its relationships. The consultant or coach looks at the total situation (person, family, work, personal life) rather than to compartmentalize and to analyze everything in an orderly manner and step by step.
2.       Any individual, group, or organization is doing the best possible at any given moment. We all have the potential to do more, do better, or to be creative if we decrease the obstacles or blocks inside us or in the external environment. The means by which to accomplish this is awareness.
3.       Awareness is central to the Gestalt Approach and can be described as a ‘knowing and being’ in the ‘here-and-now’, as being aware (referring to sensations and feelings through the senses) of what is going on in and around you – an intuitive knowing and being as opposed to thinking and theorizing about it.
4.       Three forms of awareness are to be considered: awareness of yourself, awareness of others, and awareness of what’s going on between you and the other/ the context.
5.       Many personal and organizational problems are linked to our tendency to fill the present with limited and distorted beliefs about our past and our future and to our belief that our ‘fantasies’ are realities.
6.       According to gestalt thinking, the main force driving a person and influencing his or her behavior is self-realization as opposed to, for example, Freud’s instinct.
7.       A client never speaks about his or her work environment or manager as that work environment or boss actually ‘is’, but rather how this environment or boss appear to the client: perception and interpretation are subjective.
8.       The Gestalt Approach does not aim to explain or analyze, but to describe and to let things speak for themselves in a non-judgmental manner. Behavior often doesn’t have to be explained but understood. In most cases, multiple explanations can be found for each problematic situation. A mere intellectual knowing of the ‘why’ of the situation usually does not contribute enough to a change in behavior or dynamics.
9.       In addition to awareness there is a second key factor to the Gestalt Approach: responsibility.  Responsibility is the free will and the existential choice that lets you choose at any time who you are and how you think, feel, choose, and act. You are responsible for everything in your life, which diverts from determinism which ignores free will. Responsibility is not some kind of duty, something that is imposed from outside by an authority. Responsibility is the ability to respond, the ability to recognize and be responsible and accountable for your own thoughts, feelings, needs, attitudes, actions, and norms in a given situation and for their consequences or results, also when your responses seemed spontaneous, unconscious, unintentional and resulted in undesired consequences.
10.   The gestalt coach and consultant uses his own person and being rather than techniques to help increase awareness and growth. When people and organizations are ‘stuck’ they generally see only one perspective. It is the consultant’s task to assist in exploring other perspectives. All awareness arises from comparison with opposites. Everything that exists or shows itself is the result of two forces that present themselves through their differences.
11.   In the Gestalt Approach conflicts, tensions, and resistance are appreciated as vitalizing forces and as energy that can be used once felt, known, and, where necessary, redirected. This more often than not implies first emphasizing differences rather than shoving them under the carpet.
12.   A gestalt consultant encourages a different use of language, supporting awareness and responsibility by changing ‘it’ to ‘I’ and ‘we’ to ‘I’, by turning ‘have to’ into ‘choose to’, by changing ‘knowing’ to ‘assuming’, by replacing ‘but’ by ‘and’ and by asking ‘what for and how’ rather than ‘what and when’.  

Practical Applications for Intervention and Change

Intervention means to enter into an ongoing system for the purpose of helping it in some way. To consult or to intervene places the consultant in the position of being a disturber of boundaries and of set ways, even if these set ways are not working out well. The Gestalt Orientation is a process oriented consultation, with the consultant focusing on client energy, on its functioning, and on the way the system approaches its problems. The consultant helps to unblock the system and mobilize its energy to define and solve its own problems rather than making detailed analytical investigations, diagnosing the problem and recommending and implementing preferred solutions. With this the Gestalt approach diverts from the deterministic medical model with an emphasis on what happened in the past and on cause-and-effect relationships and striving for intellectual understanding. The focus is on what is happening in the here-and-now and the focus is on the health rather than the illness or weaknesses of the system, thereby aligning the Gestalt Approach with Seligman’s Positive Psychology.

You might wonder what to make of all this and how to put these principles into practice. The most important goal of consultancy is, again, teaching the client system how to enhance the awareness of its own functioning and how to mobilize energy: becoming aware and turning this awareness into useful action. In order to accomplish increased awareness, useful action, and thereby growth and change, you can ask yourself, or if you’re a consultant you ask your client five questions:

1.       What am I doing right now, in the here-and-now? Am I putting demands on the table, am I fantasizing, am I telling a story, am I complaining, am I dealing with issues constructively etc.
2.       What do I experience and feel right now? This question refers to specific physical experiencing, like the mounting tensions in your shoulders, your shaky voice, or overactive sweat glands. This question also includes inquiry into your emotions: fearful, joyous, curious, hurt, bored etc.
  1. What do I want right now, not to be confused with the “I want it now” attitude of 2 year-olds, teenagers, and too many other human beings. This question makes you consider your upcoming needs. What do you need in this situation right now? Are you looking for attention, approval, engagement, solitude, support, respect etc.? You are asked to choose your position, to identify with your needs and to show the courage to face the reality that you might aspire something that does not fit your environment, or the reality that others might disapprove of you or your needs.
  2. What do I expect? What ideas do I hold about the near future? What do I anticipate? Expectation management would be a good phrase to represent this question. It also inquires into the ‘catastrophe’ that you might fear. This way you ‘map’ what is still uncertain. If you know what you expect you can verify your views and ideas and ask yourself whether your views and expectations are realistic. Think of the saying: “People suffer most from the suffering they fear”.
  3. What am I avoiding? In every situation there is always a ‘background’ that receives little attention. This could imply you’re avoiding something that others should not discover. Or it could be that something should be avoided because you fear you won’t be able to handle it. You might avoid providing your opinion out of fear of being ridiculed or dominated. It is often true that by merely facing your fear you decrease your fear rather than feeling overwhelmed by it.

These five questions contribute to increasing your awareness about yourself, about others, and about what takes place between you and your environment including your responses to other people and your understanding of their possible motives and of your own needs. This in turn results in:

è More energy and creativity.
è Less fear and distorted beliefs and thoughts.
è Stronger focus on competencies and success.
è Optimal use of differences, tensions, and resistance.
è Increased individual autonomy and competency.
è More effective personal and interpersonal behavior patterns.
è Stronger personal and team responsibility and accountability.

Some Questions to Contemplate

There is so much more to say about the Gestalt Approach and its benefits for personal development and for organizational consulting and change management. I will leave it at this, however, and conclude with some questions for you to contemplate in your role as a consultant or as a person looking for perspectives on growth and change:

-          Do I actively seek opposing perspectives from my own, especially in times of urgency or tensions?
-          Am I aware of the differences between perception, interpretation, judgment, appearance?
-          Do I prefer analysis of the past and of cause-effect patterns or do I prefer awareness in the ‘now’?
-          Am I aware of my often limited and distorted beliefs, thoughts, and conclusions?
-          Do I know how to confront my realistic or not so realistic expectations and fears?
-          Am I aware of what I tend to avoid and of which needs I am serving with this avoidance?

I salute you and your journey towards awareness, health, and growth!


  1. Thanks for the informative article. This is one of the best resources I have found in quite some time. Nicely written and great info. I really cannot thank you enough for sharing.

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    1. Thank YOU for visiting my blog and leaving your thoughts. I wish you success with applying Gestalt principles and I always appreciate hearing what works and what doesn't. Self awareness and self-management, which are part of the Gestalt approach, are foundational elements of high Emotional Intelligence which is increasingly recognized as a deciding factor in professional and personal success and happiness. Who doesn't want that, right!

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