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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

May 2020

What is ‘Gestalt’ exactly?

Gestalt is an approach and way of being that I use in my coaching work and in my life. It is a set of principles that govern how I intervene with my clients – individuals, teams and systems. Although it’s not the only approach I use, you could call me a ‘Gestalt-inspired Coach’. Not many people know what it means and that might not matter – as long as I do good work. But for those who are curious, this post attempts to answer the question “What is ‘Gestalt’ exactly?”

One simple answer is that Gestalt is a school of thought that grew out of the work of Fritz and Laura Perls in the 1960s. Fritz and Laura were psychotherapists but the principles that informed them were from wider fields including existential philosophy, psychology, Buddhism, systems theory and art.

Gestalt is a German word and means something like ‘integrated or complete whole’. The word gives a clue to a central principle in my work which is that I am interested in wholes. I see people as whole people not just professional personae. This means I’m interested in all aspects of a client’s experience – their thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations. And I see people in relationship to their whole context. People are inextricable linked to each other and their context, including their families and the team and organisation they work within. Any issue being faced by an individual or team has a systemic aspect.

The word ‘complete’ gives a clue to another key principle. This is the idea of cycles that have beginnings, middles and ends. A Gestalt cycle of experience is something I have posted about in my Journal before. Humans look to complete cycles. If you have an itch you want to scratch it. If I start a race with a shout of ‘1… 2… ‘ you’ll be waiting for the ‘3!’. Cycles are a way we make sense of the world and get what we need. I’m less concerned with the content of a problem than with where my client is in a process or cycle of change. With this insight, I can better understand how individuals and teams might tick. I can also trust that my clients will be driven to solve their problems and dilemmas and to reach closure for themselves. My goal is not to solve things for my clients but to help clients see where, in a cycle, they’ve got stuck and what support is needed to move forward.

Another key principle in Gestalt is the notion that awareness itself is curative. The more we force a ‘next step’ in a process of change, the more resistance we create and the less we are present in the moment. Change happens now, in the present, and by staying in the present, without judging it, we have a chance to transform. This is sometimes called the Paradoxical Theory of Change. Counter-intuitively, being fully aware of what’s happening here and now, even if that’s an uncomfortable place, is a way of moving forward.

There are many Gestalt tools that can help clients to solve problems, adopt new habits or move successfully through a change. A key tool is the use of ‘experiments’. Another principle of Gestalt is that we can’t learn to do something new just by using our heads. For example you can’t read about leadership and instantly be a better leader. Leadership is more like a sport or an art. It requires getting new skills and behaviour into your body – and that means practice and experimentation. A critical part of Gestalt coaching is supporting clients to try something new, even when that feels scary. I aim to co-create experiments with my clients that are just scary enough to be developmental, but not too scary for them to try. This is how behaviour change becomes something real not just something talked about.

There is so much more to say about Gestalt. Part of what makes it so interesting to me is the ways in which it has grown into a broad stable of principles, tools and techniques over the last few decades. But perhaps I will end on something which feels like a fundamental guiding principle in my work – and that is about Being vs Doing. According to Gestalt theory, my effectiveness as a coach is as much the result of how I am with my clients as the tools I might use to help them. How I raise a client’s awareness, how I enable a team to have a difficult conversation, how I help an organisation develop insight into where they are stuck. This is about how I am with them as much as what I do. As a Gestalt coach I rely as much on the quality of my presence as on the tools I bring. It’s something I will never perfect but will always find fascinating to work on.

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